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Wolverhampton tram controversy at the start of the 20th century

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: July 24, 2014

  • Wolverhampton Grammar School

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THE bustling centre of Wolverhampton looks very different in these Edwardian picture postcards, kindly loaned by Arthur Gunter of Merry Hill, Wolverhampton.

Few things are as evocative of days gone by as a picture of a tram. Arthur's postcards of Queen Square and Darlington Street show some old trams, but where are the overhead cables that gave them their power?

Wolverhampton was one of the few towns that did not have them and it was a subject that caused much controversy in the early 20th century.

Wolverhampton's very first tram departed Queen Square at 8 o'clock in the morning on May 1, 1878, on its journey to Newbridge. The new line had been built by the Wolverhampton Tramways Company, established two years earlier. This was a private company but Wolverhampton Corporation had the option of taking over the firm within its first 10 years or after 21 years.

Wolverhampton Tramways soon afterwards laid routes to Bilston and Willenhall, and these early tram services were all horse-drawn. The company was keen to improve its service and requested permission from the corporation to operate a steam tram service for an experimental period. Delays meant this did not start until May 1881. It operated for six months on the Tettenhall Road service and was successful and popular with the passengers but despite that the council refused permission for a permanent service. Several influential councillors lived along the route and did not like the smoky steam trams running by their front doors.

The council did relent a little and in 1886 gave permission for steam trams along the line to Dudley, but with an 8mph speed limit within the borough boundaries.

21 years had elapsed by 1899 and Wolverhampton Corporation then took over the service. They planned wholesale changes.

Wolverhampton Tramways had built their network to the standard railway gauge of 4ft 8½in but most tramways used a gauge of 3ft 6in. The new Wolverhampton Corporation Tramways Department planned to convert the network to the narrower gauge and to electrify the service, using overhead cables to supply the power.

The new corporation services began on May 1, 1900, but it would be a few years before electric trams came to the streets of Wolverhampton.

Again there was opposition, led by Charles Mander, who did not want the streets of the borough blighted by unsightly overhead cables and tram poles.

Debate raged as the 19th century turned into the 20th. Those in favour of electricity cited its efficiency and bemoaned the fact that a modern, industrial town such as Wolverhampton had to rely on an archaic horse-drawn tram service. But many were still against the overhead cables.

The matter came to head with the staging of the Wolverhampton Industrial and Art Exhibition in May 1902, held in a number of specially built pavilions in West Park. It was a display of how Wolverhampton was at the forefront of technology and art and it was felt that for visitors to arrive in a horse-drawn tram would be embarrassing. So, Wolverhampton had to have electric trams, but a compromise was reached. They would be trams without overhead cables.

Wolverhampton Corporation adopted the Lorain stud-contact system, whereby the trams picked up their power from electrified studs in the street – and was the only town in the world to use the system.

It was an innovative system, with the studs only becoming "live" when a tram passed over them. The trams were fitted with a 12ft metal skate beneath them and six pairs of electromagnets. The studs in the street were 9ft apart and as the tram passed overhead the magnetic field pulled up the stud, making it live and bringing it in contact with the tram. The stud then dropped back down and switched off but as a safety measure the trams were fitted with a trailing chain that shorted out any studs that stayed live.

There are many tales of horses being killed by live studs but these seem to be largely untrue. In Edwardian days it was by no means unusual for a horse to drop dead in the street, but this was usually from overwork and not electrocution. However, in one instance it may have been true and Wolverhampton Corporation did pay compensation to the Great Western Railway for a horse that was killed.

The Lorain system proved a success and worked well for 20 years but there was one crucial drawback – its uniqueness. With no one else operating the system it was impossible to run through services from Wolverhampton to its neighbouring towns; at some point the change from a Lorain tram to an overhead cable tram had to be made.

Maintenance of the tram service was neglected during the First World War and this was compounded by the Lorain company going out of business so that spares were no longer available. The argument was made to change to overhead cables, lead, ironically, by Charles Mander who had been against them 20 years earlier. Overhead cables were much cheaper to operate and that helped sway the argument. Wolverhampton began changing to overhead cables in 1921.

However, this was at a time when electric trams were beginning to be phased out and just two years later Wolverhampton Corporation began replacing its trams with trolleybuses.

Another picture from Arthur's collection show Victoria Street. The scene has changed a great deal in 100 years but the "Lindy Lou", on the right, still stands. This 17th century house is still remembered as the "Copper Kettle" bakery and cafe.

Our last picture is of the grammar school, founded in 1512 by Sir Stephen Jenyns, the Wolverhampton wool-merchant who was Lord Mayor of London at the coronation of Henry VIII. The school buildings shown on the postcard date from 1875.

Have you any historic images to share with bugle readers? Contact dshaw@blackcountrybugle.co.uk, call 01384 567678, or write to 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.

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