NOSTALGIA: Branch line memories

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When you glance at today’s Bognor Regis railway station, do you ever wonder what it was like in the past? This week I thought we could take a look.

For the residents of Bognor, a train journey, if they could afford it, would have necessitated a journey to Woodgate to catch the train – the railway crossing we now sit and fume at, waiting for the barriers to rise!

Those who were rich enough would have possibly availed themselves of the regular ‘fly’ service to and from the station (today a taxi), for the less well-off a walk into the town was the order of the day.

Of course the traffic on this country lane would have been very different from today’s lorries and heavy transport.

One line was proposed in 1845, another in 1853 and a further suggestion in 1855. We can only surmise that the resort was not large enough or considered a profitable venture for a branch line to be built.

Also, of course the provision of annual holidays to workers was not in existence at this time.

The suggestion of the 1845 line would have been quite interesting, as the proposed route was ‘crossing a public highway in the parish – leading from Bognor to Felpham’ the report continues and then includes a reference to Gloucester Road.

Another report in 1860 suggested finishing at a dock-like area in the vicinity of the seaward end of West Street. Think how different the town would have been had these plans materialised.

While the town of Bognor was expanding, there were many reputed talks of bringing the railway into the centre of the town, and the local newspapers became quite exasperated with the lack of progress and in many cases false hopes that regularly emanated from the nearby railway companies.

One complaint in 1861 stated ‘what does the Board mean to do with poor Bognor – the town is growing very much and only wants railway accommodation to make it a popular watering place’.

Eventually work commenced on this new branch and on June 1, 1864 the new line was opened, the Barnham site was opened, and Woodgate was then closed because of this line opening.

Interesting when today there is talk of maybe opening certain stations again. What was there in the town at this time? The pier would not be open for another 12 months.

There were houses in West Street, The Steyne and Waterloo Square. We had the Norfolk Hotel and the Bath House. Streets were beginning to be developed. Public houses were opening, and the population of Bognor was around 3,000.

The area in which the station was built, which was at the end of Dorset Gardens, (London Road) was to all intents and purposes at that time outside of the town. However it was not long before the town grew out to its new station.

The original station was a wooden construction, so it was possibly quite inevitable it would succumb to various ills, such as a hurricane that blew the construction down, and finally the station burnt down, after a coat had been left to warm on one of the 
stoves in the waiting room in October 1899. The excursion trips to the seaside were to become a part of the lives of millions of people.

National newspapers were advertising cheap day trips to Bognor and the Daily News of May 28, 1900 announced all 
its arrangements for trains over the Whitsuntide holidays, including late trains for those working in London on Saturdays.

The Brighton and South Coast Railway stated that eight or 15-day cheap tickets would be issued. So much was the interest in cheap trips to the seaside that the service was detailed in the national press.

The current building was erected in 1902 following the disastrous fire which occurred in 1899 and was the talking point in the town for many years.

It was to cost in the region of £37,000 for the reconstruction, which contained a large booking hall, parcels office, ladies’ waiting room, refreshment rooms, a first-floor residence for the station master, and the clock tower which is now such a part of the landscape. There was also a bookstall, fruit kiosk and a small area for the use of taxi drivers; in fact not too different from today’s view.

It was the dawn of a new era, and passengers arrived to enjoy the town.

However, by 1907 there were rumblings in the local press and also within the Urban District Council about asking the railway companies to discontinue the day excursions to the town during the month of August.

The arrival of the excursions in June and July brought in substational amounts of money, but the season, which commenced on August 1, brought a ‘certain class of people’ and they did not want the excursion-type of person in the town.

In 1910 the return fare from London was 3s (15p) and because of this high numbers continued to come into the town, and in 1913 it was reported that on Wednesday, July 9, there were 4,350 day visitors in the town.

By 1918 it was reported that for the Easter holiday there would be insufficient trains for those wishing to travel for the holiday.

Thomas Cook reported that in 1918 there had been more than 35,000 visitors to the town – hard to believe, especially when the population was only 8,500.

The building of the station was bounded by a low scalloped wall for many years, but in the mid 1920s it was thought the area would be suitable for a number of small shop units, hence the building of seven units, which were to change hands frequently and were not exactly an attractive entrance to the town.

Thankfully in 1994 these shops were closed when it was decreed these units and the front of the station should be updated and the units were demolished; the front of the building was paved and provided a more attractive entrance/exit to the station.

Mr RC Sherriff wrote a book called The Fortnight in September which was published in 1931 and described a family visit to the seaside, which was Bognor Regis.

In this book he says: “If you were taken blindfold to Bognor Station, you would know directly your eyes were unbound that you were by the seaside.

“For although, in common with all good seaside stations, the sea is carefully hidden from your view, you would notice that bleached, dry appearance about everything and the freshness of the platform… it would be poor showmanship on the part of Bognor to reveal the sea to you, in all its glory, directly you stepped from the train.”

This is, of course, rail travel from another era.

I am sure today’s traders would welcome to the resort the large number of visitors we had prior to the first world war, but of course now we travel abroad and the majority of one-day rail excursion trips are almost lost forever.

I have met so many people who over the years enjoyed their first visit to the town, via their Sunday school outings.

One man, from London, recalled to me that he had joined three churches for their Sunday school outings; one went to Worthing, one to Brighton and one to Bognor every year.

You will now appreciate that 2014 is the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the railway to the town.

We are asking if you have any information, memories or even memorabilia that could be useful for various organisations, and the town museum which will be seeking to commemorate this anniversary.

Please contact me via

Sylvia Endacott