Bringing back the Belle

Photo:The Brighton Belle

The Brighton Belle

Photo:Poster advertising the Brighton Belle

Poster advertising the Brighton Belle

Photo:Pullman Car called Doris

Pullman Car called Doris

Photo:Lord and Lady Olivier on the Brighton Belle in 1970

Lord and Lady Olivier on the Brighton Belle in 1970

Photo:Brighton Belle at Brighton Station

Brighton Belle at Brighton Station

Past and planned future for the Brighton Belle

By Godfrey Gould

The 'Brighton Belle' was unique - in the proper sense of that often misused word. It was the only all electric Pullman train to run ever anywhere in the world. Although fully withdrawn in 1972, there has been recently active moves to have one of the three five-car sets fully restored to operational running.

Designed by George Mortimer Pullman

George Mortimer Pullman was born on 3 March 1831 at Brocton, New York, USA. The legend is that after spending a very uncomfortable night on a train following his marriage he hit upon the idea of carriages in which passengers could sleep in proper beds whilst travelling. Having trained in woodworking he was in an ideal position to design and to develop his ideas. (Purists do not need to comment - I know that this is a very simplified account!)

First used by the Midland Railway

Pullman Cars (NEVER Carriages) in the USA were Sleeping Cars leased to railway companies, but owned by the Pullman Car Co. Although in the UK the first Pullman Cars were both Sleeping and Parlour (Day) Cars it was as Day Cars that they took hold. The first railway to use them was the Midland Railway in 1874. They soon spread to other railways and the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway was one of the first.

Style and sophistication

Most railways used them as individual luxury cars in normal express trains, but there were later several all-Pullman steam hauled trains, such as the 'Queen of Scots', the 'Yorkshire Pullman', the 'Golden Arrow', and the 'Bournemouth Belle'. The Cars exuded style and sophistication, food and drinks were served at every seat, as single Cars they were only first class, and a supplement was payable in addition to the normal fare. All the first class Cars were named, often after Royalty, Walter Scott characters and birds, but latterly they tended only to be ladies' names.

Popular with businessmen

The LBSCR used Pullmans extensively and they were popular with businessmen who would breakfast on their way up to the City and have drinks and light refreshment or even a meal on their way back in the evening. In 1908 the LBSCR introduced their all-Pullman 'Southern Belle', hauled in those days by steam locomotives. When the line between Victoria and Brighton was electrified in 1932 locally the steam era was significantly reduced. To replace the old 'Southern Belle' the Southern Railway introduced an all electric Pullman train in 1933, and in 1934 renamed it the 'Brighton Belle'. It ran thus every day (except during the War) until 1972.

Three sets of five cars

Fifteen Cars were built in three sets of five cars. In each set were two first class and three third class Cars - the days of first only had by now passed. The six firsts were named Hazel, Audrey, Gwen, Doris, Mona, and Vera, the thirds simply recognised as Cars nos. 85 to 93. They were painted in the Pullmans distinctive umber and cream livery, polished to perfection.

Fine marquetry and Lalique glass

A liveried Company servant would greet you as he held the inward opening door. Inside the Firsts boasted single armchairs on each side, two per table, and the Thirds (now would be known as Standard), groups of two and four. There were also some individual compartments sometimes even seating up to five passengers.To this must be added the fine marquetry and often Lalique glass. At every seat you would be served food and drink. In 1966 you would have paid 1/6 for Soup of the Day with Golden Croutons, 8/6 for Deep Fried Fillet of Fish Tartare with French Fried Potatoes, 1/6 for Continental Cheese, and 2/- for a pot of Coffee. A pair of the 'infamous' Grilled Kippers would set you back 3/6. (For the younger amongst you 1p is equivalent to 2.4d in old money).

Famous people travelled regularly

Many famous people were regular travellers - Jimmy Edwards, Flora Robson, Alan Melville, and, of course, Laurence Olivier. It was he who made the fuss when kippers were withdrawn from the breakfast menu, although a former Pullman Car Steward told me once that Larry actually never had kippers and that it was other passengers who put him up to making the complaint - all publicity is good publicity?

Several return journeys each day

The train made three or four return journeys each day either as five car or ten car sets. In 1972 the bogies and engines (slung underneath the two end cars) had become life expired and the cost of replacement prohibitive. By now, also, all Pullman cars belonged to British Rail, who had repainted them in the very dull then standard livery of blue and grey. And the First class cars had lost their names, the indication on the sides of each car simply the name of the train.

The cars were saved after the service ceased

The whole train was withdrawn from service, but all fifteen cars were saved - one was subsequently destroyed in a fire. They reappeared on preserved lines, as part of the Orient Express, at hotels, restaurants and pubs and in private hands - one even in France!

Restoration is under way

A few years ago a scheme was promoted to restore one five-car set. For literally millions of pounds five cars, including two power-cars, have been obtained and the massive job of restoration to the original condition is under way. Motors previously used on the Waterloo-Weymouth trains have been obtained and also are being updated to deal with modern standards. It was intended that the restored train would be available by 2012, then 2013, but now it seems that 2016 may be the likely target?

Donations urgently needed

Donations are urgently needed to complete the work. As it uses electricity by third rail it could work under its own power almost anywhere from Kent to Dorset, and to London Bridge, Waterloo and Victoria Stations, amongst other termini.  It is expected that it may run regularly between Victoria and Brighton at weekends but will be available for other routes, charters and special events. For further information, click here.

It should pay its way

No doubt it will be expensive to run. Whether it will ever recoup the capital expenditure remains to be seen, but it should pay its way. But note that the all-Pullman/Wagons Lit "Orient Express" is profitable and has paid for itself, so people will pay plenty for sheer luxury and nostalgia. Like many thousands of others I can't wait and am saving my pennies!


[Previously published in the North Laine Runner, No 228, May/June 2014]


This page was added on 25/06/2014.

It's interesting to read about the Brighton Belle.   Although I can’t claim to have travelled regularly on the Belle, I did once go up to London in a very similar carriage from Newhaven, after what I recall as a gruelling overnight journey on the ferry from Dieppe, although how such a carriage came to be in Newhaven I have no idea.

I also recall that one of my fellow passengers on the train, and as it turned out before that on the ferry, was a young American teacher, who tried to encourage me to apply to go and teach in New York.   For some reason I was reluctant to go into that particular blackboard jungle, so I never followed her advice.

We had waiter service in 2nd class in that carriage – the first and last time I have ever had that on a British train. The young American was unsure how much to leave as a tip. I think I said ten percent was enough, though this in fact was based almost entirely on my experiences in France, as where I came from – New Zealand – waiters, taxi drivers and the like are rarely tipped. Anyway we were both unlikely to face such a problem again on a train in the UK. I certainly never did!

By Bruce Smith
On 18/08/2014

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