A History of Claude W Lane and Eastbourne Tramways

Mr Claude Willington Lane was born on the 2nd June 1908 at Totteridge, just south of Barnet in the then county of Middlesex. 

From the age of around 3 he would be taken by his nanny to see the trams at the Metropolitan Electric Tramways Finchley Depot and this, it seems, is where his interest in trams began.

When he was older he would visit the nearby works at Henden and stand looking through the gates at the workshops.  On one of these trips he was lucky enough to be invited in and had a tour around the depot - this was one of the highlights of his boyhood. 

When Claude reached school age he was sent to Berkhamsted Boarding School and his main interset was engineering and electricity.  When the old generator at the school started becoming very erratic the Head - knowing that Claude was interested in this sort of thing - asked him if would have a look to see if he could repair it.  Claude stripped, cleaned and straightened the lead cells and a couple of new parts later the generator was up and running again.  He also helped the Head replace the engine in his car, he was about 15 years old at this time.

When he left school Claude went to work at Stoke Newington Power Station and gained an apprenticeship (Diploma of Faraday House) in eletrical engineering he then went on to work at Blackstones, a company manufacturing oil engines, and gained another apprenticeship in mechanical engineering.  At around the age of 22 he left Blackstones and set up his own business, the Mobile Welding and Workshop Company, based in Barnet.  He then went on to open a small workshop that specialised in batteries and called this The Lancaster Electrical Company.  When Claude began to get interested in battery run vehicles he needed a larger workshop so purchased some land and built one.

In 1938 the lure of the trams became too great - he wanted to drive them.  London Transport started their tram crew as conductors so he made enquiries and found he could become a driver for the Llandudno and Colwyn Bay Electric Railway.  He drove part time during the summer so that he could still spend time at the Lancaster Electrical works.  Unfortunately he had a disagreement with the management and in 1939 he decided to apply for a tram driving job in Blackpool.  After an interview and test drive he was given six weeks work - he enjoyed himself so much that he went back to Blackpool as a volunteer driver every season until 1954.

After a miss-understanding with the Rolling Stock Supervisor in 1947 at Blackpool Claude decided that he would build his own trams so that he could drive them whenever he wanted.  He sat on a stool in front of the shutter doors at his workshop in Barnet and asked one of his men to outline his body in chalk on the door.  He then anounced to his workforce that he was going to build a tram and the chalk outline showed the size of the cab.  The project tested all Claude's technical abilities but by 1949 his first tram was completed.  It was tested on track laid in the yard at the Barnet works with local school children volunteering to be 'passengers' so the tram could be tested at full capacity.

And so to Eastbourne.  Expansion plans and the setting up of a new company - Modern Electric Tramways Ltd - on the 19th May 1953 resulted in the search for a new, permanent site and Claude found this site on the outskirts of Eastbourne.  A five year concession was granted for the tramway to run in Princes Park, from the gates to Wartling Road, where a depot was built.

Track laying was started in March 1954 and by the 4th July 1954, 230 yards of track had been laid from the depot to the Golf House and the first passenger carrying trams began running.  Work continued on the last part of the track from the depot to Princes Park gates and this section was opened to the pubic on the 15th August 1954.  The tramway proved very popular and a turning loop was planned for the terminus so that operations could be speeded up.  The Council also agreed to the building of a shelter and sales kiosk at the Princes Park terminus plus a small shed for an emergency generator.

The official opening of the line was carried out by the Mayor of Eastbourne, Mr Alderman L W Pyle, at Whitsun 1955.  The Mayor opened the line by driving tram 226 the full length of the line with other local officials riding as passengers.  The opening was filmed by the BBC and broadcast to the nation over the next two days.

In January 1956 Claude applied to the Entertainments and Pleasure Grounds Committee to build a 330 yard extension so that the trams could run to the Crumbles, this was refused.  Claude arranged to attend the next meeting in February so that he could put his case to the Committee in person and on the 20th April formal approval for the extension was given.  At the same time the lease agreement was extended by a further season to the 31st October 1956.  During the Committee meeting in October 1956 it was agreed to extend the lease further taking the agreement to October 1963.

In December 1956 Claude made an application to the Entertainments and Pleasure Grounds Committee to double the track between the Golf House and the depot to improve the operation, permission was granted and work started straight away.  The track to the Crumbles extension was also in progress at this time.

Also in 1956 the Committee informed Claude that they proposed to extend Royal Parade roadway to link with Wartling Road and the new road would need to cross the track twice.  The company agreed to relay said track on the seaward side of the road when construction started.  It was alslo pointed out that the new road would isolate the depot and permission was granted, after consultation, for a new depot.

There was also a shock when a representative from the Chatsworth Estates contacted Claude and asked him why track was being laid to the Crumbles as the land belonged to the Estate, the land had been gifted to to the Council by the Marquess of Huntingdon in 1926 but was subject to certain conditions.  It seems that the council had failed to consult with the Chatsworth Estate about the laying of track.  After lengthy consultation with legal experts it was found that the track was indeed on Council land but very close to the boarder with the Chatsworth Estate who now put in an official objection as they had not been informed.  After many meetings and proposals the Estate said the objection would be withdrawn provided the track was moved fifteen yards  from the Chatsworth Estates boundary.  Claude was not happy with this as the track was already in place and now it had to be moved but move it he did.

