Wolverhampton Corporation Transport 1900-1969

Early references to stage coaches in the Wolverhampton area date from around 1783, although it is likely that carriers’ wagons provided a rudimentary service even earlier (documented evidence exists of a thrice-weekly service between Birmingham and Wolverhampton in 1781).

By 1818 travel by stagecoach from Wolverhampton to destinations as diverse as Bristol, Manchester and London, was possible.

The first recorded omnibus service in Wolverhampton dates from 1833, when George Bayley ran a nine-seat coach.

In 1835 John Doughty commenced running between Birmingham and Wolverhampton, and, in 1836, both the Midlands Omnibus Company and the Birmingham Omnibus Conveyance Company began operating between the two towns.

In 1878 construction of Wolverhampton’s first tramway, operated by the Wolverhampton Tramways Company Limited, began and the first horse-drawn car left Queen Square for Newbridge on 1st May 1878.

Steam trams did, however, operate into Wolverhampton from Dudley, operated by the Dudley, Sedgley and Wolverhampton Tramways Co. Ltd. from 1884.

By the middle of 1899, the successor to the Company, which went into liquidation in 1888, itself went into liquidation and was purchased outright by the British Electric Traction Company.

Wolverhampton Corporation took steps to acquire the portion of the track that fell within the borough boundary.

After neither party could agree on the sale price, an arbitrator was called in; the date of the take-over finally being agreed as 1st May 1900, on which date, at 7.40 am, the first Wolverhampton Corporation Tramways car departed from Tettenhall.

The initial rolling stock comprised 17 horse tramcars and 75 horses, all inherited from the Wolverhampton Tramways Company.

It was found that five of the cars were unfit for further use, which necessitated the purchase of three second-hand cars from the North Metropolitan Tramways Company.

They bore Metropolitan fleet numbers 285, 286 and 288, which were retained by Wolverhampton Corporation, as was the yellow livery.

In 1901, 12 second-hand double-deck open-top horse buses were purchased from Liverpool Corporation (which retained their Liverpool numbers and livery) for use whilst the tramway system was converted to electric traction.

Both the horse trams and the horse buses were withdrawn from service by 1904.

Following the decision to convert to electric traction, the Tramways Committee recommended the overhead system and in November 1900 tenders were invited for the supply of overhead equipment.

By March 1901 the Committee were in receipt of many tenders, but deferred their decision. In April 1901, after further special meetings in which the merits of a surface contact system were explained, the Committee recommended the adoption of the Lorain Surface Contact System.

A short length of track (converted for a trial period of 30 days) from the Cleveland Road Depot (specially constructed in 1901 for the Corporation Tramways Department) to Ettingshall Road proved satisfactory and the rest of the tramway was equipped with this system, although only initially for a trial period of 12 months.

Wolverhampton Corporation remained the only UK operator to adopt this system and apart from a small section used on the Washington DC tramway system for a few months in 1898, it was the only such system in the world.

The first three cars (Nos. 10-12) with Milnes bodies on Lorain-DuPont trucks entered service in February 1902, followed in May 1902 by a further 9 cars (Nos. 1-9) with ERCTW and Milnes bodies on Brill and Lorain-DuPont trucks, although all had been in stock since January 1902.

In July and August a further 12 cars (Nos. 13-18, bodied by Milnes and Nos. 19-24 with ERCTW bodies) all on Lorain-DuPont trucks were delivered to complete the initial fleet.

The first sections of track opened, other than the 1-mile trial track mentioned above, were from Cleveland Road to Victoria Square (opened 30th April 1902); Victoria Square to Coleman Street (opened 1st May 1902); Coleman Street to Newbridge (opened 11th August 1902); Waterloo Road to Molineux (Football Ground)(opened 20th September 1902); Victoria Square to Newbridge (via Chapel Ash)(opened 12th June 1902) and Newbridge to Wergs Road (Dog and Gun)(opened 13th September 1902).

In 1903 the Borough Engineer suggested that the Council should look at motor bus operation as an alternative to the construction of further tramways and in August 1903 a Milnes-Daimler, driven by Milnes’ drivers operated for five days on the Dudley Road route, but nothing came of the venture.

The Wolverhampton Corporation Tramways Act of 1904 provided for more extensions to the tramways but also included powers to operate motorbuses in connection with the tramways.

Under these powers, in 1905, the Corporation decided to institute a temporary motor bus service during the construction of the tramway route to Penn Fields.

Three Wolseley double-deck vehicles were ordered and the service (between School Street and Stubbs Lane) commenced in 1905, although it was discontinued in favour of the trams in 1909 and the buses sold.

Although the costs of operating surface contact tracks were double the costs of operating overhead electric wires, the Council decided to continue with the Lorain System.

This was partly because of the costs likely to be associated with a mixed system of surface contact and overhead tracks and partly because the use of the Lorain System prevented the BET (who used the overhead system) from entering Wolverhampton.

