Pack Horses and Tourists
In the 19th century, the high cliffs separating Lynton from Lynmouth were a major obstacle to economic development. The twin villages mainly relied on sea transport because land travel was extremely difficult over Exmoor. Coal, lime, foodstuffs and other essentials arrived at Lynmouth in sailing vessels, but this freight had to be carried by packhorses or in horse drawn carts up the steep hill to Lynton. The cliffs also posed problems for the growing tourist industry. From the mid 1820's holiday makers began to arrive at Lynmouth on paddle steamers from Bristol, Swansea and other Bristol Channel ports... but a daunting hill faced those who decided to walk up to Lynton. Ponies and donkeys could be hired at 6d a time, but the steep gradients severely tested the unfortunate animals. Other tourists travelled up Lynmouth hill in carriages, but the horses that pulled them had a very short working life.
The invention of the Cliff Railway helped to alleviate the suffering of the pack horses and in early years transported motor cars back up the steep hill to Lynton.
The author of the letter is not known. Possibly the idea came from a local man who had seen water-balanced systems lifting slate out of Welsh mines or a holiday-maker who had visited the earlier, 1875, water-balanced Scarborough Cliff Railway.
The Mystery Letter
It was in December 1881 that a novel solution to the problem was first given a public airing. The Lynton and Lynmouth Recorder received a letter, signed only with the non-de-plum Pro Bono Publico, proposing: A tramway between the two towns to be worked by a stationary engine at Lynton, the motive power being taken from the river Lyn, put in tanks on rolling carriages and these let down the tramway under proper control. The weight of the water going down would, with the application of simple machinery, bring up anything that might be desired up from Lynmouth. The letter offered a solution to the problems of transporting both freight and people up and down the cliff, but such a scheme would require a large capital investment, so for some years it remained nothing more than a talking point.
Late in 1885, a major project was proposed which included the construction of a solid pier, an esplanade and ‘a lift from the said pier or promenade to Lynton’. The pier, to extend 112 yards into the sea, was intended to enable the resort to attract a bigger share of the growing steam-excursion traffic. Many of the paddle steamers had not been calling at Lynmouth where passengers had to be ferried ashore in small boats, instead visiting Ilfracombe where tourists could easily disembark at the deep-water pier. The construction of an esplanade, which survives today, was to start from a point near the Rhenish Tower and provide access to the pier. The proposed ‘lift’ would make it possible to carry up to Lynton the large numbers of people that would be landed from the steamers at the new pier.
..."Lynmouth would become more important as a port for the surrounding districts, as goods could be easily carted inland; and visitors would find it a great benefit, for instead of climbing the hill, they could be drawn up in a comfortable carriage.”
The Cliff Railway was to be the second part of the scheme. Bob Jones, a partner in the Lynton building firm responsible for the construction of the esplanade, recommended his sisters son, George Marks, to Thomas Hewitt & John Heywood, as an engineer with the particular skills needed to advise on the project.
Visionaries, Builders and Engineers
Two very different men co-promoted the scheme. Thomas Hewitt a distinguished London lawyer with a residence at the Hoe on Lynton’s North Walk, used his legal skills to guide a bill through Parliament. By October 1886, the ‘Lynmouth Promenade, Pier and Lift Provisional Order’ had received official sanction. John Heywood a self-made local business-man, was Chairman of the Lynton Local Board. The fact that he had a financial interest did not stop him using his influence to persuade the members of his local government to spend ratepayers' money building the first part of the esplanade. It would be argued that John Heywood was a public-spirited man who believed his project would bring great prosperity to the local community. Yet it was clear that he was an astute business man who had already acquired the Lime Kilns and all the gardens and fields adjoining the proposed promenade and that these sites could be expected to rise rapidly in value if the project were completed.
We Need a Builder
“Is there anyone in the place capable of constructing such a railway?” George Newnes asked. Yes there is such a man, he was informed, Bob Jones. Newnes asked that he be told to call as soon as possible. Newnes later wrote of his first meeting with the engineer: “That evening, we fixed up a plan by which we could make a cliff railway. I took the rest in hand”. This was the way George worked. He saw an opportunity and seized it. Schemes which met a public need and yet were likely to make him a handsome profit appealed to him. He agreed to put up most of the capital, but Bob Jones and Thomas Hewitt also invested in the project and became fellow directors.
Some of the family descendents of Bob Jones are still working as directors of the Lynmouth & Lynton Lift Company today!
The Hydraulic braking system was to be filled with water and not oil, which was later to become unique to this lift. To this day the brakes of this Cliff Railway are still fully water powered.
We Need More Money
The first part of the esplanade, running 165 yards westwards from the Rhenish Tower, opened in September 1887. In the same month, Thomas Hewitt invited his friend George Newnes, the wealthy publisher if Tit Bits, to be his guest at the Hoe. It seemed quite possible that, by this time, Hewitt had realised that the construction of the cliff railway would require more capital than he and Heywood had available and that he hoped to persuade Newnes to put the money into the project. What is certain, is that within 24 hours of arriving at the Hoe, Newnes had agreed to put up most of the money for a cliff railway.
We Need Brakes!
George Marks realised that due to the extreme length of the rail, (some 900 feet) rising over 500 feet vertically at an incline of 1:1.75, he would need to seriously assess the safety aspect, particularly the braking system which would have to be far more advanced then those normally used on funicular lifts. He decided on 4 separate systems. Two were to be friction brakes, sets of steel blocks that are pressed down on to the crown of the rail by hydraulic pistons. The remaining two systems , which would constitute the main system, were to be hydraulic callipers, which clamped across the crown of the rails. This system was eventually patented in the names of Newnes, Jones and Marks in 1888.
In June 1888, a patent was filed in the joint names of Newnes, Jones and Marks for the four separate braking systems. The unique safety features – designed so brakes could be applied to either car independently of the other – have been responsible for the railway’s remarkable accident – free record.
Work began on the lift construction in 1887. It took less than three years to complete, a remarkable achievement considering that the entire excavation relied on manual labour.
Blasting operations soon took place on the cliff. By December The North Devon Journal could report: “The excavations for the purpose of a hydraulic lift between Lynton and Lynmouth is steadily progressing. Many thousands of tons of material have been removed from the hillside”. The Cliff Railway was finally opened on Easter Monday (the 7th April) in 1890. A large crowd gathered at the Lynton station to see Mrs Jeune, Lady of the Manor of Lynton, perform the official ceremony. George Newnes conducted her to a raised dias under the wall of the reservoir from which the cistern of the car would be filled. After receiving a bouquet of flowers from Bob Jones' little daughter, Mrs Jeune pulled a lever releasing the first car which glided forward on its first journey, while the second car simultaneously started on the upward track.