Daddy long legs

A ‘sea voyage on wheels’ 1894-1901, the Daddy Long Legs, Brighton, England.

After the success of his Brighton electric railway, local inventor extraordinaire Magnus Volk looked to find ways to extend his line eastwards to nearby Rottingdean.

Immediately I was struck by the bizarre similarity to structures in a painting by Dali ‘The Temptation of St Anthony’ made in 1946. I will be exploring more about this work and see if I can develop more than a visual analogy between the two

St Anthony Dali.jpg

To advance his existing railway would have involved costly works to construct a steep climb to the top of the cliff or a viaduct running along the unstable undercliff, so he hatched a somewhat bonkers alternative plan to create an railway which ran through the sea.

Somehow finding the necessary finance locally, construction of the line started in June 1894. Described as a mix between an ‘open-top tramcar, a pleasure yacht and a seaside pier,’ the deck was fitted out with an 25ft 3″ x 12ft 6″ ornate saloon (complete with leather upholstered seats!) and a promenade deck slapped on top.

As the Pioneer travelled over the sea, UK law demanded that a trained sea captain be at the helm (or available at all times), and the tram be fitted with a lifeboat on the back and a number of lifebelts around the edges.

Promptly nicknamed, ‘Daddy Long Legs’, this bizarre vehicle could carry some 160 passengers, and the line was opened to the public with the usual Victorian razzmatazz at noon, November 28th 1896.

The day was sunny, although travellers had to face a bitterly cold east wind as the tram trundled through the low tide waters from Brighton to Rottingdean. The journey took about 35 minutes, with tickets priced at 2½d (1.5p) each way.

Sadly, catastrophe struck just a week after opening, as Brighton was hit by a fearsome storm which destroyed the old Chain Pier, seriously damaged the original electric railway and caused immense damage to the new venture.

During the storm, the tram had broken free from her Rottingdean moorings, slid down the 1 in 100 slope from the jetty before ending up on her side, suffering major structural damage. Despite the ferocity of the storm, the track survived with only one breakage and the overhead wire remained intact.

After being salvaged by Blackmore & Gould of Millwall, ‘Pioneer’ was rebuilt with new, longer legs adding another 2ft to the tram’s height with the railway, remarkably, reopening on July 20th 1897. That year, a grand total of 44,282 passengers enjoyed a year round service, but the future was far from rosy.


The tram was woefully underpowered for travelling through anything other than shallow water, and at high tide the thing crawled to a near standstill. Although new electric motors could have solved this problem, the company was still reeling from the costly reconstruction works, with a proposed second tram already cancelled.

Volk's Daddy Long Legs, Brighton, England
The tram at low tide

The final body blows came early in the new century, when two new concrete groynes* constructed by the Corporation east of the Banjo Groyne were found to be responsible for considerable scouring of the seabed, causing serious damage to the trackbed. This forced the closure of the line for several weeks over the peak summer season, with the tram lying dormant between the lucrative months of July and August 1900

In September 1900, the fate of the line was sealed when Volk was informed that he would have to divert his line into much deeper water to bypass new sea defence works between Paston Place and Black Rock.

Such a construction proved beyond the financial means of the company, and in January 1901 the Corporation, following on from their early warning, removed those parts of the track which were in their way. Now with a broken track and no means of income, the Board ordered operations to cease immediately and the line was abandoned for ever.

As for the old sea-tram, it suffered an ignominious fate, being tied up against Ovingdean pier and left to rust away until 1910 when the remnants of the railway were sold off for scrap.

(*A groyne is a protective structure extending from shore into the water to prevent a beach from washing away.)