The second stage of electrification was completed with the opening (on 31st October 1904) of the section between Church Street and New Street, Wednesfield.

The proposed route to Penn Fields involved the reconstruction of Queen Square and the widening of Worcester Street and it was not until 10th September 1909 that the service finally commenced, replacing the temporary bus service mentioned above.

Because of Wolverhampton Corporation’s unique surface contact system, there was no through running between neighbouring towns. In 1905 local unrest prompted the Corporation and the BET to investigate the possibility of providing through services.

This resulted in a number of Corporation tramcars being fitted with trolley poles for operation on the overhead system, whilst a number of BET cars were fitted with the equipment necessary to operate on the Lorain surface contact system.

Through running by Corporation tramcars commenced on 9th November 1905 between Wolverhampton and Bilston, with the BET cars not starting service until almost 12 months later in October 1906.

However, in 1909, the BET withdrew its support for the service due to the increased consumption of electricity by the Lorain-equipped tramcars and the failure of the service to bring in the anticipated increase in revenue.

They would only continue the joint operation if the Corporation agreed to convert the section to the overhead system, which was unacceptable and so the through service was discontinued after 10th January 1909.

The first private motor bus service in the borough commenced on 13th March 1911, when Mr. C. L. Wells introduced a service between the London & North Western Railway Station, Wolverhampton and Kingswinford, with a minimum fare in Wolverhampton imposed by the Corporation.

Later that year, on 7th September 1911, Wolverhampton Corporation commenced a 30-minute service between Queen Square and Thorneycroft Lane using a 24-seat Albion.

This was in response to the industrial development of the Park Lane area and was perceived as a more economical option than the construction of a tramway extension. A further Albion was purchased in 1912; the two vehicles being numbered 1 & 2.

Although the Corporation had initially approved a number of services by private operators, including additional services by Mr. Wells, the rise in applications swayed the Corporation into the decision to provide its own local omnibus services and further applications were refused.

In 1914 two more half-hourly services were introduced, to Compton and to the Rose & Crown at Penn, both from Victoria Square.

Four Albion single-deck vehicles (Nos. 3-6) were purchased for the services, but in October of the same year these four chassis were impressed by the War Department and the services had to be suspended.

The advent of the Great War made the provision of services increasingly difficult. Many of the staff were called up and women were called in as temporary replacements, production of coal was reduced which resulted in economy measures in the consumption of electricity.

Consequently tram services were shortened and frequencies reduced. By the end of the War the demands made on the tramway system through shortage of materials and labour left it in a poor condition.

As a result, and to cater for increased passenger traffic, much renewal work was needed and it was proposed that some sections of the previously single track routes should be converted to double track.

With this in mind it was decided to convert the system to overhead supply and in January 1921 work commenced on replacing the Lorain surface contact system.

In the meantime further motor buses had been obtained. In 1917 an Albion chassis was obtained from Mr. C. L. Wells (who had sold his services to the Birmingham & Midland Motor Omnibus Company) along with two Tilling-Stevens TS3’s.

Following the cessation of hostilities four more Tilling-Stevens buses were purchased and postwar extensions to the bus services commenced.

On the 16th January 1923 the Tramways Committee visited Birmingham to inspect the new trolleybus system which Birmingham Corporation had used to replace the tram route to Nechells.

They came away suitably impressed and saw the adoption of the trolleybus system as an economic alternative to the replacement of those tram routes in need of repair or reconstruction. As a result six Tilling-Stevens single-deck trolleybuses were purchased.

They were numbered 1-6 (which duplicated the fleet numbers already used on the motorbuses) and commenced working on the Broad Street to Wednesfield route on 29th October 1923.

Subsequently it was decided to replace all the remaining tram routes with trolleybuses and the Corporation ceased to operate its own tramcars on 26th August 1928.

On the 1st September 1928, however, the Corporation acquired the Bilston local services from the Wolverhampton District Electric Tramways Limited, along with 15 tramcars and Bilston Depot and Wolverhampton Corporation became a tramway operator again after just five days!

This was to last just three more months; the last ex-BET tram ran on the 30th November 1928 and the services were replaced by motorbuses.

By this time the expansion of the motorbus fleet was well under way. Many new services had been introduced in the intervening years and by the end of 1928 the fleet numbers had reached 76, although many of the earlier vehicles had by this time been withdrawn.

When the 1930 Road Traffic Act came into force the Corporation applied for, and was granted, 36 Road Service Licences, 14 for trolleybus routes and 22 for motor bus routes.

The following years saw continued expansion of the trolleybus system even in preference to motorbuses, because of the lower operating costs.

In November 1930 the General Manager reported that the operating costs of the trolleybuses were 13.85 pence per mile against 15.74 pence per mile for motorbuses. With average income at 16 pence per mile it was seen that the trolleybus was the best option.

Consequently the Council ordered 12 new trolleybuses to enable conversion of existing routes to trolleybus working. The policy adopted was to order small numbers at frequent intervals to match each conversion or extension.

