A Brief History and Explanation of Technology Babbacombe Cliff Railway

by David Cooper Bsc (Hons), MSc, IEng, FRSA, FIIE, FIDIagE, MCIBSE, LCGI.

David Cooper: Author of over one hundred articles in worldwide trade press for lifts and escalators co-author in a number of books including: The Elevator & Escalator Micropedia, Elevator & Escalator Accident Reconstruction & Litigation and Transport Systems in buildings.  Managing Director of LEGS (UK) Ltd a practice of consulting engineers specialising in passenger movement where he specialises in funicular lifts and forensic investigations into lift and escalator accidents.  Holds a Master of Science degree in lift engineering from University College Northhampton,  a Batchelor of Science Honours degree and Higher National Certificate from City of Westminster College, London.

Speaker at numerous conferences around the world including London,  Zurich,  Barcelona, Vienna,  Hong Kong and Melbourne.  Involved as a consultant to a number of funicuar lift owners including Scarborough Borough Council,  Torbay Borough Council,  Hastings Borough Council,  Southend Borough Council and the RNLI.  Investigated accidents involving funiculars at a number of locations including a fatal accident at Angels Flight in Los Angeles.  Presenter of lectures on funiculars to a number of audiences including the Institute of Mechanical Engineers in Swindon and the Friends of Babbacombe Cliff Railway Torquay. Member of the historic Newcomen Society.  Contributor to ' Cliff Hangers' a book on UK funicular lifts and published papers entitled 'Aberystwyth Funicular Lift' and 'Cliff Lifts at Hastings'

Babbacombe Cliff Railway


1903 Oddicombe  pre-railway

Many people don't realise that two of the most prolific builders of funicular lifts were involved in the building of Babbacombe Cliff Railway although one never got any further than a proposal, that was rejected, the other consulted by the then Torquay Corporation.  In 1890 Sir George Newnes MP offered to build a cliff railway to connect the Downs to Oddicombe Beach.

He was a man of distinction.  Born on the 13th March 1851, the youngest of six children.  In 1881 he launched the journal 'Tit Bits' which was to supply his future funding for such projects.  In 1885, elected as Liberal MP for Newmarket. 1887, he moved to Lynton North Devon where he funded the installation of the water balance funicular lift, which still exists today.

1890, the same year as proposing the cliff lift at Babbacombe, he teamed up with George Croydon Marks, later Baron Marks of Woolwich.  1895, he lost his Newmarket seat and given a Baronetcy.

1897, he started the now renowned journal 'Country Life' 1900, elected MP for Swansea seat although some reports say this was in 1906.  He died in 1910 and was buried in Lynton; he never saw the realisation of his proposal of a cliff lift at Babbacombe!

The story of George Croydon Marks is more poignant Torquay Corporation consulted him on the installation of the lift, which started in 1923 described by one report as being a "disciple" of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  He was born in 1858 eldest of eight children of which only four survived infancy.  1875, he became one of the first Whitworth Scholars and was educated at Kings College, London.  He worked for Tangye a company associated with funicular lifts, appointed head of the lift department and in charge of the installation of the funicular at Saltburn.

1880, he set up a private practice in Birmingham and married Margaret Maynard.  A year later in 1882, some reports say 1887, he formed a partnership with Dugald Clerk, later Sir Clark together they set up the now famous Marks & Clerk patent company which still operates from Lincolns Inn Field in London today.

1890, he teamed up with Sir George Newnes and had a run of success and appointed on a number of funicular installations, 1892 Bridgnorth, 1893 Bristol Clifton and in 1895 Aberystwyth.

He was also to follow a political career and in 1906 elected as MP for Launceston and North Cornwall.  In 1910, he opened a New York office with Thomas Edison and in 1911, knighted.  In 1929, he received a peerage and became Baron Marks of Woolwich. During his lifetime,  he was the director of two record companies, Columbia and EMI, and could have been the Richard Branson of his time.  He passed away in Bournemouth on the 24th of September 1938 whereupon the peerage became extinct.

In 1923, the Torquay Tramway Company announced the intention to install a lift to Oddicombe Beach and Waygood Otis appointed to undertake the installation. Work started in December 1924 and the Babbacombe Cliff Railway completed in 1926 the line cost £15,648 to construct.

On April 1st 1926 the Mayor of Torquay, Alderman John Taylor, made the first trip.  The ticket number A000 framed in silver by Mr H Thomas, the lessee of Oddicombe Beach which was presented to the Mayor. Photograph Courtesy A Pictorial & Historical Survey of Babbacombe & St Marychurch

The tramway company worked the line until the 13th March 1935 then it was taken over by Torquay Corporation for the sum of £18,000.

Early returns showed that 192,000 people had used the lift that year!  In 1941, the line closed due to wartime restrictions and the beach sealed off.  The line did not reopen until 29th June 1951 at a further cost of some £10,000 after refurbishment by J & E Hall.

In 1993, the track was replaced and the lift reopened in 1995 the Mayor conducted the opening ceremony.

Sadly, in 2003 an accident occurred when the safety gear operated holding the lift car in mid travel position requiring the rescuing of passengers.


At the end of the working day a bell is sounded at the lower station to advise intending passengers that the last lift is about to leave.  The bell has an interesting history rescued from a Scandinavian vessel!

The first sub level of the machine room houses the control panel and the hoist rope diverters.  The hoist ropes arranged in a double wrap arrangement, which means that they pass round the traction sheave twice.  This is required so that adequate traction can be afforded between the hoist ropes and the sheave itself to be able to move the two lift cars.

Because of the way the ropes pay off traction sheave offset rope diverters are installed.  To the uninitiated these look like they are leaning over and incorrectly fitted but to an appreciative eye these are a fantastic piece of engineering!  One of the offset diverters with the four hoist ropes passing over (below right).

There is another set of ropes attached to the bottom end of each of the lift cars, which travel over a set of diverter sheaves located under the bottom station.  These ropes known as compensating ropes are there to maintain a balance between the two lift cars during travel.

If you can imagine a lift car at the bottom without the compensating ropes they would be the weight of the lift car, its load and four 718 ft hoist ropes to overcome with assistance given only by the weight of the upper car and its load going down.

In this situation the power demanded of the motor would vary during the ride and by fitting the compensating ropes there is a continuous loop of ropes, which means that the only differential in weight between the two cars during travel is the number of people in them! The compensating ropes attached to the front of the lift cars.

When the cars were replaced, the original seven-window design also replaced with five windows.

Ramps added to secure the side door during travel and to assist people with wheelchairs and pushchairs to negotiate the gap between the car and the landing at a station.

Courtesy of David Cooper.

Compiled by David Cooper for the Friends of Babbacombe Cliff Railway


Where is the missing ticket?

On 1st April 1928 to commemorate the first trip on the cliff railway Alderman John Taylor then the mayor of Torbay was presented with a silver framed ticket number A000 by Mr H Thomas the lessee of Oddicombe beach.

A search for this ticket to date has been unsuccessful.

Has anyone knowledge or know the location of this important local history object ?

Do you know anyone who attended the opening ceremony in 1926 ?

contact webmaster:

jmlcliffrailwaytimes@hotmail.co.uk or  jml-@friendsofbabbacombecliffrailway.org.uk

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