In May 1958 saw the opening of the Crumbles extension and the Mayor, Councillor J W G Howlett, it was opened it in the usual way by the Mayor driving the number 6 tramcar from the depot to the new terminus.  Again the BBC sent a television crew to film the event.

It had always been the intention to continue the tramway to Langney Point however this would have meant using land very near to the Chatsworth Estates and if previous experience was anything to go by the extension would be opposed.  Claude has also been told (informally) that the Corporation Transport were concerned that if the tramway was extended to Langney Point it would have a serious impact on the takings of their buses on that route.  Ideas for this extension on the track were shelved for the time being.

By 1960 the Modern Electric Tramways had settled into its new building and business was very good, the trams were pulling a lot of holiday makers to Princes Park - the locals also used the trams a lot, I was one of them - when you are small the Crumbles seemed a very long way away, such adventures!  The Company also applied for an extension of the agreement beyond October 1963 but this was refused.

Mr Cannon, the Corporation Transport Manager, continued to have worries over the tramway and wrote to the Town Clerk voicing his concerns that the buses might be replaced by trams.  Mr Cannon had also opposed both the extension to Langney Point and the extension of the agreement.  He was also worried that the tramway company would sell its shares to the Southdown bus company who would then be allowed to compete with the Corporation buses.

In December 1960 the tramway had another atempt to get permission to extend the track but only for another 10 yards as this would take it to the edge of the Council property.  Beyond this point it was Chatsworth Estate land and Claude felt he could now get an agreement from the Estate to extend the track down to Langney Point.  The Council were aware of the reason for this request and continued to turn down every application to ensure the tramway could not be extended.

On a leaflet dated 1960 the fares were as follows: From Royal Parade to Golf House, 2d - to Sports Ground, 4d - to Boundary (Terminus), 6d - Cheap Return, 10d.  Also on this leaflet it states the opening times as 10am - 10pm (7 days a week) and the length of the line, 1 mile with 5 passing points.  The leaflet states that "This system is now the only Tramway in the country South of Sheffield, and the only Tramway in the world using double-deck cars on a two foot gauge line".

In October 1962 the tramway managed to get more publicity for their proposals to extend the system.  The London Evening Standard published an article on the extension proposals - it detailed where the extensions were hoping to go and that this would double the track length to at least 2 miles.  The article also stated that 175,000 passengers had been carried in 1961 and more that 200,000 during the summer of 1962.

The same month saw the Town Clerk prepare a report on the tramway for the Council.  He stated that the yearly receipts for the operation from 1958 were between £1,800 and £2,000 and in his view the operation was being run on a shoe string.  Also in his report he stated that Mr Lane had expressed hopes that the tramway would run to Pevensey Bay and that this would seriously affect the Corporation bus operation.

In 1963 an American, Mr Don Sorenson, had heard about the tramway, spent a week in Eastbourne and was captivated by the trams.  Whilst on a tour around the depot he saw the three smallest tramcars and when he enquired about them was told they were no longer in use.  Mr Sorenson decided he would like to purchase the trams so he negotiated a price with Claude.  He then spent the next two weeks working at the Eastbourne Tramway depot learning how to maintain and carry out repairs.  The tramcars left England during November 1963 on their journey to Wilton, Connecticut, USA were they were set up in Mr Sorenson's garden on 520 feet of track with 200 feet of sidings.  He did not use overheard wires but installed five 12-volt batteries in each car to give the required 60 volts.

The lease agreement with the Entertainments and Pleasure Grounds Committee was due to expire at the end of October 1963 and it was not until September that the Committee agreed to extend it for another year - to the 31st October 1964.  In 1964 the return fare was raised from 10d to 1 shilling as the tramway was making very little profit.  Claude asked the Council if they would agree not to take their percentage from the 2d increase.  the Council refused.

During the 1964 season the ticket kiosk at Princes Park terminus was broken into several times so Claude came up with the solution - an electric tram-shop!  A flat bed works car (01) was rebuilt into the Tram Shop  during 1964/65 and started off the 1965 season, it sold tickets, souvenirs, postcards, books and other gifts.

In September 1964 the Entertainment and Pleasure Grounds Committee granted another one year extension so that it could operate until the end of October 1965.  Claude did not like this arrangement so in September 1965 he asked the Committee for a seven year extension and explained the reasons for this request - it was difficult to make improvements when the arrangements were on a year to year basis and some of the track would need renewing as it had been on site for eleven years.  Claude explained that the Company would want security of tenure before a lot of this work could be carried out.

The Town Clerk, however, reminded the Committee that it would soon be time to carry out a second review of the Development Plan and that the Crumbles would have to be included in this plan.  The Borough Surveyor referred to the likely construction of new roads in the vacinity of the tramway, this came as a great shock to Claude and the Company.  Claude's immediate reaction was to appeal against this but he found that he was constantly being put off and any decisions were delayed time after time.

