Tramways in Britain 1807-1960

The word ‘tram’ is derived from a Scandinavian word for a beam or baulk of wood, the term being used mainly in the North of England and Scotland.

When these beams were used as guides for wagons used in mining or other industrial activities, the tracks laid were referred to as ‘tram ways’.

For our purposes a tramway is regarded as one that transported fare-paying passengers to a regular timetable, and although freight had been carried by this method in Britain since 21st May 1801 when the Surrey Iron Railway opened, it was not until 25th March 1807 that the Oystermouth Railway (running between Swansea and Mumbles) began to offer a service to fare-paying passengers.

Pioneered by Benjamin French, using a converted stagecoach, it was the first such tramway in the United Kingdom, and also the first in the world, to carry fare-paying passengers.

Subsequently, however, tramway development continued abroad, mainly in the United States of America, where many ‘street railways’ were opened.

In Europe initial interest was minimal. Only Paris had what amounted to a tramway, a guided horse-bus in 1853. It was not until the American entrepreneur George Francis Train, arrived in England in 1860 that ‘street railways’ were introduced into Britain.

His first request to Liverpool City council went unanswered, and so he turned to neighbouring Birkenhead. On 30th August 1860 he opened Britain’s first street tramway running between the Woodside Ferry terminal and Birkenhead Park, a distance of 1½ miles.

When Train returned to America in 1862, he had opened lines in London, Darlington and the Potteries, although not all survived for long, but he had demonstrated the potential of the tram and others would follow his lead.

Towards the end of the 1860’s, interest in tramways had increased so much that an Act of Parliament was necessary to reduce the amount of Parliamentary time required to process all the applications.

The first Tramways Act went onto the statute books on 9th August 1870 and provided protection for those local authorities through whom the schemes were promoted.

It was designed to encourage local authority participation in tramway operation and included clauses which gave local authorities the right to veto absolutely, without right of appeal, any proposed tramway construction in their streets; the right to compulsorily purchase any tramway after 21 years; to require tramway operators to pave and repair roadway between, and 18 inches to either side, of the track, and to assess the land occupied by the tracks at full rateable value.

These clauses, understandably, had far reaching effects. In London, for example, the veto was used by the City Corporation to prevent tramway construction in the heart of the city, effectively preventing cross-city tram links.

The 21-year purchase clause meant that little investment was made in the system as it approached compulsory purchase and many became run down.

Operators with double track systems were effectively required to pave the entire road, whilst rates were levied on the extra 18 inches on either side of the track that were required to be paved.

Nevertheless, despite all these obstacles, the tramway began to prosper and by the turn of the century the tram had become a common sight in many towns and cities.

The Horse Tram

The first trams to operate on the street tramways were the horse trams. Because of the reduced friction between metal wheel and metal track, railed transport had one great advantage over the horse bus; a horse could pull a larger vehicle and thus more passengers.

Typically, more than double the number of passengers could ride in a tramway carriage. It also gave a smoother ride than the horse bus, which had to negotiate the often, rutted roads of the time.

As a result horse trams became more popular and potentially more profitable than omnibuses.

The earliest horse trams were built along the lines of the American street car design by companies such as Brill of Philadelphia, and Stephenson of New York, with the first English company being that of George Starbuck of Birkenhead.

Although improvements were continually made in their design, the main drawback was the need to maintain a large stable of horses for only a few tramcars.

Horse tram operators calculated that an average of 10 horses was required for each tramcar in service, which meant that a small fleet of only ten tramcars would have required 100 horses to operate it.

Needless to say, that the feeding, grooming and stabling of these animals ate into the profits of the tramway company to such an extent that hardly any of them made a great profit. What was needed was a more reliable and efficient motive power.

The Steam Tram

Although steam technology had been pioneered on the railways, the use of steam on the roadways had been severely hampered by the Locomotives on Highways Acts, which had been intended to stop the heavy steam powered vehicles from churning up the roads.

When steam trams were first considered they, too, were deemed to be covered by these Acts. A further problem was that when the Tramway Act of 1870 had been drafted it had been assumed that the motive power would be by horse and any other method needed approval by a Special Act of Parliament.

Once again this form of traction was pioneered abroad. In America, steam trams had been used on the New York and Harlem line from 1831, but with little success.

They were used in Philadelphia between 1859 and 1861, but it was not until 1873 that the first steam tram was tried out in London, although the power it produced was barely enough to move itself, let alone haul a passenger carriage.

The first successful carriage of fare-paying passengers in the United Kingdom was between Handsworth and West Bromwich on the 8th January 1876, by a locomotive designed by John Downes of Birmingham, but built by Hughes & Company of Loughborough.

Even though existing legislation restricted the development of steam tramways, a loophole in the law allowed experiments with steam to take place.

Proposed tramways that ran alongside an existing road were not covered by the current legislation, and it is interesting to note that all the early steam lines were either roadside or rural tramways (such as the Swansea and Mumbles Railway and the Vale of Clyde Tramway, both of which adopted steam power in 1877).

