The site of the Cliff Lift was originally occupied by moving public walkway which opened in 1901, it was built by the American engineer Jesse Reno. This was called “Reno’s Electric Stairway” when it opened it was unique in the country as other towns had built Cliff Lift’s.
RIGHT: Postcard view of the "Electric Stairway"
The contraption at Southend was the forerunner to the modern day escalators.
This was basically wooden slatted steps attached to a looped chain, driven by a diesel engine with very little safety measures in place, however no accidents were ever reported.
The biggest draw-back to the facility was the fact there was no cover from the elements, it also proved noisy, uncomfortable, a pitched roof was added to "aid the comfort of passengers" who were paying one penny to be lifted up the cliffs.
However the rickety ride could not be overcome, and the fact that you had to stand up instead of sit down was proving unpopular, coupled with the unreliability and the lift regularly needing to stop for maintenance work to be undertaken a replacement was needed.
The current cliff lift was built by Waygood & Company in 1912. (R Waygood & Co Ltd would later become Waygood Otis Ltd, which in turn became Otis Elevators Co Ltd.) in 1912, opening on August bank Holiday the same year, by this time the Corporation (Council) had bought up all the Cliffs area.
LEFT: A cold winters day in 2016
It is a single track twin gauge counterweight rack railway.
The car runs on an elevated 4 foot 6 inch gauge track with the counterweight running on a 1 foot 9 inch gauge track below the car track. The length of the railway is 130 feet (40 meters) climbing from the seafront to cliff top rising 57 feet (17 meters) with a gradient of 43.4% (1 in 2.28). The car could carry 30 people at a time, the traction was supplied by electric motors.
The first major refurbishment of the railway came in 1930, this saw the car replaced whilst being in keeping with the original design the new car had room for 30 people, a general refurbishment of the whole railway was also undertaken.
At the same time as the refurbishment a fairy windmill was built alongside the upper station, the windmill was part of Never Never Land the windmill would be illuminated at night.
Ever since it had opened only basic stations were provided at the top and at the bottom of the cliffs during a major refurbishment program in 1959 it was decided to construct proper stations with covered waiting facilities including seating and lift call buttons.
During the refurbishment the car was also sent away for a new one to be constructed.
Further work during the 1959 refurbishment included replacing the old resistance control gear with one built specially by Ward Lennard.
The power supplied to the counter balanced carriage is supplied by a 25hp 160volt DC motor which is itself supplied by an A.C three phase and single phase generator to the main drive and is released electro-magnetically.
The Cliff Lift remained popular and well used for the next thirty years, then in 1990 with the Cliff Lift reaching 78 years old another in-depth restoration began.
This saw the car again being rebuilt (for the third time) with the most notable change being to the layout of the doors.
The original car was built in 1912, the first replacement of 1930, and the second replacement of 1959 had all had entry/exit doors to the front & rear of the car, the 1990 replacement kept the rear door but had a door to the right hand side this reduced capacity to 18 and also necessitated modifications to the seafront station, externally the car is still more or less aesthetically the same as the original 1912 car.
With a major fault occurring on the Cliff Lift in 2004 the council decided to carry out a major restoration on the 92 year old railway.
LEFT: The 2006 restored car back on its track a few days after returning to Southend.
After applying to the National Lottery later 2004 Southend Council was awarded £1.5 million of Heritage Lottery Funding for the restoration of the Cliff Lift and Cliff Gardens.
Work on restoring the stations commenced in October 2005 but with the restoration of the two stations progressing well a major setback hit the project when the European Union decided to change the designation of the rack railway re-listing it as a cable car.
With the designation change the much stricter legalisation of operating a cable car needed to be met, this saw big delays hit the restoration program as all the new safety implementations and changes to the operating and breaking systems needed to be specially designed and built as a unique one off items, these also had to be in keeping with the style of listed Cliff Lift.
During this delay it was decided to remove further sections of the Cliff Lift for inspection deep inside the structure. After removal of certain sections of the superstructure it was found that parts deep inside the inner structure has corroded and would need to be replaced.
The restoration of the two stations was completed in April 2006 at a cost of £133,000. This saw the flat roofs replaced by Victorian style pitched roofs and the lower stations ramp reduced in angle to make it more disabled/buggy friendly.
The money to restore the Cliff Lift did not allow for any work on the mechanical side of the restoration or for any works relating to the change of designation.
In 2007 Southend Borough Council allocated set aside £300,000 from its Capital Programmes fund to fund the works needed to bring the Cliff Lift back into operation.
In 2008 the Cliff Lift the landmarks track way was “gift wrapped”, this saw a scaffold erected around it this was then wrapped in heavy duty tarpaulins, this was to stop any more damp weather attacking the exposed inner elements of the structure it also allowed the restoration crews to work in any weather conditions inside the tented structure.
In 2009 it was the turn of the car to begin restoration, it was carefully lifted from the track and placed on to a specially adapted low-loader so that the load remained balanced and did not put any stress on the antique car.
The rebuilt car returned to Southend on Monday 22nd March 2010 the body of the car was completely rebuilt to comply with all current disability laws the cost of restoring the car totalled £650,000. It was returned to the rails the following day. The body is new build whilst the cassis is the original one from the railway.
The Cliff Lift was re-opened by the Mayor of Southend on Tuesday 25th May 2010. The first major use of the restored Cliff Lift was the Southend Air Festival just five days later.
In 2011, the council announced it was looking at volunteers or a charity to help run the Cliff Lift so that it could run longer throughout the year.
The volunteers would be given full training to operate the historic structure, whilst the council would retain maintenance, if a registered charity took charge they would have been able to engage in a profit share scheme.
The Cliff Lift was continued to be operated by the Council throughout the 2011 season and in to the 2012, however on Thursday 26th May 2012 a fault developed with the lift resulting in it being out of action for the weekend of the towns last airshow.
The Cliff Lift remain out of action for three weeks as it is of a unique design so parts can not be picked off the shelf, but they need to be specially ordered, the sheer cost of having parts built and stored on a shelf for many years is not cost effective, as some parts might never break, so having them made to order will be more cost effective in the long term.
The Cliff Lift operated well until 1st August 2016 when it broke down a few feet from the upper station, the car operator and three passengers had a 40 minute wait whilst fire fighters rigged a triple extension ladder and safety equipment to bring the passengers out one at a time, when all safely out a team from the Council carefully retrieved the car back to the station, they then set about fixing the fault.
RIGHT: The restored Cliff Lift.
The Cliff Lift went back into service but during 2017 it again developed a fault which knocked it out of service for most of the year.
When the fault was traced and repairs carried out, it was announced that it would be manned entirely by a team of volunteers.
However it was soon to be under threat again in what could have seen it destroyed…
The summer of 2018 will be very fondly remembered for it being a long hot summer, however whilst we were all enjoying the weather the parks and cliffs were like tinder boxes and then on Monday 2nd July 2018 the unthinkable happened…
The dry grass alongside the historic Cliff Lift caught fire, thankfully the fire brigade was very quickly on scene and were able to douse the fire before it had a chance to take hold.
Lift operators is responsible for closing the doors and opening the doors along with starting the car at either station, however the decrease in speed as it approaches either station and the final stop is fully automated.
Safety systems include emergency breaking should there be a power failure and microswitches attached to the door, so should it be opened whilst in motion the emergency break will be deployed to stop the car, it will then proceed to the closest station slowly for inspection.
The volunteers collect fares and issue tickets, they also operate the Cliff Lift and chat to passengers about the history of the cliff lift.