The Black Country’s first passenger-carrying tramways

In the 1860s a number of private companies wanted to construct tramways to allow them to operate horse-drawn trams along the roads of our towns and cities. Local authorities were greatly opposed to this, because it was their responsibility for the upkeep of the roads, and so it would be unacceptable to allow private companies to dig-up their roads in order to lay tramlines.

A number of local authorities, including Birmingham, appealed to the government for legislation to control the construction and working of tramways, which resulted in the passing of the 1870 Tramways Act. This authorised local authorities to construct tramways in response to orders from the Board of Trade, and then lease them to private operators. At that time, local authorities were not allowed to run passenger-carrying tramways themselves.

On the day following the passing of the Act, a second tramways act covering Birmingham and Staffordshire was passed. It had been promoted by the Birmingham & Staffordshire Tramways Company to lay tramways outside the Borough of Birmingham. The Birmingham & Staffordshire Tramways Act, 1870 authorised the construction of a 4ft. 8½ inch gauge horse-drawn tramway from the Birmingham-Handsworth boundary at Hockley Brook, through Handsworth and West Bromwich to Carter’s Green, where the line forked into two branches. The first went to Great Bridge and Dudley Port, ending near the London & North Western railway station. The other branch went to Hill Top, ending by the Hen and Chickens pub, near the top of Holloway Bank. They were the earliest passenger-carrying tramways in the Black Country, which were operated by the Birmingham and District Tramways Company, formed on 29th July, 1871 to construct and operate the network. The new company was an amalgamation of the Birmingham & Staffordshire Tramways Company and the Birmingham Tramways Company.

The tramway opened on Monday 20th May, 1872, and long queues formed as people waited for a ride on the double-deck horse cars, which provided an hourly service. Twelve cars numbered one to twelve were built for the tramway by the Metropolitan Carriage and Wagon Company Limited, of Saltley. They carried 18 people seated inside and 18 out, and were painted in crimson and cream. By June, eleven of them had been delivered and were in service. The trams were so popular that from the 4th July the service was increased from hourly to half hourly, and horse-drawn omnibuses were running from Birmingham to link with the tramway at Hockley Brook. By August the company was running alternate cars on the route, from Hockley to Hill Top, and Hockley to Dudley Port.

The company promoted another Bill which was authorised by Parliament in 1872. This was the Birmingham and Staffordshire Extension Tramways Act which permitted the construction of an extensive system of lines in the Black Country, but most were never built.

Birmingham Corporation began building its first tramway in May 1873 under the terms of the Birmingham (Corporation) Tramways Order of 1872. The line ran from Colmore Row (then Monmouth Street) to Hockley Brook. It cost £15,000 to build and was completed in August 1873. The company agreed to lease the line for seven years at an annual rent of £910. Services began on 11th September, but all was not well. There were problems with the original track, which had been poorly constructed, leading to disputes with Handsworth Highways Board. The track quickly deteriorated, leading to safety concerns. Many horses were lost after an epidemic at the stables, and the trams were losing money. Many of the company’s omnibuses and some of the trams were sold. The omnibus routes were abandoned, but later operated by other companies.

The Carter’s Green to Dudley Port branch closed at the end of December, 1873 and the track was soon taken-up. The Carter’s Green to Hill Top section closed in January 1875, and by May of that year the weekday service only ran to West Bromwich Market Hall, and to Carter’s Green on Sundays.

Losses continued, and a new company, the Birmingham Tramways and Omnibus Company Limited purchased the assets of the failing business on 1st May, 1876.

The company began to operate trams and omnibuses in Birmingham. The line to West Bromwich closed at the end of June, but a quarter of a mile of track running to Sandwell Road was soon put back into use.

So ended the first tramways to operate in the Black Country, but more would soon follow.

The Black Country’s second tramway system

The second tramway system to operate in the Black Country was centred on Wolverhampton. The Wolverhampton Tramways Company Limited was formed on 14th December, 1876 to construct horse tramways from Wolverhampton, to Bilston, Newbridge, and Willenhall. Powers were sought for the construction of the new tramways by the Wolverhampton Tramways Order, 1877 that had been promoted by the company. Construction was granted under the terms of the Tramways Confirmation Act, 1877, passed on 23rd July, 1877.

A horse-drawn tram at the Newbridge terminus. From 'A Souvenir of Wolverhampton' published by Alfred Barker around 1900.

The following tramways were authorised by the Act:

1. A line from the junction of Newbridge Crescent and Tettenhall Road to a terminus in Queen Square by the statue of Prince Albert.

2. A line from the junction of Market Place and Bilston Street, Willenhall to Queen Street, Wolverhampton via New Road, Willenhall Road, and Horseley Fields.

3. A line from the junction of Lichfield Street and Church Street, Bilston to Queen Street, Wolverhampton via Bilston Road, Bilston Street, and Piper’s Row.