Up until now Corporation vehicles had been numbered in separate series’, but as each bus came in for a repaint it was re-numbered by having 100 added to the fleet number; new trolleybuses were numbered from 200 onward and new motorbuses from 300 onward.

In January 1939 the General Manager again reported on the comparative costs of trolleybuses and motorbuses.

This time, with the improvements in efficiency of the oil engine, it was shown that the costs of running motorbuses per mile was now less than the cost of running trolleybuses on a similar basis.

Following the report the Transport Committee, although putting it aside for future reference, decided that, for the time being, they would maintain the trolleybus fleet.

The onset of World War II in 1939 caused untold difficulties for passenger transport operators. Shortages of labour and materials meant that vehicles could not be maintained to normal standards and wear and tear on the fleet became excessive.

Although passenger numbers and revenue were increasing, the extra mileage necessary was limited because of crew numbers and vehicles. An order for 20 new motorbuses was placed with the Daimler Company early in 1941 to supplement an order for ten new trolleybuses placed in 1940, although delivery of all vehicles was likely to be delayed.

By 1943 and with the end of the War in sight, the Council turned its attention to the postwar programmes that would be necessary to counter the damage to the transport system caused by wartime restrictions.

Bearing in mind the report from the General Manager in 1939, the Council debated whether to replace the trolleybuses with motorbuses.

However, the anticipated difficulties with imported fuel supplies in the postwar period led to the conclusion that the trolleybus was still the most satisfactory vehicle for urban routes.

Consequently an order for 69 new trolleybuses and only 28 new motorbuses was submitted.
With the ending of the War circumstances slowly improved, allowing the reinstatement of services which had been curtailed during the hostilities.

By 1946 the Corporation was ready to invest a substantial amount on renewing vehicles and an order for 46 new trolleybuses (later increased to 52) and 19 new motorbuses (later increased to 30) was approved by the Transport Committee.

With the increase in postwar building, especially of new estates, there was a demand for increased frequencies and new services to serve them. However, the shortage of power and materials for the manufacturing industry was causing delays in the delivery of new vehicles.

As a stop gap measure in November 1947, the Corporation hired a number of coaches from local companies, including Don Everall, who supplied 14 coaches, to operate on peak period relief journeys. It was July 1949 before it was possible to dispense with the coaches entirely.

The first postwar trolleybuses delivered were Nos. 434-455 (EJW434-455), Sunbeam W chassis with Park Royal H28/26R bodywork, whilst the first postwar motorbuses were Nos. 384-389 (FJW384-389), Guy Arab III chassis with Brush H29/25R bodies.

Throughout the 1950’s there was a proliferation of new services, all operated by motorbuses, due to inner area clearances and the building of new housing estates.

Five new services were introduced in 1950, three in 1951, one in 1952, two in 1954, three in 1956, two in 1958 and four more in 1959.

At the start of the decade motorbuses consisted of just over one-third of the fleet, but by 1960 they made up almost 50%, with 149 buses compared to 153 trolleybuses.

All the new buses delivered were of Guy manufacture, although bodywork was shared between a number of builders. Nos. 539-570 were Arab III’s delivered in 1950, whilst the remainder were Arab IV’s delivered between 1953 and 1960. 

It was during this decade that passenger numbers peaked, although shortage of staff proved to be a major problem in maintaining the reliability of services.

In March 1961, the continuation of the trolleybus system was again questioned on the grounds of cost.

With much of the fleet needing to be renewed within the next few years and taking into account the now limited production of trolleybuses, the Committee decided to recommend that no more trolleybuses be purchased.

In addition as and when trolleybuses became due for replacement they would be replaced with motorbuses. Within six years the trolleybuses had gone, the final vehicle running without ceremony on 5th March 1967.

In anticipation of the trolleybus replacement an order for 150 buses had been placed with Guy Motors in September 1961, delivery of the vehicles to be phased over the period of trolleybus withdrawal.

All were Guy Arab IV’s or V’s except for two Wulfrunians delivered early on. Wolverhampton Corporation’s last order for double-deck vehicles in 1967 also went to Guy Motors for 30 Guy Arab V’s with Strachan H41/31F bodywork.

On the 1st October 1969, Wolverhampton Corporation Transport Department was merged with the fleets of Birmingham, Walsall and West Bromwich to form the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive, finally realising the Black Country ideal of the BET proposed some 76 years earlier and ending almost 70 years of independent municipal operations in Wolverhampton.

In producing this history reference has been made to the following sources;
A History of Wolverhampton Transport Vol. 1 – Webb & Addenbrooke (Birmingham Transport Historical Group, 1987). A History of Wolverhampton Transport Vol.2 – Addenbrooke  (BTHG, 1995); PSV Circle Fleet History PD6D (1982).

Tram Fleet List 1900-1928 | Trolleybus Fleet List 1923-1967 | Bus Fleet List 1905-1969 |