The First Sussex Railway Police

On 25th January 1837 a public meeting was held in Brighton to discuss building a railway between London and the South Coast.  Several schemes were discussed but the consensus was to use the scheme proposed by Mr John Urpeth Rastrick (1780-1856) for a railway line from Elephant and Castle, London to Church Street, Brighton (much closer to the seafront than the present station) The proposal included branch lines west to Shoreham and east to Lewes although a separate scheme from the South Eastern Railway proposed a railway from Brighton to the harbour at Newhaven.   The House of Commons accepted the Rastrick route on 3rd May 1837.

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John Urpeth Rastrick

The London to Brighton line was completed in 1841 and of course changed the fortunes of Brighton forever.  Plans were soon being made to extend the railway eastwards.  The Brighton, Lewes and Hastings Railway was formed in 1844 with a committee of fifteen eminent gentlemen which included William Catt the owner of the Bishopstone Tide Mills.  It was estimated that the cost of the railway would be £475,000 and the engineer was of course Mr Rastrick. He proposed a double line from Brighton to Lewes with a single line onwards to Hastings.  It was proposed that the main station for Eastbourne was to be located at Polegate. There would also be railway stations to serve Glynde and Firle, Selmeston, Westham and Bexhill.  Meetings were held at Town Halls along the proposed line and representations were made to parliament, the one from the people of Lewes mentioning the defence implications of having a railway along our ‘vulnerable coast in time of war

On 13th August 1844 the Sussex Advertiser reported that the railway line between Brighton and Hastings had been marked out with a number of flags on prominent parts of the proposed line. The report says that construction work was planned as soon as the crops were removed. At Lewes a large flag had been erected at the bottom of Saint Mary’s Lane (now Station Street) to mark the proposed railway station.

The main features of the line were the huge and impressive viaduct between Brighton and London Road Station and the Falmer Tunnel, both engineered by Mr Rastrick

Lewes Station

The railway between Brighton and Lewes opened on 8th June 1846 although the station on “Ham Field” had not been completed. Strangely there seems to have been little rejoicing about this momentous occasion.  A suggestion that there should be a half-holiday and shops closed was rejected and the local press said that there was ‘pre-eminent indifference’ to the event. This may have been due to differing ideas as to where Lewes Station should be situated.

A few days later on 27th June the line was opened to Hastings.   Again there seemed to be little excitement at Lewes.  At 9.30am there was a small crowd to witness the arrival of the first train from London.  (This would have arrived via Brighton as the Keymer Junction to Lewes branch line was not open until 1st October 1847)  The first train to leave for the coast departed Lewes at eight minutes past ten following the firing of a cannon.  It took eight minutes for the train to arrive at Glynde where it stopped for two minutes before setting off for Berwick Station (This name had been chosen over ‘Selmeston’)  Here there was a large crowd from surrounding villages that met the train with hearty cheers. It had taken seventeen minutes to get to Berwick as the train had to stop en-route to take on water.  It took a further eight minutes to get to Polegate where there was an even larger crowd.  Eight minutes later the train arrived at Westham Station where the train had to wait to take on more water. Twelve minutes later the train arrived at Bexhill and six minutes after that it arrived at Bulverhythe the temporary location of the Hastings Terminus.  If you took out the stopping times the journey between Lewes to Hastings took just over an hour. (The slow train today takes 1 hour and 3 minutes)  There were five trains a day between Brighton and Hastings, 33 miles away, and just two on a Sunday. There was also an obligation to run ‘Parliamentary Trains”  These were services which had to offer cheaper fairs for working class passengers. These left Brighton for Lewes at 9.40am and 2.30pm.

Brighton Lewes & Hastings Railway

The new railway company was was not to last for long – in fact just four weeks!  On 27th July 1846 the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway was formed from the London & Brighton Railway, the Brighton, Lewes and Hastings Railway and three other railway companies.

The building of the Railway helped to reduce crime in the area. The Chaplain’s report from Lewes Prison in December 1846 showed that although more ‘strangers’ (people from outside the county) had committed crimes in East Sussex the crime numbers had fallen – the reason was that ‘a large number of persons have found honest employment on the railway who would have otherwise swelled the criminal returns

The railway helped reduce crime by employing police officers to patrol the line as it was being built.

