Holman F Stephens at Work
Stephens matriculated successfully in 1887, and then stayed for a further year at University College studying under Sir Alexander Kennedy, a leader in theoretical engineering studies. Stephens pressed for the opportunity of gaining experience in civils work, and approached Edward P Seaton, a consulting engineer working for the Metropolitan on extensive alterations to Baker Street and Portland Road stations. Seaton was responsible for the design of the Cranbrook and Paddock Wood Railway and Stephens was employed by him as resident engineer on his first railway project. He was, at 22, still a student, but he was fully in charge of the work. Many of the distinctive features and materials used in the buildings on this line were adopted by him subsequently on other schemes.
Even at this early age his busiest years were now upon him. He obtained a brief to design and supervise the construction of the Rye & Camber tramway and other projects were soon to follow. From Swansea Vale his advice was sought on making a Light Railway to some coal mines up the Clyddach valley which developed into the Gower Light. There were letters from Ambleside and Westmorland County Council asking advice on projects. Stephens was also busy with the Chichester to Selsey line, and with possibly extending the North Cornwall line to Truro.
Whilst at Cranbrook Stephens built up a friendship with Edward Peterson, a local solicitor. Peterson formed a company called the Light Railways Syndicate in July 1895 for the purpose of financing bills or orders in Parliament for proposed new railways. A total of seven schemes were formally proposed but only one, the Sheppey Light Railway, was built. In all cases, Stephens was to have been the engineer.
Stephens had greater success with truly independent concerns, commencing with the Hundred of Manhood and Selsey line in 1895 and the Rother Valley (later the Kent & East Sussex). By the end of 1895 Stephens was working from Ashby House, Tonbridge, and by 1900 his practice had grown to such an extent that he had opened his long term office nearby at 23 Salford Terrace.
Thereafter a whole string of schemes came to fruition: the Bere Alston & Callington line, Shropshire & Montgomeryshire, Burry Port and Gwendreath Valley reconstruction, and the East Kent to mention but a few; and many that did not. For the next decade Stephens produced many more plans than physical lines and he became the leading independent engineering dynamic behind the light railway movement. He worked phenomenally hard over this period being responsible for the creation of over forty light railway orders and building eight railways, several of which he continued to run.
Stephens himself, though moderately wealthy through inheritance, was not a substantial investor in his companies, usually only holding enough shares to qualify, if needed, as a director. He earned his income in a variety of ways, initially through surveying and engineering and consultancy fees but increasingly from management fees. His Salford Terrace business was a personal one and all expenses came to be paid through such fees etc. In 1923 he had personally bought the Snailbeach District and he held virtually all the shares in the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire (which was the operating company for the owner –Shropshire Railways) from inception. He was also Chairman of the FR /WHR, the S&MR and Selsey for extended periods but was not fond of committee work and generally preferred to leave such duties to others, particularly close acquaintances.
As road transport moved rapidly into the ascendant the 1920s were catastrophic years for branch and light railways as traffic decamped to the roads, the days of light railway expansion, and even need, were done. Nevertheless Stephens remained active in railway development where others would have found the environment impossible. He still managed to build the narrow Ashover Light and the last standard gauge Light Railway, the North Devon & Cornwall Junction, whilst fighting hard to build the Gower Light. Had the Kent coal fields achieved their expected potential they would have been amply served by a network of lines engineered and managed by him. His biggest disappointment was the Southern Heights, a projected electric line in Surrey on which he was working almost up to the time of his death and which only failed to come to fruition with the coming of the revenue pooling under the London Passenger Transport Act.
Most of Stephens’ railways were either to fall under the influence of the Main Line companies or fail in the next twenty years. Even Stephens’ great projects of the 1920s, the North Devon &Cornwall Junction , the Gower Peninsular Light, the Worcester and Broome, the Newport and Four Ashes and the Southern Heights, were all designed to be worked by those companies. Although, Stephens’ management of the narrow gauge Festiniog and Welsh Highland Railways had staved off closure in the 1920s at the very end of his life Stephens was forced by circumstances to try to negotiate with the GWR and LMS to jointly or separately work those railways.
Survival had become the name of the game. Stephens’ fault it was that he, along with many of his contemporary railway managers, did not appear to foresee the competition that would come from road transport after the War, nor the economic depression that followed. Stephens’ kept the key lines he managed from Salford Terrace running in spite of serious losses of income.
By the time of Colonel Stephens’ death in October 1931, none of his railways had closed but most were in deep trouble. From the early twenties even his economy and management expertise had been unable to staunch the outflow of passengers and light goods to the roads. Now, with the Depression, the businesses were on a knife-edge. His principal assistant William H Austen had started his takeover with Stephens’ first illness in 1930 and brought with him a less optimistic view to running the railways. Nevertheless, as a true and faithful servant he used his not inconsiderable skills to keep the empire going wherever possible.
Tonbridge’s core businesses; the Kent & East Sussex, Shropshire & Montgomeryshire, East Kent and the Weston, Clevedon & Portishead railways continued in emaciated form. Passenger traffic had virtually disappeared except for the summer traffic on the WC&P. Three of the railways were however sustained by mineral traffic, roadstone in the case of the S&MR and the WC&P, coal the EKR. General agricultural traffic could be considerable on the K&ESR and the EKR but was very seasonal. The coming of the Second World War and nationalisation terminated these independent businesses.