Brighton railway station opened in May 1840 but was initially only receiving trains to and from Shoreham-by-Sea and stations westwards along the coast. It connected a year later northwards to Haywards Heath and London Bridge in September 1841 through the newly completed Clayton Tunnel. This account describes the very significant opening of this northbound link and captures the excitement and importance of the occasion. Almost certainly this celebration was echoed further up the line at Haywards Heath which had opened a few months before on 12 July 1841.
This stupendous undertaking is at length achieved, and the whole line was opened throughout to the public yesterday morning. The difficulties with which the cempany have had to contend hare been great, but they have all been surmounted with comparative ease, and the great work - a work characterised by an eminent engineer as almost impracticable - does honour to the engineers and the company.
Its cutting, its embankments, and its tunnels are immense, exceeding perhaps any other line in the kingdom in point of magnitude in the same distance. The most magnificent and imposing object on the line is the Ouse viaduct, about 34 miles from London, which is 1,434 feet long, entirely built of brick, and consisting of 37 semi-circular arches, each 30 feet span. From the surface of a small river the parapet rises 105 feet, and the structure, when seen from the bed of the valley, has an elegant appearance.
The ‘opening day’ had for some time been looked for by all classes in Brighton as a day of general rejoicing; and it was at first intended to set the day apart as a general holiday by closing the shops at twelve o'clock, but that intention was abandoned.
At an early hour the bells of St. Nicholas ushered in the auspicious morn, and notwithstanding the prevalence of a heavy fog, numbers of persons were upon the hills in the vicinity of the terminus to witness the departure of the first up-train, which left at a quarter before seven.
thousands flocked to the terminus
A special train, which is to ran the distance in an hour and three-quarters, left at half-past eight with some of the directors and their friends. As we have already said, the morning was gloomy, but towards noon the sun broke through the clouds, and shone resplendently, and thousands flocked to the terminus and the surrounding hills to hail the arrival of the first down-train.
Every available spot in the vicinity of the terminus commanding a view of the road was occupied, and the scene altogether was very imposing. Thousands upon thousands were scattered in all directions upon the hills and on the roads in the vicinity of the terminus-the town literally emptied itself of its "inhabitants. Under the shed at the terminus a host of musicians and vocalists, professional as well as amateurs, had assembled to greet the first arrivals with a triumphal chorus.
chorus of a thousand voices
The train was expected to arrive at about a quarter after twelve, and as the time approached every eye was directed as far as it could reach on the line to catch a first glimpse of the train. In a short time the rattling of the engine was heard, and in another instant the train was whisked over the New England viaduct, and reached its destination amidst the shouts of the vast multitude. The band immediately struck up the national anthem, and was joined in full chorus by a thousand voices. This train was followed by another in about ten minutes afterwards, and was also hailed with acclamation.
The course of the line is as follows: It starts upon the Greenwich line at London-bridge, on which it runs for one mile and three quarters. It then takes the Croydon line until about nine miles and a half from town and one from Croydon, where it turns off from it to the left, and skirts the eastern boundary of the town, at which it has a station better placed, it appears to us, fur the accommodation of the town, than that of the Croydon company.
From ths place it gradually approaches the turnpike road to Brighton for a mile and a half. The line now keeps very close to the east of the road until a little beyond the ‘Parsonage’, twenty-five miles and a half by railway from town. At, this place it crosses and leaves the road sometimes a mile or more to th east of it, crossing from Surrey to Sussex at twenty-eight miles from town, and going by Haslie-mill, Poundhill,
Green-trees, and Cooper-corner, until it re- crosses the road at thirty-four miles and a half from town, where is the Balcombe station The line now makes a considerable detour to the cast of the road, in one place nearly two miles from it, passing by Muster-green, Burgess-hill keeps very close to the road to Brighton, which it enters on an eminence near the old church, 51 miles from town.
There are five tunnels - Merstham, 1,800 yards long; Balcombe, 1,120, Hayward’s Heath, 220, Clayton 2,200; and Patcham, 480 yards long. Merstham is about 18 miles from town; Balcombe, 321; and the Clayton, 45 miles. The principal shaft of this tunnel is no less than 270 feet below the surface of the earth.
Gradients - Excepting the incline on the Croydon line, we understand, for we have never seen an official section, there is no gradient more than 29 feet a mile. The counties through which it passes is not equal to that traversed by the North Midland, and some few other lines, but is nevertheless, in many parts, very picturesque, and it is a line on which a person can travel, exclusive of the fascinating watering place at the end of it, for pleasure, and be highly gratified.
In fact, it will for a long time be a novelty to the fashionable visitors of Brighton, from the new country which it pens up. A grand dinner was given in the evening to the directors at the Old Ship Hotel, and a display of fireworks took place at the gardens in commemoration of the event.
Morning Post, 22 September 1841
Illustration: The opening of the London to Brighton Railway, 1840: Crowd of spectators witnessing the opening of the London and Brighton Railway, Brighton's first railway line. Brighton and Hove City Council and Science Museum picture.
Contributed by Malcolm Davison.