The tramway from Wolverhampton to Dudley via Sedgley

This is the story of the first ten years of the tramway from Wolverhampton to Dudley, which ran from Snow Hill, Wolverhampton, past the Fighting Cocks and up the hill to the Bull Ring in Sedgley, before travelling through Upper Gornal to Wolverhampton Street, Dudley. It was a difficult route, just over five miles long, with steep gradients and narrow streets to negotiate. Three tramway companies attempted to operate the route, but all failed, success only coming after the British Electric Traction Company acquired the line and converted it to electric traction.

It began in 1879 with the formation of the Dudley, Sedgley, and Wolverhampton Tramways Company Limited which were given powers to build and operate the tramway under the terms of the Tramways Orders Confirmation (No. 1) Act, 1880. Although the company had intended to start from the Post Office in Wolverhampton Street, Dudley, and to run to the Agricultural Hall in Snow Hill, Wolverhampton, the Board of Trade decided that neither terminus was suitable. The narrowness of the road in Dudley meant that the terminus had to be about 66 yards short of the post office, and in Wolverhampton the terminus on Snow Hill had to be near the Temple Street junction, around 88 yards short of the Agricultural Hall, because of the steepness of the road.

The company received another blow because although it had intended to use steam traction, it was not allowed, so horses had to be used instead. However the company was sure that steam operation would soon be allowed and so the track and sheds were built with this in mind.

Work on the line began at the Wolverhampton end in August 1881, and by July 1882 the first three miles had been built as far as Sedgley. The completion date was expected to be in October, and as the local authorities were in favour of steam traction on the line, the company assumed that an application to the Board of Trade before the end of the year, for steam operation, would be successful.

The first of seven cars arrived in November, horses were purchased, and temporary stables were rented for the duration of horse operation. The double deck cars were built by the Ashbury Railway Carriage and Wagon Company, and due to the gradients, had to be operated by three horses. They were finished in a lined chocolate colour with yellow window frames, and seats fitted with comfortable maroon velvet cushions. A trial trip was made over the line on 4th December, and before the month was over, Major General Hutchinson inspected the line on behalf of the Board of Trade. After several modifications had been carried out, permission to operate the line was granted.

The line opened for business on Monday 7th May, 1883, but the steep gradients and narrow roads were difficult for the horses. The journey took about one hour, and a shuttle service was originally used with just one car, so the tram left each terminus at two hourly intervals. By 1884 an extra car was used on the section between Wolverhampton and the Fighting Cocks which resulted in a half-hourly service on that part of the route, and a service of one and three quarter hours on the remainder of the line. The tramway did not prove to be popular because of the infrequent service, which was costly to run.

As intended, late in 1882 the company applied to the Board of Trade for a provisional order to run steam on the line, which was refused because of the narrowness of parts of the route. In 1884 the company applied again for permission to use steam traction and replaced the existing cars with narrower ones having a width of five feet six inches. The plan was to use steam locomotives of the same width. This resulted in the Dudley, Sedgley and Wolverhampton Tramways Order, 1884 which allowed steam tramway locomotives to be used on all but two short narrow sections of the route, unless the roadway could be widened.

By 1885 the company had around seven cars, 42 to 48 horses, and was still loosing money. In August 1885 the company was taken to court by the Inland Revenue for using seven cars while only having licenses for four. This resulted in a fine of five pounds.

Plans were now made for steam operation on the line, but to the company’s dismay it was found that the original cast iron points would have to be replaced with steel points. The worked was carried out by Mr. John Fell, of Leamington who also had the task of enlarging the depot by the Leopard Inn, at Sedgley for steam engines and new cars. Five cars and five engines were ordered, but while work on the line progressed, it was discovered that in some places the rails were between half, and three quarters of an inch out of gauge, which resulted in the closure of the line for about six weeks while the re-gauging was in progress. The line closed on 8th November, 1885.

The tramway locomotives were built by Kitson with inside cylinders 8½ inches by 12 inches, and the double deck cars were built by Starbuck. All had to run on the four feet eight and a half inch gauge, but with a maximum width of five feet six inches, must have been difficult to achieve.

Although Wolverhampton Council gave its approval for steam operation on the line, Wolverhampton’s Borough Surveyor stated that caution was needed at the Snow Hill terminus because of the 1 in 33 down gradient. The Board of Trade inspected the rebuilt line on 1st January, 1886, and permission was given to use steam except at the Dudley terminus because there was not enough room to run the engine around the car.

Operation began on 16th January, 1886, but the company soon found itself in trouble for allowing one of the locomotives to emit steam. At the annual general meeting in 1886 the shareholders were told that the introduction of steam had been successful, takings were up by ten pounds a week, the cost of operation had been reduced by 1.37 pence per mile, and so fares had been reduced accordingly.

The steepness of the gradient at the Wolverhampton terminus nearly led to disaster in November 1886 when a driver failed to restart the engine and left the footplate to see what was wrong. The engine and car then began to move forward gathering speed down the hill. The driver tried to climb back on to the engine but was thrown to the ground. Luckily the tram came to a standstill just seventy yards from the end of the line.

The company continued to loose money and went into liquidation in March 1888. The tramway, including the engines and cars was sold at auction to two contractors, Mr. E. D. Oppert and Mr. J. Fell.

On 18th October, 1889 the newly formed Midland Tramways Company Limited purchased the complete tramway for £44,000 in debentures and shares, and in 1890 began to operate a service. In 1992 work began on improving the track between Wolverhampton and Sedgley.

Unfortunately the company found itself in financial difficulty, and in early 1893 was in the hands of a receiver. The creditors decided to reconstruct the company with reduced capital, and to receive shares to the amount of their debts. The new company called Dudley and Wolverhampton Tramways Company Limited was founded in about September 1893, the General Manager being Mr. Frank Hatch.

The tramway began to operate as before, and at the end of 1894 another Kitson engine was purchased. Around this time windows were added to enclose the upper deck on each of the cars, greatly improving passengers’ comfort. After the work had been carried out, one of the cars was blown over on the section between Sedgley and the Fighting Cocks, during a strong gale. Afterwards one window on each side of the upper deck was left unglazed to prevent it happening again.

By 1897, the hourly service had been reduced to thirty minutes on weekday mornings, and the Sunday service started at 2 p.m. When the Board of Trade carried out a twelve monthly inspection in November 1897, Wolverhampton Council ceased to allow the loading and unloading of cars on the section of the line north of George Street, on Sundays, and expressed the hope that some improved form of motive power would soon be introduced on the line. Before the twelve months had expired, another Board of Trade inspection was carried out by Sir F. Marandin. He advised the Board not to renew the license for steam operation until three steam engines could be made available in really good order. All of the local authorities, Wolverhampton, Sedgley, and Dudley had complained about the service and objected to the renewal of the licence.

The company managed to sufficiently improve the engines to satisfy the inspector, and so in due course a licence was issued. Three of the company’s engines, which had been purchased in July 1898 were elderly second hand locomotives from Huddersfield Corporation Tramways, and could not have been in good condition. After the inspection, the company only had three serviceable locomotives, sufficient to run the bare service, and no spare, so the situation was desperate.

By November 1898, the British Electric Traction Company Limited had decided to purchase the company, and an agreement was signed on 16th January, 1899. The Dudley and Wolverhampton Tramways Company Limited went into voluntary liquidation, and on 22nd April B.E.T. purchased the tramway from the receiver for £18,300 with the object of electrifying the line. Initially steam car operation continued as before, but was soon phased out.

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