4. A line from the top of Horseley Fields, into and along Railway Street as far as New Street.

All lines would be single track with passing places, except for short sections in Bilston Street and Piper’s Row, also in Queen Square, and Dudley Street. The section in Dudley Street was not to be used for traffic without seeking permission from the Corporation.

The Act also stated that should the Corporation consent to a tramway from Railway Street to Queen Square along Lichfield Street, which was yet to be extended, the company should lay the track and remove the lines in Queen Street and Dudley Street.

The Act gave Wolverhampton Corporation the right to compulsorily purchase the tramways at any time within ten years of the opening, and any time after twenty one years.

The tramways could be used for the conveyance of passengers, and also animals, goods, parcels, and minerals, at the discretion of the company. Passenger’s luggage should not exceed 28lbs. The trams were to be horse-drawn on a 4ft. 8½ inch gauge track. The company was asked to apply for a Provisional Order at the next session of Parliament to authorise an extension of the tramway from Bilston to Moxley, and that an omnibus service should be operated between Bilston and Bradley until the company applied for an order to build a tramway there. As far as is known, the service never ran.

The company’s head office was at 23 Queen Victoria Street, London, and the directors were Sir Wilfred Brett, T. M. Mackay, J. M. Gillies, C. E. Davison, A. J. Lambert, and T. Selby, the company secretary.

The first route to be completed was the one from Queen Square to Newbridge, just short of the Wolverhampton-Tettenhall boundary, before the steep climb up The Rock. The terminus had to be around fifty yards from the toll gate at Newbridge to avoid paying tolls. The Board of Trade carried out an inspection on 30th April, 1878 and the line opened for business on 1st May. The full fare to Newbridge was 2d.

A horse-drawn tram leaving the Queen Square terminus in 1897. Courtesy of David Clare.

Other lines soon followed. The Willenhall route along Horseley Fields and the Willenhall Road through Portobello was completed in May 1878 and opened on 6th June. The Bilston route via Piper’s Row, Bilston Street, and Bilston Road was completed early in July. A trial run was carried out on 3rd July, 1878, and the line opened in the middle of the month.

The first cars put into service were single deckers pulled by one horse, although a ‘chain horse’ was needed to assist the climb up Darlington Street to the terminus. The cars were 18 seaters built by John Stephenson & Company of New York, and 22 seaters built by Henry Hughes & Company of Loughborough.

Soon some double decker cars were purchased from Henry Hughes & Company which were pulled by two horses and seated 22 people on each deck. The cars were mainly used on the busier Willenhall and Bilston routes.

The company’s premises in Darlington Street consisted of the manager’s house and offices facing the street, with an archway leading to the car shed and stables. The manager was Captain Brock who was succeeded in the 1880s by Mr. W. Stimpson. The company had around 45 staff. A second depot was soon built on Tettenhall Road, about a quarter of a mile from the Newbridge terminus. It was entered by a single track up a long driveway, and consisted of a house, a double track car shed, two single track car sheds, and stables. One of the single track car sheds was possibly used as a repair shop because it contained a full length pit.

In 1878 the company obtained permission to build an extension of the line from Bilston to Moxley under the terms of the Wolverhampton Tramways (Extension) Order, and the Tramways Orders Confirmation (No.1) Act, 1878. The line ran from Church Street, along Oxford Street, Bilston to the junction of Moxley High Street and Holyhead Road. Construction took place in 1879, and the line opened soon after the Board of Trade inspection on 19th August, 1879. A small depot was built on the south side of the road near the terminus, and the line was operated by a single car working a shuttle service to and from Bilston. It was based at the Moxley depot.

Although the lines were operated by horse-drawn trams, a successful trial using a steam tram took place in 1881 on the Newbridge route. Details will be found in the next section.

A Board of Trade return for 1882 includes details of the horses and cars. At the time there were 110 horses and 20 cars. Over the intervening years the number of horses fluctuated between 81 and 100. In 1892 a further four double-deck cars were obtained from the Falcon Engine & Car Works, successors to Henry Hughes & Company. They probably replaced four of the original cars which were scrapped. They operated on the Newbridge service and had six windows on each side, and ‘garden’ reversible seats on the upper deck.

In 1894 another car was scrapped, and replaced the following year with a six-window double decker built by George F. Milnes & Company. It was solely used on the Newbridge service.

In 1884 the frequency of operation was as follows:

Newbridge Every 15 minutes with 4 cars.
Bilston Every 15 or 20 minutes with 4 cars.
Willenhall Every 30 minutes with 3 cars.
Moxley Every 40 minutes with one car.

One old car stored at Newbridge had been converted to an open truck which was used to convey materials for track work, and to distribute salt and grit in the winter months.

A view of Queen Square with a horse-drawn tram at the terminus on the right. From 'A Souvenir of Wolverhampton' published by Alfred Barker around 1900.

The British Electric Traction Company (B.E.T.) approached the company with a proposal to purchase the tramways, but without success. By 1898 B.E.T. had obtained a controlling interest in the company, and Wolverhampton Corporation had decided to promote a Parliamentary Bill to build and operate the local tramways itself.

