Colonel H. F. Stephens M.I.C.E.

1868 - 1931

Ken Elks Copyright © 1999

HOLMAN FRED STEPHENS was born in Hammersmith, London on 31 October 1869, the son of Rebekah and Frederick G. Stephens. His father was art critic of "The Athenaeum" and a well-known member of the Pre-Raphaelite art movement. He was named after the eminent Pre-Raphaelite artist, Holman Hunt.

"Holly" Stephens was educated at University College School, London, and also at Karlsruhe, Germany and Vitre et Vilaine, France, followed by a year at University College studying under Sir Alexander W.B. Kennedy. In 1889 he went to work for the Metropolitan Railway, serving in the locomotive and carriage shops at Neasden, which he left in 1891 to become resident engineer during the construction of the Cranbrook & Paddock Wood Railway, Kent.

The C&PWR had originally been incorporated in 1877, but work did not commence until 1890. The line opened in October 1892 with services via Cranbrook to Hope Mill (later Goudhurst) and in September 1893 to Hawkhurst. It became the Hawkhurst Branch of the South Eastern Railway and thence the South Eastern & Chatham Railway and Southern Railway, finally closing in 1961 under British Railways.

He followed this with appointments to the Cranbrook & District Water Company and as engineer for five years with Medway Upper Navigation. His next railway venture was as engineer for the Rye & Camber Tramway, a narrow gauge line connecting Rye with the new golf links at Camber. For this line he experimented with an engine described as an "oil motor", which, had it been successful, would have been the first application of a diesel type engine to a railway. In the event steam locomotives were used, although in later years a petrol driven locomotive built at Ashford took their place.

At the same time he also became engineer and director of the Hundred of Manhood & Selsey Tramway in Sussex, linking the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway station at Chichester with the town of Selsey at the end of Selsey Bill. In 1924 a new company, the West Sussex Railway, was formed to take over and operate the line, of which Stephens was also a director.

With the passing of the Light Railway Act of 1896, Stephens began a career with which his name will always be associated. He became engineer and managing director of the first railway to be built under this Act, the Rother Valley Railway, which ran from the mainline station at Robertsbridge in Sussex to Tenterden in Kent. In 1904, because of plans for numerous extensions, the name of the line was changed to the Kent & East Sussex Railway, which it retained until nationalisation in 1948. In the event only the line extending into the actual town of Tenterden and on to meet the mainline again at Headcorn was ever built.

Following these successes came the Sheppey Light Railway, Kent, built 1904-5 for the South Eastern & Chatham Railway, and the conversion of the East Cornwall Minerals Railway, originally 3ft. 6in. gauge, to standard gauge extending it from Bere Alston to Callington for the Plymouth, Devonport & South Western Junction Railway, 1905-8. He stayed on as engineer and general manager of the PD&SWJR for two years.

His next undertaking was the reconstruction as a passenger line of the Burry Port & Gwaendraeth Valley Railway in South Wales (1908-9) followed by the rebuilding of the derelict Potteries, Shrewsbury & North Wales Railway as the Shropshire & Montgomeryshire Railway in 1909, becoming engineer and managing director of the latter.

His next project, begun in 1911, was engineer for the East Kent Light Railway, built to serve the developing Kent Coalfield, a line for which he was also locomotive superintendent. The same year he took over as manager and engineer of the independent Weston, Clevedon & Portishead Railway in Somerset.

During the Great War, 1914-18, he served in the Royal Engineers as Major Commanding, Kent (Fortress), posted to the Thames & Medway Defences. He was able to combine this with his railway work but in 1916 the War Office tried to get him to devote more time to his military role. Instead Stephens opted to retire from active service, taking the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in the Territorials. Thereafter he preferred to be known as "Colonel Stephens", or simply, "The Colonel".

With the war over Stephens once again became involved in constructing railways, commencing with the Edge Hill Light Railway, Warwickshire. This was a mineral line built in 1920 for a private company, though seen as an off shoot of the Stratford on Avon & Midland Junction Railway. His involvement with the EHLR was confined to laying out the line and obtaining the Light Railway Order.

Because of his expertise in dealing with landowners and the Board of Trade, he was similarly engaged by Castner-Kellner Alkali Co to assist with the purchase of land and obtaining an LRO for the Weston Point Light Railway, near Runcorn, Cheshire, in 1922. He was also involved in re-gauging the North Devon & Cornwall Junction Light Railway, 1922-5, connecting Torrington and Halwill, and upgrading it for passenger services. In 1922 he built two narrow gauge railways, the Ashover Light Railway in Derbyshire and the Snailbeach District Railways in Shropshire, both mineral lines, though the former also carried passengers.

