Thanks to the joys of moving home, this blog has been in the very capable hands of Simon, Alex and Jonathan for the past couple of weeks. Today I have a rare respite to moving, allowing a brief chance to write a blog post before getting back to the stress of moving home! Today we (at long last) continue to look at the Kent and East Sussex Railway’s gala (click here for more), looking at the machine and the man named after him, Holman F Stephens.
For a large proportion of its forty-year life as a preserved railway, Hunslet Austerity tank engines have been at the heart of the Kent and East Sussex Railway’s operations. These locomotives are very common in the UK, with also a few on mainland Europe. They were built to be cheap and powerful, with many built by the MOD and barely used. They therefore were ideal for preserved railways, being both cheap and having low mileage. I have written a couple of blog posts that looked at this class in more detail, that you may wish to read through (click here) that gives a different perspective on this much under-estimated class.
This example was the only type running at the K&ESR gala, indeed it is currently the operational member of the class out of a fleet of three Hunslet Austerity’s on the line. Number 23 Holman F Stephens was originally built in 1952 for the Army, numbered 3791. It was put into service in Bicester 1956 as WD 191 Black Knight, generally repaired a year or two later whilst being moved to various different locations, working for just 9 months in this time. In total it ran just 23,178 miles in its career and arrived at Rolvenden in 1972, entering service with the then fledgling K&ESR preserved railway in 1974. The Curator of the National Railway Museum named number 23 Holman F Stephens in 1977. Throughout its forty years as a preserved line, number 23 has been an excellent servant of this light railway.
Lt. Colonel Holman Fred Stephens is known as the father of light railways and the K&ESR was one of his most famous and the first opened in accordance with the Light Railways Act of 1896. Light railways were standard gauge lines built cheaply with little in the way of major engineering or passenger facilities! HF Stephens learnt his craft whilst working as a resident engineer on the Hawkhurst branch line when he was only 22. He was a member of the Volunteer Army (later known as the Territorial Army) where he rose to the rank of Lt. Colonel, working part-time (mainly) with the Royal Engineers.
The K&ESR was one of 17 railways he promoted/engineered/managed, but despite the number built, their economic promise was not fulfilled. With speed limits of 25MPH, they were no match for the private motor car, that stole much of these light railway’s traffic. Life was not easy for the Kent and East Sussex Railway, that remained independent after the groupings of Railways in 1923. Shortly after Stephens died in 1931, the railway became bankrupt, but was kept open and managed by his successor William Henry Austen who was made Receiver. The railway was eventually absorbed into the nationalised British Railways in 1948 and closed to passengers in 1954.
Interestingly, Stephens career also has another notable claim to fame – after the Great War of 1914-18, he took on the management of the then threatened Festiniog Railway and kept it alive. Indeed, if it weren’t for his intervention, the railway may well have never become the successful tourist line it is today!