Birkenhead Corporation Tramways

History
The predecessor to Birkenhead Corporation — Birkenhead Commissioners — became a tramway owner on the 21st November 1864, when it leased its newly built standard gauge tracks at Woodside Ferry to the Birkenhead Street Railway Company; these effectively formed a short extension to the BSRCo's main line, but nevertheless, they made Birkenhead the first local authority in the British Isles to own a tramway. The process was repeated on the 6th September 1873, this time connecting to the Hoylake and Birkenhead Rail and Tramway Company's 'Docks' line, and once again on the 19th January 1878 to the Wirral Tramway Company's New Ferry route.

Birkenhead was incorporated as a County Borough in 1877, a year that also saw the formation of a new tramway company — the Birkenhead Tramways Company — which acquired the BSRCo, and on the 12th October 1879, the HB&R&TCo's 'Docks' line. The latter however, was to have serious consequences for the company, as competition from the Mersey Railway Company, principally the opening of its tunnel under the Mersey, led to a dramatic fall in passenger numbers, and ultimately, liquidation. The tramway system was however rescued by a combination of the corporation, which bought the BTCo's tracks (circa 6.3 miles), and a new company — the Birkenhead United Tramway, Omnibus and Carriage Co Ltd — which took over operation (on the 15th August 1890). Birkenhead's other tramway, the WTCo, whilst less affected, also felt the cold winds of competition, and on the 11th March 1895, the corporation once again stepped in, purchasing the latter's tracks (circa 3 miles) and granting them a 21-year lease. This proved to be a less-than judicious move, as the WTCo's tracks required renewal, and less than 5 years later, the corporation would have to put its hand in its pocket once again, this time to buy the WTCo out of the ridiculously long lease.

By the late 1890s, the corporation was set upon converting the tramways to electric traction, and operating them as a municipal concern. Reconstruction started in 1900, the corporation having reached agreement with the WTCo to terminate its lease at the end of 1899. However, as the corporation was not ready to start reconstruction then, the company was allowed to continue running the services, though following a disagreement over the precise details, the WTCo withdrew, running its last horse service on the 8th May 1900. The BUTO&CCo, whose own lease expired at the end of 1900, stepped into the breach, taking over on the former WTCo services on the 16th May. With the agreement of the corporation, the BUTO&CCo continued to provide services following the expiry of its lease, the last journey over former WTCo tracks taking place on the 22nd January 1901, and the last horse service of all on the 8th November 1901.

The old horse network was reconstructed for electric traction, with the first electric tramway service, on the New Ferry route, commencing on the 4th February 1901. New lines were added, and the system settled down to a couple of decades of relative prosperity. At its fullest extent, the system totalled 13.75 route miles, comprising lines: northwestwards to Birkenhead North Station and Claughton Village; westwards to Claughton; southwestwards to Oxton, then northwards to Claughton, forming a circular route; southwards to Prenton and Tranmere; and southeastwards to New Ferry.

Following the Great War, the corporation chose to invest in the badly run-down system, supplementing it with its own series of bus feeder routes, whilst keeping competition from bus companies out of the borough. By the late 1920s however, the corporation had decided that buses were the way forward, and on the 28th December 1931, the first tramway route abandonment took place. Whilst the loss-making Claughton Road route had been replaced in 1925, this was not part of a formal tramway abandonment policy.

The last Birkenhead Corporation tram ran on the 17th July 1937.

Uniforms
Early photos — and an article from Tramway and Railway World (1901) — indicate that staff were initially issued with smart double-breasted, 'lancer-style' tunics (made from heavy blue serge) with two rows of five buttons in 'German silver' (nickel; see link) and upright collars. The collars, cuffs and trouser seams were all piped in scarlet cloth, whilst the cuffs were also faced in leather. The collars carried individual nickel initials on the right-hand side — 'B C T' — and an employee number on the left-hand side. Caps were in a kepi style with piping, and had a steeply inclined glossy peak. A small, nickel municipal shield badge was worn towards the top of the cap, above a nickel script-lettering badge denoting the employee's grade — either Driver or Conductor. The Tramway and Railway World article makes great play of the fact that the double-breasted tunics were designed to be worn 'buttoned up', obviating the need for collars and ties, and thus guaranteeing a smart, tidy appearance!