The following year he took over as engineer of the moribund project to connect, via Beddgelert, the old narrow gauge Croesor Tramway out of Portmadoc and the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railway which ran from Dinas to South Snowdon. Work on this had been abandoned a decade earlier. The completed line formed the Welsh Highland Railway. Due to this involvement he was invited to become engineer of the Festiniog Railway, and later chairman and managing director of both this and the WHR.

In 1925 Stephens was taken seriously ill and was never fully fit after that. He died on 23 October 1931 at the Lord Warden Hotel, Dover, during a visit to the East Kent Railway. Right up to the time of his death he continued to bring forward schemes for light railways, including a joint venture with the Southern Railway for an electric line on the Kent-Surrey border called the Southern Heights Railway, intended to connect Orpington to Sanderstead via Tatsfield.

This empire of minor railways was administered from offices at 23, Salford Terrace, Tonbridge, with a staff of around 16, including his friend and assistant, W. H. Austen, who he met when working on the Cranbrook & Paddock Wood Railway. It was Austen who took over running the railways after Stephens died. Though Austen was a skilled administrator who effected many savings, by the advent of the Second World War all the former Stephens railways had either been closed or declined to the extent that closure was inevitable. Only two, the East Kent Railway and the Kent & East Sussex survived to nationalisation, the EKR losing its passenger services almost immediately, and all of its freight except for the transport of coal from Tilmanstone Colliery. The K&ESR continued for a few years but was closed in 1953.

Of Stephens the man we are afforded few glimpses. He was a lifelong bachelor, an enigmatic character with few friends, who spent most of his life in a somewhat solitary existence, living in hotels and rented rooms as he toured his railways. Apart from an all-consuming passion for railways, he seemed to have few interests apart from Greek and Roman mythology, something that inspired his rather eccentric choices for locomotive names.

His relationship with his staff was typical of the period for someone of his upbringing. He appears as a stern, autocratic, taskmaster, quick to reprimand any shortcomings. On the other hand he was always ready to praise good work and generally perceived as fair. A former East Kent Railway worker remembers being rewarded with a packet of cigarettes with an added warning from Stephens not to let him catch the man smoking them on duty. It is said that his mood during the many visits he paid to all his lines could be judged from the angle of his bowler hat. If it was pulled down over his eyes it was time to look out.

Unions were a total anathema, not unusual in a small organisation in those days, just as it is now, and there was little or no demarcation. Every man was expected to turn his hand to anything necessary to keep the railways running and the staff at Salford Terrace in particular were expected to put in a lot of unpaid overtime.

In operating his railways Stephens showed an extraordinary talent for working on the proverbial shoestring. Facilities for passengers were extremely basic or non-existent. A typical Stephens line was noted for its steep gradients, sharp curves, corrugated iron clad wooden framed buildings and an amazing assortment of dilapidated and ancient rolling stock. Superannuated locomotives, discarded by other lines, would be purchased at bargain prices and then worked for another twenty years by staff afforded the minimum of engineering equipment. Typically, he exploited his friendship with Sir Herbert Walker, Chairman of the Southern Railway, to obtain rolling stock and whatever else that was going. Hardly anything new was ever purchased, one exception being "Hecate" an 0-8-0 tank engine built for the Kent & East Sussex by Hawthorn, Leslie & Co. which, ironically, proved a costly mistake. The overriding policy was always one of "make do and mend".

Stephens had a high reputation as an engineer and was renown for his skill at picking the optimum line across the most difficult terrain. This shows particularly in the differences between the route of the Welsh Highland Railway around Beddgelert as built by Stephens and that selected by his predecessors.

He was, above all, a man of great energy and determination who channelled all his efforts into making his railways run, who believed in them so fervently that he was often paid for his work in shares and invested much of his personal fortune in debenture loans which were unlikely ever to be repaid.

He was an enthusiast and a great conversationalist, willing to talk at great length on the subject of railways even to casual visitors to Salford Terrace, always showing a great command of his subject. He took an almost childish delight in displaying his collection of free passes obtained from other railways in exchange for a similar concession on his own. This collection still exists today and is on display at the Colonel Stephens Museum in Tenterden, together with the contents of his office.

However, it is probably true to say that this enthusiasm blinded him to the threat that developments in road transport posed to his railways, none of which were very robust financially. In a conversation in the late 1920's Stephens quoted statistics about buses from 1907, seemingly unaware of advances made in the interim. Most of his lines prospered until the advent of buses and lorries because there was nothing else available. As soon as there was an alternative they began to crumble. It is a measure of his genius that the inevitable was delayed as long as it was.

"In the history of the railways of these islands, Colonel Stephens stands out as one of the most extraordinary personages ever; his name is virtually - and justly - synonymous with the British light railway and for that involvement, together with his idiosyncratic methods of operation, his memory is deservedly venerated by all lovers of such lines. To all intents and purposes, Stephens collected railways in the way that another might open a grocery shop." - Keith and Susan Turner in their book "The Shropshire & Montgomeryshire Light Railway"