New legislation, in the form of the Use of Mechanical Power on Tramways Act of 1879, opened up the use of steam tramways for urban areas, but they were still subject to strict provisions, which included governing the locomotives to ensure that they did not exceed 10 mph, all working parts had to be enclosed to within 4 inches of the roadway and no visible smoke or steam was to be emitted.

The additional power afforded by the locomotives meant that they could haul larger loads and for a longer time than even a team of horses could.

The steam locomotive, hauling a trailer car, was preferred to the self-contained steam tram. It became common practice by some operators to couple several carriages together to form a road train, although this was not condoned by the Board of Trade, and eventually larger trailer cars were constructed.

On the 26th June 1883, one such car, a double-decker seating 60 passengers and constructed of steel, with the bogies at each end for increased stability, was introduced on the South Staffordshire and Birmingham District Steam Tramway Company’s line between Handsworth and Darlaston.

The largest trailer cars produced were for the Wolverton and Stony Stratford line in 1888 and seated 100 passengers.

The steam tram era was to last but a short while. Although 45 steam tramways were opened in the 1880’s, not one was opened in the 1890’s, instead, the advances made in electric traction made the steam trams obsolete virtually overnight.

The Electric Tram

Experiments with electric traction had taken place around the world in the early part of the 1800’s.

In the United Kingdom, Robert Davidson built an electric locomotive that was demonstrated on the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway in 1842, but, because all the early electric vehicles were propelled by battery power that had limited capabilities, interest in electric power as a motive source waned.

Werner von Siemens demonstrated the first practical application of electricity to the movement of people in 1879, when he constructed a narrow gauge line for the Berlin Industrial Exhibition.

The train comprised a four-wheeled locomotive pulling three passenger cars capable of carrying six passengers each and operating on the third rail principle whereby the current is supplied by a third rail and returned via the running rails, the locomotive completing the circuit.

By the middle of the 1880’s, the United Kingdom had witnessed many demonstrations of the electric traction principle, including the Volk electric railway at Brighton; in Ireland at the Giants Causeway and at the Bessbrook and Newry Tramway; at Blackpool, which introduced the conduit system in 1885, although problems with salt and sand led to a conversion to the overhead system in 1899, and the Ryde Pier Tramway in 1886.

In June 1890 an electric line was constructed in the grounds of Craiglockhart in Edinburgh, which differed from usual by using an overhead wire to distribute the circuit.

Although this line closed in November 1890 at the end of the exhibition, having carried in excess of 15,000 people, the principle of an overhead electric tramway had been established.

When the Roundhay Park tramway opened in 1891 in Leeds, it operated on this principle and demonstrated the simplicity and efficiency of this system.

Subsequently this design became the normal mode of operation for most of the electric tramway systems, although not all local authorities appreciated the unsightly overhead and support equipment necessary.

As a result several alternative methods were tried (including accumulator trams, conduit systems, and surface contact systems), but none were as simple and easy to operate as the overhead method.

Even so, the rate at which new tramways were constructed fell dramatically in the early 1900’s. By 1910 there were over 300 tramway operators, but in the period from 1910 only five more opened.

Part of the reason was that some tramways had been built in areas that could not provide sufficient passenger numbers to repay the enormous costs of construction and to satisfy eager shareholders.

Consequently, the tram, on its fixed route, built at great cost, totally inflexible and unable to move to accommodate passenger numbers, lost favour to the more mobile motorbus and to some extent the trolleybus.

By the 1920’s, the motorbus had become more reliable and offered more flexibility than the tram and was seen as the transport of the future by some operators.

In 1917 the trams of the Sheerness & District Electric Power and Traction Company were replaced by motorbuses, the first abandonment of an electric traction system in the United Kingdom.

The tramway, however, continued to be a major part of the transportation system, but as overhead and track wore out, consideration was given to the enormous costs of replacement and many operators chose instead to replace the trams with motorbuses (or trolleybuses).

It is interesting to note that tramway passengers peaked in 1928 when over 4,000,000,000 passengers were carried, but subsequently fell year after year, as more and more services went over to motorbus operation.

The following decade saw more tramway abandonments in the United Kingdom than any other, and it was probably only the intervention of the Second World War in 1939, that led to the extended life of many systems.

Following the cessation of hostilities, the postwar price of many raw materials began to rise and it soon became uneconomic to replace worn out track and overhead.

The final nail in the coffin must have come with the nationalisation of electricity supplies in April 1948 that removed the source of cheap electricity for many undertakings, who had owned their local power company.

By then, however, there were relatively few street tramway systems operating, and in 1962 the last of all, that of Glasgow Corporation, closed for good, leaving only the Blackpool Corporation system as sole survivor.

In October 1963, Blackpool closed the entire tramway system, and for a few months, the United Kingdom did not have a single electric tramway operating.

Blackpool re-opened the Promenade and Fleetwood sections of the tramway for the following summer season, and the system still remains today as a tribute to the Golden Age of British Tramways.

In producing this history reference has been made to the following source;
The Tram Book (Paul Collins,, Ian Allan 1995).