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The man who brought the Railmotor to Kent

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There's a new housing development off Maidstone Road in Paddock Wood which Clarus Homes, the developer, has named The Hop Pocket.

It's a reminder that the town was once key to Kent's extensive hop-growing industry.

It's importance was as a rail hub, both in offering growers a means to transport their harvest to brewers in London, and as the method by which

thousands of Londoners would arrive each summer to work in the county's hop gardens.

In 1892 a talented young assistant engineer, Holman Fred Stephens, helped to build a new branch line to serve the industry, that ran from Paddock Wood to Hawkhurst, stopping at Horsmonden, Goudhurst and Cranbrook.

The line closed in 1961 with the last train running on Sunday, June 11.

Today it is affectionately remembered at The Hop Pickers' Line, and a heritage group exists to remind us all, via a series of information panels, of the route once taken by the 11-mile track.

Two years after the line had opened, Holman Stephens qualified as a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, which allowed him to design and build railways in his own right. He went on to build 16 rail and tramways in Kent and Sussex.

Stephens' Railmotor approaching Rolvenden in the late 1920s
Stephens' Railmotor approaching Rolvenden in the late 1920s

With his company based first in Prior Road and then in Salford Terrace in Tonbridge, he was more commonly known as HF Stephens; to his close friends he was "Holly" and to his staff he was "The Colonel."

The latter nickname stemmed from Stephens' service during the First World War.

Already 46 at the outbreak of war, he was considered too old to send to the Front, but Stephens, who had been in the Army Reserve since 1896, was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and put in charge of five companies who were to provide the home defence of the Thames and Medway estuaries.

Stephens' rail empire was greatly boosted by the Light Railways Act of 1896 which enabled small local lines to be built without the stringent restrictions previously required - and thus more cheaply.

The first such line he built was the Rother Valley Railway from Headcorn to Robertsbridge.

The first train into Goudhurst Station in 1892
The first train into Goudhurst Station in 1892

It opened in 1900 and carried its last passengers in 1954. Though joyfully since then, a group of steam train enthusiasts have been able to re-open a 10.5-mile section of the track, between Tenterden and Bodiam, as the Kent and East Sussex Railway, which is now a popular tourist destination.

Because the light railways were generally small local branch lines without a heavy customer base, their proprietors were always battling to keep them viable, especially from the 1930s onwards when they began to get serious competition from the motor car.

Stephens was always looking to reduce costs and had been among the first to see the potential of the internal combustion engine and as early as 1911 had proposed using "an oil motor on a bogie passenger car."

By 1921, he tried his first petrol-powered locomotive on his Weston Clevedon and Portishead line, but the hand-built one-off was too expensive. So he adopted a Wolseley-Siddeley car chassis as a rail bus, trying it out on the Kent and Sussex line.

He was the only British rail operator to try such an innovation, though some French and American operators were experimenting with similar ideas.

Passengers boarding the Railmotor at Teneterden
Passengers boarding the Railmotor at Teneterden

It was not a huge success, but Stephens continued to experiment, adopting a one-ton lorry chassis, that was part of the Ford Model T family, to take a bus body. So that the train could be reversed, he used two of them in back-to-back pairs, with the first set running on the Kent and Sussex line in late 1922.

In September 1923, Stephens was able to boast to the Commercial Motor magazine: "I have nine small steam railways under my control and am trying several forms of motor trains. In a previous experiment I learnt, to my sorrow, that it is cheaper to have a car at each end than to put in a reverse gear."

He said: "The motive units I am now using are the much despised 1-ton Fords; we chose this type, as we can always get spares without delay and for no other reason."

Fitted with pressed steel disc wheels, the Railmotors, as they were known, initially retained the mudguards, lights and bonnet of the standard lorry, but gradually these items were removed, and they acquired much more the appearance of a London Underground train.

There is a plaque dedicated to the memory of Colonel Stephens at Tonbridge Station
There is a plaque dedicated to the memory of Colonel Stephens at Tonbridge Station

Stephens died in 1931, but his Railmotors remained in service until 1937.

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