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The first passenger funicular railway in Britain was opened in the seaside town of Scarborough in 1875 by the Scarborough South Cliff Tramway Company, linking The Spa and seafront promenade to the South Cliff. It would be the first of five cliff railways for the popular resort. Designed by William Lucas and built by the Crossley Brothers of Manchester, the original system was powered by seawater pumped by two Crossley gas engines and operated by a brakeman in the top station; the system was later replaced by steam engines in 1879 and then electric in the 1940s.

View of the cliff lift from below. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The cultural origins of the cliff lift

Spa waters were discovered in the cliffs in the 1620s by Mrs Thomasin Farrer, a member of the gentry, who noticed the water stained the stones russet-brown. Scarborough soon became fashionable amongst the upper classes for the waters perceived curative effect. By the end of the century Scarborough was a popular seaside resort: in 1700 a local businessman, Dicky Dickenson, opened the first ‘spaw’. Lodging houses and hotels were formed in Georgian times and a popular music hall and saloon were added in the Victorian period. There were, however, problems with accessibility for an increasing number of visitors due to the seafront being next to the cliffs. In the 1820s a bridge had been built to connect the resort to the town centre. Towards the end of the century, technological improvements in railways meant that funiculars could be utilised to help visitors navigate the resort. 1400 passengers were carried on the first day of business on 6th July 1875, allowing them to avoid walking the steep 224 steps to the top, for just 1d. A visitor to the resort commented on its effectiveness at the end of a day by the seafront, “The anthem played by the band was the signal to go, and moving southward, much as we felt inclined to linger, reached the Cliff tramway, and were in the space of minute placed safely and without fatigue on the top of the cliff” (The Dundee Evening Telegraph – 24 June 1881). The success of the cliff railway influenced the construction of other funiculars across the country.

The roof of the tramway read ‘224 steps avoided for 1d’. Victorian view of the Children’s Corner on South Bay Beach, unknown artist. Source: Creative Commons License.

The cliff lift in modern day

The surrounding South Cliff Gardens, The Spa, and the cliff railway are all grade II listed. The Spa is now a conference and entertainment centre and the lift runs into the evenings when there are events on.  

Visitor information:

The cliff lift has varied open times, but is usually open between 10:00 and 17:00.

Prices single/return: Adult £1/£1.60; Child 60p/£1; under 5’s free.

Another funicular, The Central Tramway, is also still in operation, connecting Foreshore Road and Marine Parade. For more details see here:

Find out more:

D. Fowler, Scarborough Snippets (Online, 2013).

Stories from Scarborough, Creative Archive Blog by Sarah Coggrave:

The Friends of South Cliff Gardens community group website:

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