At the annual meeting of the Wolverhampton Tramways Company Limited on the 14th February, 1899, the accounts showed a profit of £5,886, the takings being £13,486, a total of £188 up on the previous year. The total car mileage for the year was 220,053, and 1,791,273 passengers were carried. Mr. Emile Garcke of B.E.T. who took the chair at the meeting stated that Wolverhampton Corporation had given notice under section 43 of the Tramways Act, 1870 to purchase all the tramways within the Borough, and that B.E.T. had come to a provisional agreement with the company to purchase the sections of the tramways outside the Borough, providing that the terms would be similar to those obtained from the Corporation. This was subject to the company being able to obtain Parliamentary powers to alter the gauge to 3ft. 6 inches and for the use of electric traction on the lines.

The company successfully promoted a Bill to obtain the necessary powers, which became law in the form of the Wolverhampton Tramways Act, 1899. In the same year the Corporation’s Bill was passed as the Wolverhampton Corporation Act, 1899. It gave the Corporation the power to reconstruct and electrify the existing tramways within the Borough, and to construct additional tramways within and outside the Borough, all to the 3ft. 6 inches gauge, and to operate them. It also included a clause precluding the Corporation from constructing lines in opposition to B.E.T. outside the Borough. It also granted powers to purchase or lease tramways outside the Borough which formed part of the existing tramways, subject to the consent of the local authority, and of B.E.T. for the lines in Bilston, Coseley, Darlaston, Sedgley, and Willenhall.

After the passing of the Wolverhampton Tramways Act, 1899 the company and the Corporation could not reach agreement on the price to be paid for the tramways. After much discussion and correspondence, the Corporation applied to the Board of Trade for an arbitrator to settle the matter. The Board appointed Sir Frederick Bramwell who oversaw the arbitration meeting at Wolverhampton Town Hall on 20th February, 1900. Everything had been examined by experts acting for both sides. The track was in a bad condition, since little maintenance work had been carried out since the formation of the company. After much deliberation, the arbitrator decided that the tramways were worth £22,500, made-up as follows:

Track - £11,000;  Depots - £7,500;  75 Horses - £1,800;
11 cars, harnesses etc. - £1,200;  Parliamentary costs - £1,000.

Most of the company’s 45 employees were taken-on by the Corporation, as was the manager, Mr. Stimpson. He was retained by the Corporation as manager of the horse tramways, pending electrification, which happened in 1902. The purchase date was 1st May, 1900, but that wasn’t the end of it. The company failed to reach an agreement with B.E.T. over the sale of the tramways outside the Borough. Around October, 1900 the matter was again settled by arbitration. At the last annual meeting of the Wolverhampton Tramways Company Limited, on 11th March, 1901, the company was finally wound-up.

Another horse-drawn tramway opened on 7th May, 1883 which was operated by the Dudley, Sedgley, and Wolverhampton Tramways Company Limited, incorporated on 20th December, 1879. The trams were operated under the terms of the Dudley, Sedgley and Wolverhampton Order of 1880 which allowed the construction of a 4ft. 8½ inch gauge, horse-drawn tramway running from the junction of Snow Hill and Temple Street in Wolverhampton to Wolverhampton Street, Dudley, via Sedgley. The offices were situated in Valley Road, Sedgley, and cars ran every hour and a quarter starting from Wolverhampton at 6 a.m. The journey times from Wolverhampton were 35 minutes to Sedgley, and 60 minutes to Dudley.

The severe gradients around Sedgley were a great handicap to the horses. From the beginning it had been planned for steam traction, which became a possibility after 1884 when an Order was obtained for the operation of steam locomotives. Horses continued in use until 16th January, 1886 when steam took over.

A horse-drawn tram about to pass through Chapel Ash on its way to Queen Square. From 'A Souvenir of Wolverhampton' published by Alfred Barker around 1900.
Horse-drawn trams were also operated in West Bromwich by Mr. B. Crowther, who leased the unprofitable Spon Lane and Bromford Lane lines from Birmingham and Midland Tramways Limited.
In April 1893 the company made an arrangement with Mr. Crowther, who owned a funeral service and a horse vehicle hire business, to use his premises in Paradise Street to house two small sixteen seater, single deck horse cars, which had been purchased from the Metropolitan Carriage and Wagon Company Limited.

Mr. Crowther supplied the horses, and the company began to operate horse-drawn trams over the two routes.

By the middle of 1894, Mr. Crowther had taken the horse tram operation over and was leasing the two lines from the company.

By September he had acquired two more cars and operated a fifteen minute service over the routes on Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays.

Birmingham & Midland Tramways Limited became part of the British Electric Traction Company Limited in January 1900. The company planned to run a unified network of electrically powered trams throughout the Black Country. After the take-over, Mr. Crowther continued to lease the Spon Lane and Bromford Lane lines, and operated his horse-drawn trams for several years.

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