Having spent 34 years as a British Transport Police officer I have always been interested in the history of policing the railways. The very first railway policeman I have been able to trace was Joseph Sedgewick the first constable to be employed by the Stockton & Darlington Railway.  This was before 1826. It is a strange fact that there were railway policemen before there were railways and the BL&H Railway illustrates this well.  Although the Railway started running in 1846 it took two years to actually build. Thousands of Navvies were used to construct the line. They were a rough and ready bunch of labourers from all over the country including Ireland and even the continent. They had previously been used to dig navigations (canals) hence their name.  A contemporary account says “They injured everything they approached, from their huts to the part of the railway they were working on, over corn and grass, they tore down embankments, injured young plantation, made gaps in hedges with no regard to the damage or property they invaded. Game disappeared from the most sacred of Game Preserves, Game Keepers were defied and country gentlemen who had imprisoned country rustics by the dozen shrank in despair of the railway navigator.”  As a result the Special Constable Act of 1838 required railway companies to employ Police Officers to keep the peace.

An Early Railway Policeman (Stockton & Darlington Railway Police 1826)

Sussex Magistrates pre-empted the act and the Brighton Petty Sessions of 30th July 1838 engaged Henry Reed to be the first railway policeman in Sussex.  Brighton Borough Police were also established the same year but the East Sussex Constabulary was not formed until 1840.

The new Brighton, Lewes and Hastings Railway Company employed a police superintendent and several constables. The Superintendent was William Acton who was based at Lewes Station.  Acton gave evidence a number of times to the Lewes Magistrates, not every case concerned the railway; on one occasion providing a report as to the sanity of a Southover publican.  In December 1844 he arrested one William Pullen with the assistance of a Lewes Special Constable. Pullen had damaged a gate protecting the railway works and had stolen a small amount of timber. He was sentenced to two weeks imprisonment with hard labour.

Superintendent Acton also arrested seven labourers who had been responsible for beating up a railway man at a pub (Reed’s Beershop) at Hodshrove (near the present day Moulscoomb Station) The victim Robert Apsley said that he was set upon in the pub and feared for his life after he had been kicked in the face, several teeth being knocked out. The men were convicted and served time at Lewes Gaol.  Superintendent Acton and his police officers had an office at Falmer Station.  The Sussex Advertiser of 3rd June 1845 records the case of the theft of a velveteen jacket from a railway worker which was reported to “Falmer Railway Police Station”  One of the Brighton. Lewes and Hastings Railway Police Constables, Henry Alderton hurried into Brighton where he spotted the offender and arrested him, taking him back to the railway police station at Falmer where the victim identified his missing coat. William Harris (23) was later convicted and received six weeks imprisonment with hard labour.  Superintendent Acton also arrested William Akehurst in October 1845 for stealing turnips from a field at Moulescoomb. Akehurst, received 10 days imprisonment with hard labour.

Another constable of the Brighton, Lewes and Hastings Railway Police was James Warrener who lived in Lewes.  He arrested a man in July 1845 for the theft of money from a laundry in South Street Lewes.  As the thief was believed to be a railway worker, a complaint was made to PC Warrener, who, following enquiries traced the thief and arrested him at Mr Lyego’s Beershop in Ripe.

Superintendent William Acton was a local man. He was born in Lewes in 1784, the son of the Parish Clerk for Southover. At the age of 24 he married Lucy Clark at Slaugham Church and they had eight children. Lucy died in 1825 and William remarried Elizabeth Trott three years later and he had a further three children.   For most of his life he lived in Southover High Street.

In October 1845 the Brighton, Lewes and Hastings Railway was cutting through the land to the west of Lewes close to the ruins of the Cluniac Priory of St Pancras. Workmen began to unearth archaeological evidence dating from between 1078 when the priory was built, to 1537 after which it was destroyed as part of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. Today, work would have been halted until a detailed examination could take place but in 1845 nothing could stop the railways and work continued.

