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Selsey Tramway

Selsey RailcarColonel Stephens was engineer and subsequently manager and laterly effectively owner of this railway. It was was opened in 1897, without benefit of legislative sanction, from Chichester to Selsey Town and extended a further mile to Selsey Beach in 1908, though this latter section fell out of use in 1914. Generally known as the Selsey Tram the railway suffered greatly from road competition after the early 1920's. Perahps the most ramshakle of Stephens' line, due mainly to the previous owners under investment, it closed in 1935. The Southern Railway actively considered purchase to turn it into an electrified holiday line but was deterred by high reconstruction costs.
Railway Map


A Short History


The Hundred of Manhood and Selsey Tramways Company was registered as a limited liability company in April 1896 to build a railway from Chichester to Selsey and construction commenced early in 1897. The initiative had been taken by a group consisting of Chichester politicians although the chief promoter seems to have been H J Powell' an estate agent of Lewes' with early support by the local Clayton family, including Luther Clayton a County Councillor, who was to remain with the company for the rest of its existence. Incorporation without statutory backing was unusual for a railway (or tramway) and it could only be built because the land used was privately acquired and the roads were crossed by consent by the local roads authority.

Holman Stephens had been appointed the engineer at some point before incorporation of the company and he built the railway in accordance with contemporary thinking on Light Railway construction. Lightweight flat bottomed rail was used for construction across the essentially flat land and rolling stock of the simplest kind (although initially bought new) adopted. The stations were in Stephens embryonic but characteristic style with buildings which seem to have evolved from his experience on the Hawkhurst line in combination with the contractors Messrs Manktelow of Horsmonden. The only engineering feature of note was a lifting bridge over the, nearly defunct, Chichester canal.

Traffic commenced on 27th August 1897. The line was extended a further half mile from Selsey Town station to the Beach in the following year (an extension closed by 1908). Construction and land purchase costs were extremely modest. Receipts soon reached a very satisfactory level and the Edwardian period was one of prosperity although the opportunity was not taken to invest to reconstruct the railway to higher standards, as would have been expected by light railway adherents.

A fierce and prolonged storm took place in December 1910, culminating in a breach of the sea wall during the night of 15th December. Two thousand acres (800 hectares) of land were flooded, including the railway line north of Ferry. Part of the line was said to be under 12 feet of water. During the inundation, trains ran from each end of the line, and a horse bus operated in the gap from Mill Pond Halt to Ferry station. At this time the Company had the resources to raise the line by up to ten feet (3 m) over a considerable length; these expensive remedial works possibly stalled proper investment in the rest of the line.

In 1913 the directors proposed a light railway extension from Hunston to West Itchenor and East Wittering. The Order would also regularise the legal status of the existing line and it was stated that the line was to be reconstructed and the level crossings improved. The Order was agreed by the Light Railway Commissioners but the outbreak of the Great War delayed its granting until 1915 and no action could be taken due to the War.

Holman Stephens had remained engineer to the line although the management of the railway was in other hands. The controlling person from 1907 seems to have been Edward Heron - Allen whose principal interest was the promotion of Selsey as a resort. (to which the Tram vastly contributed) with Henry G Phillips as Manager. Heavily reliant on passenger traffic, the growth of road transport after the First World War caused serious inroads into receipts. The Tram was rapidly becoming a run down, decrepit railway. Relationships at management level seem to have been less than easy with Stephens all too aware of the under investment. Matters came to a head during 1919 /20 and new owners, (predominantly H Montague Bates) prompted by Colonel Stephens, bought the company.

Unfortunately the initiative came too late. Bus competition was intense and traffic was collapsing; in 1919 there were102,292 passengers, in 1922 60,203 and in 1924 31,352.


On 3rd September 1923, the 8:15 a.m. train to Chichester derailed near Golf Club Halt, killing the fireman and injuring the driver. The locomotive, and the three coaches left the track. The inquest returned a verdict of accidental death, but the jury expressed the opinion that Stephens as engineer was indirectly to blame, as there was evidence that the permanent way was inadequate.

With the West Sussex Order of 1915 now time expired new steps were taken to give the Tramway some legal status. A certificate under the Railway Construction Facilities Act 1864 was secured from the Ministry of Transport, the Order being known as the West Sussex Railway Certificate 1924. This Certificate authorised a new West Sussex Railway Company to take over and reconstruct the line and further empowered the new Company to enter into agreement with the Southern Railway with regard to the re-construction, working and management of the line.

The identity and duties of the Hundred of Manhood and Selsey Tramways and the West Sussex Railway Companies ( both dominated by Stephens and his colleagues) become a little confused at this period. Finally in October 1928 the West Sussex Railway formally entered into an agreement with the Hundred of Manhood and Selsey Tramways to take over, reconstruct and maintain its undertaking and also take over all its debts and liabilities. A proposed extension to Patcham and Bognor, and also Wittering, was promoted but a Light Railway Order was never issued.

Since taking over, Stephens was seeking means of reducing operating expenses, trials was made of a Wolseley-Siddeley petrol railmotor on the line and in 1924, two Ford railmotors with a truck for luggage and parcels between them; came into service. Two more railmotors were later acquired from the Shefflex Motor Company.

With the deaths of H Montague Bates in 1928 and Stephens in 1931 the company, facing increased competition from improved buses, seemed to lose heart. W H Austen made an attempt to get the Southern Railway to take over and reconstruct the line but after a detailed survey they declined to do so. The directors therefore decided to close the line which was effected on 14th January 1935.

Further reading:

The Selsey Tramway, Volumes 1 and 2. Laurie Cooksey. Wild Swan Publications. 2006

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