On the 11th February, Antony Ford from Swindon visited us to tell us the story of the Brighton Belle, at one time one of the country’s most famous trains. He explained that for many years he had been fascinated by Pullman trains and had amassed a substantial collection of fittings, fixtures and other memorabilia from many Pullman cars. The Pullman Car Company originated in the United States and the import into Britain of Pullman cars – they were never referred to as coaches – began in the 1870s. The American built vehicles offered high standards of comfort, luxury and service and became very popular with the first all-Pullman express trains being introduced between London and Brighton in 1881. Although generally Pullmans catered for both first and third (later second) class passengers, a new all first-class train, the ‘Southern Belle’ entered service on the same line, using new Pullman cars built in Britain. A British Pullman Car Company had been established in 1882 and during its 80 years of independent existence, operated well over 200 cars with many railways.

In 1932 the Southern Railway, in association with the company, ordered new all-steel cars for use on its several Pullman expresses (such as the Golden Arrow and the Bournemouth Belle). Included in the order were three five-car electric trains for use on the newly electrified line to Brighton. These, known officially as 5-BEL sets,  were the first electric Pullman trains in the world and took over the Southern Belle service, which in 1934 was rechristened as the Brighton Belle. Apart from the war years, this service ran continuously until the end of April 1972. Six of the new cars were first class only and, following Pullman tradition, were given names, on this occasion feminine ones – Audrey, Doris, Gwen, Hazel,  Mona and Vera. The decor of all 15 cars was in art deco style with no two the same. Much use was made of marquetry, using woods from all over the British Empire and the standard of craftsmanship was exceptionally high. Originaly finished in the Pullman Company’s umber and cream livery, the trains were later repainted into British Railways blue and white, which did not really suit them.

For many years the Brighton Belle was regarded as a daily commuter club for actors and other showbiz personalities and Antony showed us a brief newsclip of the very last service with celebrities such as Flora Robson and Jimmy Edwards very much in evidence. By that time, however, the train had become expensive to operate and regarded by many as decidedly old-fashioned.

Upon withdrawal, all the cars were sold and all except one are still in existence, one even finding a new use as a pub. Eventually a new chaitable organisation, the 5-BEL Trust, was set up to restore a Brighton Belle unit in all its glory The Trust has been successful in acquiring six cars and it is hoped to complete restoration by 2016. There remained, however, many technical and other problems to be overcome to ensure that the train complied with the many present-day safety requirements. On completion it is hoped to operate the train on prestigious charter journeys, using a specially modified diesel locomotive to allow it to run on lines not electrified with a third rail.

During the evening we had seen many photographs of the trains and of their exquisite fittings such as panelling, lights and door handles as well as some extracts from news film.

A vote of thanks from Chris Avery concluded a most interesting evening.