The new railway being built at Southover

Amongst the historic gems that were found, was what was believed to be the stone coffin lid of Gundrada, the daughter of William the Conqueror.  This was the year before the formation of the Sussex Archaeological Society so who was at hand to make sure these ancient relics were safe?  Superintendent Acton of course. The Illustrated London News of 8th November 1845 says that the good Railway Policeman actually took the relics to his home in Southover High Street for safe keeping. (The grave slab of Gundrada is now on display at nearby Southover Church)

Gundrada’s Grave

Reading reports of Victorian crime, it is often surprising to see how harsh punishments were. This is well illustrated by the case of William Page aged 53 years, a petty thief arrested by Superintendent Acton.  In December 1845 he appeared before Lewes Magistrates charged with stealing a bundle of sticks to the value of one penny from the railway at Folkington.  The newspaper report describes the poor man as a ‘half-starved looking labourer’ with ten children to feed.  The prisoner said that he was employed breaking flints for the road and was very badly off.  This seemed to hold no truck with the magistrates and he received six weeks imprisonment!

Rather more leniency was shown to 17 year old John Edwards who appeared before Lewes Magistrates accused of stealing grass seed from the railway in April 1846. Edwards was actually the Superintendents next-door-neighbour in Southover High Street and bizarrely he was caught after he sewed the stolen seed in the Superintendent’s back garden!  The grass seed had been purchased by the railway to sew on the newly created embankments. Edwards had stolen some and then thrown it into the policeman’s back garden, telling the Superintendents daughter, 14 year old Elizabeth, that it would look ‘pretty against the garden wall’  Young Elizabeth obviously inherited some of her father detective acumen as she was suspicious and told her father.  Superintendent Acton compared the seed in his garden (a mixture of ryegrass and clover) to that used by the railway, and arrested Edwards who admitted the theft.  Edwards worked at Verrall’s brewery in Southover and his boss gave him a good character reference. Clemency was given and Edwards was sentenced to just two days imprisonment in the Lewes House of Correction. (Reading between the lines I suspect that the accused had a crush on young Elizabeth)

Superintendent Acton was obvious well known and well thought of by the local gentry.  In May 1846 the Pevensey Corporation Friendly Society held its Annual General Meeting within the grounds of Pevensey Castle. Following a hearty meal there were drinks and speeches.  One of the toasts was to “Superintendent Acton of the Railway Police Force”  The chairman gave a speech praising the work of Action saying that he had been devoted to preserve public peace and their private property.  The speech was frequently interrupted by cheers. The Superintendent stood to acknowledge the honour and gave a short speech himself thanking amongst others the local clergy and magistrates for assisting his work (although there was no mention of his constables.)

He not only dealt with crime but also attended accidents such as that at Pevensey Sluice in August 1846 when a number of people were injured following a derailment.  This was just a few weeks after the line had opened to Bexhill.  It appears that the suspect was the man in charge of the points at the scene, who had absconded since the crash.

On 27th July 1846, the Brighton, Lewes and Hastings Railway merged with other railway companies and became a part of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway. The different Railway Police Forces were also amalgamated and the new HQ of the Railway Police was based at London Bridge Station.  Despite a new employer (and probably new buttons on his uniform) Superintendent Acton’s duties did not change.  In September 1846 Acton was giving evidence to Hastings Magistrates concerning an assault at St Leonard’s.

In October 1846 Acton was at Lewes Magistrates for the case of two men accused of stealing timber from the railway at Hamsey just north of Lewes.  A part of their defence queried the validity of the recent Acts of Parliament made by the new railway company.

Shortly after this he was transferred to Croydon. In October 1847 he was giving evidence to Greenwich Magistrates after arresting six men who had placed timber on the railway line at Lewisham with the intent to endanger passengers.

He died there in 1853 aged 70, however his body was returned to his home town and he is buried at Southover Church in the grave of his first wife Lucy.

William Acton’s grave at Southover Church

If you would like more information about the early history of policing the railways the British Transport Police History Group website has a lot more details (


One Comment Add yours

  1. Ralph Orchad says:

    Good article Kevin I enjoyed it.


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