Brighton Seafront: Sea Views and Victorian Icons – What future for the Madeira Lift and Volks Railway?

Brighton seafront is once again the subject of controversy and arguments which have been hotting up along with the weather. The owners of the Brighton Wheel have been unsuccessfully fighting to extend their stay on Madeira Drive, whilst the owners of the i360 have cemented their position by erecting the centre piece of their development: ‘the world’s tallest moving observation tower’.

The words being used by the developers to describe Brighton’s latest seafront scheme are strangely reminiscent of the past: 

’The i360 will be a beautiful piece of world-class architecture and will create a new contemporary icon for the city to complement our 19th Century icons from the past. Not since our Victorian forefathers built the two piers have we had a new major attraction for the city’

There are other Victorian icons on Brighton seafront. Volks Railway was the first public electric railway in England, and The Madeira Lift, Shelter Hall and Terrace were celebrated for their architecture and design at the time they were built. Various improvement schemes to the eastern seafront, including a lift, had all been rejected because the slope of the sea wall presented special engineering difficulties, and they were all too expensive, but finally the Corporation commissioned and paid for the development, which was opened to the public on the 24th May 1890. The Sussex Daily News reported:

‘The formal ceremony of opening is to be performed by the Mayor, at noon, in the west hall, and at one o’clock the public will be allowed to roam at free will over the light, airy, artistic, and altogether pleasant rooms of the central building, which will be furnished throughout and upon the terraces;

and, on payment of a penny fee, to go up or down the lift from the Madeira-road to Marine-parade which occupies the central tower of the building, and which, no doubt, however much the shelter and comfortable lounge of the halls, the sea view from the terrace, and the cool and shady walk beneath may be appreciated,

will be the most popular feature of the structure to be open to the public to-day…..’

Since then Madeira Drive has become world famous. For years Madeira Terrace has provided a natural grandstand for the many national and international events held there.

The Madeira Lift has continued to carry people to and from Marine Parade, and Volks Railway, now the oldest operating electric railway in the world, is still running along the seafront.

For many Brighton people as well as for the thousands of visitors, Madeira Drive is not only a very important part of our seafront heritage, it is an integral part of contemporary Brighton in the same way as Brighton Pier, Brighton Pavilion, North Laine, and The Lanes.

Just as in the 19th century Brighton & Hove City Council are now having to make serious decisions on the future of Madeira Drive.

Sensitive restoration within a contemporary framework would preserve both its historical importance and its unique function, breathing new life into a much loved Victorian icon.

What do you think?

Editor’s note: The Madeira Lift is now closed – the following information was in the original post: THE MADEIRA LIFT is open for 6 months’ of the year: from Good Friday to the last Sunday in September. 9.30 am to 7.30pm. and is FREE. The entrance on Madeira Drive is in the Shelter Hall; on Marine Parade it is at the ‘kiosk’. Press the button outside to call the lift attendant.

VOLKS RAILWAY runs along the seafront from opposite the Aquarium to Black Rock (for the Marina) with a stop halfway at Paston Place/children’s playground. It is open from Easter to the end of September, and tickets are available from the Aquarium station. Stations and trains are accessible by wheelchair and pushchair.


‘Madeira Lift 1890-1990’ Lewis Cohen Urban Studies Centre 1990
‘Places to Take the Under 5s’ Lewis Cohen Urban Studies Centre 1986

Magnus Volk of Brighton by Conrad Volk
Sussex Daily News 24th May 1890

Copyright © Denise Whittington 2015


One thought on “Brighton Seafront: Sea Views and Victorian Icons – What future for the Madeira Lift and Volks Railway?

  1. I remember my dad use to paint all along the Brighton sea front. I have not seen any work what so ever done on the sea front in years. I think the people responsible for this don’t live here. and if they do they just don’t care. I was born in Kemptown its heart breaking to see how run down its become. who ever is responsible for this should be ashamed. but like I say if you don’t live here you don’t care. Brighton makes a lot of money WHERE IS IT GOING. then everybody blames everybody else. just to drive around Brighton these days is a joke. none of you give a hoot. you have ruined Brighton. heart broken Rosemary brazil


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