Chester Tramways Company

Chester's standard-gauge horse tramway was owned and operated by the Chester Tramways Company, which was incorporated in 1878 with statutory powers to build the tramway. The promoter (a Mr Parish) had already gained the buy-in of Chester Corporation, so work soon commenced (in 1878), the tramway finally opening opening for business on the 10th June 1879.

The system was only 2.38 miles long, comprising a single line, just under half of which was double track, the rest being single track with passing loops. The line started at Chester General Station, which was itself situated some distance from the city centre, then proceeded southwestwards along City Rd to Foregate St, westwards along that thoroughfare and Eastgate to Bridge St, then southwards to Grosvenor Bridge, where it crossed the Dee, finally turning westwards to the terminus at Curzon St in Saltney. Although eight Eades reversible horse tramcars were purchased to work the line, these were soon replaced with locally built one-horse cars, presumably to reduce the costs associated with the Eades cars, which would have required two horses.

The company struggled to pay a dividend — or at least one high enough to keep the shareholders happy — a situation that ultimately ended, in 1885, with the manager being replaced. A new manager — a Mr Gardner — immediately set about turning the concern around, improving punctuality, service frequency and general smartness (presumably the cars and the staff) and consequently, passenger numbers. One of his tasks involved replacing the entire tramcar fleet, yet again, the locally-built one-horse cars having been poorly constructed.

The improvement in the company's position not only enabled it to pay off its loan debts, but also to raise dividends to 6% and even build a reserve fund of circa £2000, a large sum for the time. It was also able to find the money to expand its services through the introduction of horse buses.

Other than its early travails, and hosting an experimental compressed air tramcar in 1886/7, the CTCo appears to have led a rather uneventful 20-year existence. This was, however, destined to change, as Chester Corporation, which had the right to purchase the undertaking after 21 years (under the provisions of the Tramways Act of 1870), chose to exercise that right, serving the company with the requisite notice on the 18th October 1899. The corporation duly obtained powers to work the tramway (in 1901), taking possession of its new asset on the 1st January 1902; the CTCo received circa £21,000, a respectable sum for what was after all, a very short line.

Acquisition of the tramway was a prelude to reconstruction for electric working, including changing to a narrower gauge (3ft 6ins), conversion work commencing in November 1902. The corporation continued to operate the horse trams pending conversion, then gradually cut them back as the work proceeded. The last horse tram ran on the 27th December 1902 (some histories state the 31st December 1902), the first electric service starting three-and-a-half months later.

Although images of Chester's horse tramway are relatively uncommon, enough have survived to be reasonably sure that the CTCo did not issue uniforms to its staff. Drivers and conductors wore a variety of smart but informal attire, e.g., jackets, shirts and ties, along with the fashionable headgear of the day (flat caps, bowlers and trilbies). No badges or insignia of any kind were worn.

Somewhat unusually, CTCo drivers were apparently expected to take fares as well as drive the trams, though this eventually changed — in 1890 — when boys were employed as conductors, one of whom can clearly be seen in the turn-of-the-century photograph below.

Photographs of inspectors have not survived, and given the small size of the system (2.38 miles), the CTCo may well never have employed them.

Further reading
For a photographic history of the tramway, see 'Chester Tramways' by Barry M Marsden; Middleton Press (2007).


Horse tram drivers and conductors
Chester Tramways Company horse tram in Eastgate
Two trams of the Chester Tramways Company captured for posterity in Eastgate — photo undated, but thought to have been taken around 1885. Photo courtesy of Alan Brotchie, from the collection of the late Harry Dibdin.

Chester Tramways Company horse tram in Eastgate and driver
An enlargement of the above photograph showing the driver of the first horsecar. He is wearing smart but informal attire, along with a style of bowler hat typical for the period, with an upturned brim.

Chester Tramways Company Horse Tram No 4
Chester Tramways Company Horsecar No 4 — with trace horse — pictured at the Saltney terminus around the turn of the century. With thanks to West Cheshire and Chester Council (see link).

Chester Tramways Company horse tram driver and conductor
An enlargement of the above photograph showing the driver (wearing jacket, waistcoat, trousers and a trilby) and his very youthful looking conductor (in jacket, trousers and flat cap). No badges or licences are in evidence. With thanks to West Cheshire and Chester Council (see link).