April 1949: a peerless landmark

If a town can be defined by a single landmark then the jewel in Southend’s crown must surely be its record-breaking pier.


While not the oldest – that honour goes to Ryde Pier, which was built in 1813 – it is the world’s longest. The pleasure pier at Southend extends 1.34 miles into the Thames Estuary and looks likely to receive £18m in local authority funding for improvement work.

Included is £3.25m for new trains, which takes us back to April 1949 and the introduction of electric trains on to a pier which had provided public transport for its patrons for more than 100 years.

This was not lost on our correspondent, who breezed through a description of the new vehicles before providing a potted history – and ringing endorsement –of their electric predecessors. As noted, the pier’s original “train’’ was drawn by two horses and continued in use until 1890, when the first electric tramway was installed by Crompton and Co. of Chelmsford.

The company was subsequently incorporated in to Crompton Parkinson Ltd, which provided the electrical equipment for four new trains introduced in 1949. Resembling London Underground trains of the era, the new trains were made up of seven coaches – three motor (accommodating 31 passengers each) and four trailer (38 passengers each) – built by AC Cars Ltd.

“The train is designed to operate at a maximum speed of 18mph between the two stations 1.25 miles apart,” noted The Engineer. “Each motor coach has two 17hp C 90-type motors, driving a worm reduction gearbox through a cardan shaft drive. The motors are designed for a very high starting torque with minimum current, and high overload and operating temperature.

“Field and armature windings are of fully bakelised construction to allow for high temperatures without injury to insulation. To reduce the unsprung weight on the axles the motors are carried on the frame of the coach.”

Each motor coach, with a separate driving compartment at one end, was equipped with a contactor panel to control the pair of motors, and a master control, fitted with a “dead man’s handle”, which, when released, cut off the power and automatically applied the air brakes. The light railway was the first in the country to incorporate a new type of wheel to ensure silent running “by greatly reducing noise when passing over crossings and points and decreasing stress and wear on the rails and coaches”.

Our correspondent observed that, with the so-called ‘resilient wheel’, the load from the tyre was transferred to the axle through two rubber sandwiches loaded in shear and bonded between outer steel plates. By mechanically isolating the tyre of the wheel from the hub, the sandwiches “practically eliminate the transmission of sound and shock to the axle”.

And while the pier’s owners couldn’t guarantee good weather, they did make sure patrons could be conveyed from one end of the pier to the other on windy days, thanks to the train’s conical spiral spring suspension “designed to allow stable running in gales up to 70mph”.

Although a comparison between the new equipment and that of the first electric tramway on the pier revealed the development of electric traction, it also showed that the principles established by the early pioneers were sound, our correspondent noted.

“Compared with the new train, the first electric car was simple and resembled the old horse-drawn tram except that a Crompton motor drove the car through a 3-to-1 spur gearing. The car could be driven from either end and was controlled by a pair of handles, one for reversing and one for starting, together with an ordinary wheel brake,” The Engineer said. “Single-strip copper conductor was used for the supply, with the running rails for the return circuit.

“The current was picked up by specially designed shoes rubbing on the conductor rail, held about 1ft from one of the running rails and an inch below the rail top. Although the car had a maximum speed of 20mph it was operated at 12/14mph and reduced the journey of 15 minutes by horse tram to three or four minutes. The generating plant consisted of a steam engine-driven compound dynamo giving 150A at 200V.”

The four trains carried passengers for 29 years before being retired in 1978 due to wear and tear of the track and the high cost of repairs.