Steam Tramway Locomotives in the Black Country

The first steam tramway locomotive to run in the Black Country was built by Henry Hughes & Company, of Falcon Works, Loughborough in 1875. The locomotive had been designed by Mr. John Downes, iron merchant and licensee of the Red Lion, in Soho Road, Handsworth, who had the locomotive built at a cost of £600. He claimed that his patented design met all of the requirements of the tramways acts, including consuming its own smoke, and running quietly.

In December 1875, the locomotive was displayed on the Red Lion forecourt, and on 7th January, 1876 it ran on the track of the Birmingham & District Tramway from Soho Road, to the depot at Tildasley Street, West Bromwich. Mr. Downes leased the unused section of the line from Carter’s Green to Hill Top in order to carry out a series of trials with his locomotive. On the following day, the locomotive, coupled to an ordinary horse car, travelled to the Red Lion to pick up a group of invited guests who were taken to the New Inns, Holyhead Road, Handsworth, for lunch.

Other trials were carried out, but they were disapproved of by West Bromwich Council, who informed Mr. Downes that the trials had to cease before Thursday 27th January, 1876. On Wednesday of that week, the locomotive travelled to Birmingham and successfully climbed Hockley Hill, but had difficulties near the top of Snow Hill due to the slippery state of the rails.

Mr. Downes considered the trials to have been a complete success, and would have liked to open a service on the line. Unfortunately the council were strongly opposed to such an idea, and so the trials of the locomotive came to a premature end.

Around this time, Henry Hughes & Company took out a patent for a steam tramway locomotive, and a trial was held in Leicester on 27th March, 1876, and in Birmingham on 2nd July, 1880. John Downes claimed that the patent infringed his patent rights, but was ignored by Hughes, who founded Hughes's Locomotive & Tramway Engine Works Limited, to build locomotives. In 1885 Downes took the company to court, claiming £20,000 damages. The case was heard at Birmingham Assizes in September, but Downes’ claim was unsuccessful. A Henry Hughes tramway locomotive also features in the next part of the story.

A second and much longer trial

The Wolverhampton Tramways Company Limited had wanted to use steam tramway locomotives, instead of horses, from the beginning, but permission could not be obtained. Many local authorities, and many local people were against steam power because of noise, and smoke. In 1880 the company obtained permission to run steam trams under the Wolverhampton Tramways (Mechanical Power) Order, 1880, which was confirmed by the Tramways Orders Confirmation (No. 1) Act, 1880. This allowed the company to operate tramways using steam or any kind of mechanical power, subject to the approval of Wolverhampton Town Council.

The council agreed to a trial of steam operation on the Tettenhall route for a period of six months, and a steam tramway locomotive was hired from the manufacturer, Henry Hughes & Company, at the rate of 6½ pence per mile. The tram arrived in the town on 24th December, 1880 and was taken to the Newbridge Depot. Several trial runs took place in January 1881, and on 28th January the line was inspected for steam operation by Major General Hutchinson, R.E. on behalf of the Board of Trade. He gave his permission for steam operation on the route, subject to a couple of modifications. They consisted of inserting a loop at the Queen Square terminus, to allow the proper reversal of the engine and cars, and a modification to the car brakes, so that they could be operated from the locomotive’s steam brake. A gong had to be fitted so that the conductor could inform the driver when to stop and start.

A simplified map of the Newbridge route.

The loop at Queen Square was inserted, and two cars were modified for use with the steam locomotive, but it seems to have taken sometime for the work to be carried out. By the middle of May the Board of Trade certificate had been received and the first trial run took place on the evening of the 17th May. The trial was supervised by the Manager, Captain Brock, and watched by Mr. Scott Russell, a representative of Henry Hughes & Company. It was decided that the engine could be operated with ease at a speed of six miles per hour.

The engine was then put into regular use on the Tettenhall route for the next five and a half months. It worked well, carrying 70,360 passengers, and travelling 7,857 miles. On several occasions both of the modified cars were pulled by the engine up and down the route.

The journey time from Queen Square to Newbridge was thirteen minutes, seven minutes faster than the horse cars. It proved to be very popular with passengers, but the council would not allow an extension of the trial, which had to cease on 3rd November.

The newspapers noted that almost everyone outside the council was in favour of steam working on the route, and a petition in favour was signed by over 2,300 people and handed to the council. Unfortunately the council refused to reconsider the matter, and so steam working ended on the Wolverhampton Tramways Company’s lines.

From The Engineer, 2nd January, 1880.

The Hughes locomotive used in the trial is likely to have been one of five which had been returned to the company in early 1880, after a trial in Paris. The engines had a horizontal boiler, inside cylinders, four-coupled wheels, and weighed about 6¾ tons in working order. The cylinders were 7 inches in diameter, with a stroke of 12 inches, and driving wheels of 2 ft. 6 inches diameter.

They were fitted with the Hughes’ patent condensing system which condensed the exhaust with a shower of cold water, pumped into a condensing chamber. Coke was used as the fuel to prevent smoke, and steam and hand brakes were fitted, with duplicate controls at each end of the engine.

The enclosed body had a curved roof, six window openings on each side, and two at each end, with a door which also had a window. Skirts were fitted around the engine to within four inches of the rails, to comply with the Board of Trade regulations, and couplings were fitted to each end. 

The story of steam trams continues in the following sections:
Part 2. The Black Country’s first extensive steam powered tramway
Part 3. Birmingham and Midland Tramways Limited
Part 4. The tramway from Wolverhampton to Dudley via Sedgley
Part 5. Dudley and Stourbridge Steam Tramways Company Limited

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