At the next meeting in October Claude and his solicitor, Mr Brewer, were asked by the Committee if the tramway company was going to sell its rights to an omnibus company - Claude stated that he had no intention of selling and that no approaches had been made to any omnibus company.  The Committee were worried that a commercial bus company might get the tramway and claim passenger service rights in Eastbourne.  At the same meeting the Committee agreed by four votes to three to extend the lease agreement for a further three years, so it now expired on the 31st October 1968.  However the extension was subject to resiting the track in accordance with the instructions of the Borough Surveyor and also a possible resiting of the tramway works building.

Claude and Mr Brewer were back in front of the Committee in February 1966 to tell them that the terms of October 1965 were unacceptable to the company.  This meant that the agreement ran out on the 31st October 1965 and the tramway had no legal rights to operate.  Mr Brewer then put in a counter offer, including the Langney Point extension, removal of the condition to resite the main workshop at six months notice and for the agreement to be longer than three years.  After Claude and Mr Brewer had left the meeting the Town Clerk strongly recommended that the Committee adhere to their October 1965 decision.  This was approved.

The Company now had to rethink their position, as up to that point Claude felt he had the chance to get a resonable agreement, but when he discovered that the Town Clerk was no longer supporting the tramway and was advising the Council to cease the concession Claude realised that his days at Eastbourne were numbered.  So he started seriously looking for another site that, due to previous experiences, would have to free hold and so not subject to the quirks of a landlord.  This was during the time of the Beeching railway plans and many small branch lines were being closed.

Claude and Mr Brewer went back to the Committee in March prepared to enter into an agreement provided that notice to move the main workshop was not served during the period of 1st December to the 31st March so they would not have to resite the building during the summer.  This was agreed by three votes to one, the tramway was able to operate for a while longer.

The search for another site took Claude to Dorset and he found that the Bridport to West Bay line was closing, he made enquiries and was told that British Railways were required to offer the land to the local council first.  Claude set up a meeting with the Planning Officer and was told that the Seaton Branch, in Devon, was also due to close.  He visited Seaton and talked to some local people, they seemed very enthusiastic so he contacted a Mr Lines about purchasing the Seaton Branch - not realising that he would be entering a five and a half year project just to purchase the line!

Now back in Eastbourne, in October, the Entertainments and Pleasure Grounds Committee sat and the Borough Surveyor gave more details of new road.  Effectively the majority of the tramway would need to be moved, including the depot building itself - only the section from the depot to the Crumbles would not be affected. The Committee then authorised the Town Clerk to serve notice on the tramway company to resite the track by the 31st October 1967.  The new road depended upon the Sussex River Authority reconstructing the Crumbles outfall and the timetable for this work to completed by was October 1967 and the road was to be built in 1968.  However the River authority did not complete the culvert until 1968 so the tramway was able to keep running until October 1969.

1969 saw the last year of operation in Eastbourne and the trams were fitted with special notices saying "Last Tram Weeks.  This year we say goodbye to Eastbourne.  We hope to be running in Seaton, Devon next season.  Come and enjoy 3 miles of beautiful scenery".

The Entertainments and Pleasure Grounds Committee were still unsure what the timetable for the new road would be as the completing of the new culvert had set back the start of the new road by many months.  At their meeting on the 16th May 1969 the Town Clerk reported that the company was prepared to remove the necessary track within 21 days provided the Council would either agree to an alternative use for the workshop or pay resonable compensation.  They then considered an application by Messrs Lambourne and Bradford for permission to use the workshop as a children's pleasure centre, with amusement machines and children's rides.  The Committee turned down the application adding that no land would be made available for the erection of a building for that use.

  At the next meeting on the 30th June the Town Clerk reported that the tramway had indicated that they would cease operations at Eastbourne.  The company had agreed to a compensation sum of £500 plus a sum to be negotiated for the loss of income between the date of ceasing operation and the end of the season.  There were four offers for the workshop from boat firms and a sum of £3,000 was being discussed.  But the Council refused to give permission to reuse the building and it looked like the company would have to demolish it.

The Transfer Order and Light Railway Order for Seaton was granted on Christmas Eve 1969.  It was the beginning of  organising and planning for the move of all the equipment from Eastbourne on its journey to Seaton in Devon.

When the last tram ran in Eastbourne on the 14th September 1969 it was the signal for dismantling the whole system ready for the move.

A prefabricated building imported from Belgium by Messrs Tyler of Tunbridge was erected on the Seaton site in early 1970 so the transfer of material from Eastbourne could begin.  In February 1970 the first of 32 round trips, each 344 miles long, by the two company lorries and a 6 wheel trailer.  The whole of the workshop and machinery was moved along with nine tramcars, track and points, 160 traction poles, overhead wire and equipment, generators and dynamos, batteries and the many tons of stores.

The first passenger carrying tram journey in Seaton was made at 2.30pm on the 28th August 1970 and they are still running there to this day.


I would like to thank Mike Poole, a tram driver from Seaton since 1972, for the books  I was able to use to get the above information.


The title of the books used are: Next Stop Seaton! by David Jay and David Voice, published by Adam Gordon and Seaton and Eastbourne Tramways by Robert J Harley, published by Middleton Press.

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