At some point, probably in the mid-to-late Edwardian era, the old fashioned kepi-style caps gave way to a more modern military style of cap with a tensioned crown (top); these caps continued to carry the same insignia as previously. Shortly before the tramway closed, the cap badge arrangement (a small municipal shield badge and a grade badge) was changed in favour a large nickel municipal cap badge, roughly four-times the size of its predecessor.

No change was made to the general style of the uniform until very late in the tramway's existence, at which time a double-breasted, naval style jacket with lapels was introduced. It is however uncertain when this change was made, as the vast majority of photos indicate that staff routinely wore long, double-breasted greatcoats (with lapels) over their tunics. Other than the two rows of buttons, these garments appear not to have carried any insignia.

Photos of inspectors are rare, and the one example shown (from 1913) indicates that they wore typical tramway inspector garb, namely: single-breasted jackets with hidden buttons (or more likely an hook and eye affair), edged in a finer material than the main jacket, and with upright collars; the latter carried the designation Inspector in embroidered script lettering. Caps by this time were in a military style with a tensioned crown, though doubtless kepis were worn in the earliest years; the caps carried the grade Inspector in embroidered script lettering on a hat band, above which a standard municipal shield badge was worn.

As with many tramway systems, women were employed in significant numbers during the Great War to make up for the loss of male staff to the armed forces. The first women were employed as conductresses (six started on 13th September 1915) and by 1917, this had risen to 84, virtually the entire conducting staff. Although 6 women were employed as ticket inspectresses, they appear never to have served as motorwomen. Precise details of the uniforms are unclear, though long, single-breasted, tailored coats were worn, together with the standard cap and badges worn by their male colleagues.

Further reading
For a full history of Birkenhead Corporation Tramways, see: 'The Tramways of Birkenhead and Wallasey' by T B Maund and M Jenkins; LRTA (1987).

Images

Motormen and conductors
Birkenhead Corporation Tramways driver and conductor
A commercial portrait of a Birkenhead motorman (driver) and a conductor (No 17). The above photo comes from a short article, presumably paid for by the uniform manufacturers (Messrs Pearson, Huggins and Co, 51 Scrutton St, Finsbury, E.C), in Tramway and Railway World, 1901. With thanks to David Voice.


Birkenhead tramways badges
Standard script-lettering grade cap badges of the pattern used by Birkenhead Corporation Tramways — nickel.


Birkenhead Corporation Trmawys Tram No 52 and crew
A motorman and conductor with what appears to be a newly outshopped and top-covered No 52, dating the photograph to the summer 1904. Photo courtesy of the National Tramway Museum.


Birkenhead Corporation Tramways conductor 1904
A blow-up of the above photo showing details of the conductor's uniform, including what appears to be an officially issued belt, something of a rarity for a UK tramway system.


Birkenhead Tramways Small Shield Cap Badge
Birkenhead Corporation Tramways municipal shield cap badge — nickel. Photo courtesy of Dave Wilkinson.


Birkenhead Corporation Tramways Tram No 20 at Woodside
A conductor and motorman pose with Tramcar No 20 at Woodside — photo undated, but certainly taken before 1910 when this car was fitted with a top cover. Photo courtesy of the Tramways and Light Railway Society, with thanks to David Voice.


Birkenhead Corporation Tramways staff photo Edwardian
A depot photo showing a rather informal grouping of drivers and conductors. The photo is undated, though the general 'feel' is mid-to-late Edwardian. The tramcar in the background is one of the G F Milnes-bulit 14-44 series, and carries a top cover, making it either No 16 or No 17; these vehicles were top-covered in 1903, so the photograph is certainly later than this. Author's Collection.


Birkenhead Corporation Tramways conductor and motorman
A blow-up of the above photo showing a driver (Employee No 78) with his dog, a conductor (Employee No 12), and a smartly dressed youth; it is unclear what position the latter holds, as his two-piece grade badge is indecipherable. Although the style of uniform is unchanged from that first issued, the caps had clearly, by this time, been superseded by a more modern military style.


Birkenhead Corporation Tramways Tram No 52 and motorman
A motorman at the controls of Tramcar No 52 in 1932. Photo by M J O'Connor, courtesy of the National Tramway Museum.



Large municipal shield cap badge of the type worn by tramways staff shortly before closure — chrome. This badge is roughly four times the surface area of its predecessor.


Senior staff
Birkenhead Corporation Tramways Tram No 28
A Birkenhead inspector poses for what is presumably a press shot in 1913 with Tramcar No 28, newly fitted with a rather 'Heath Robinson'-looking folding windscreen Author's Collection.


Birkenhead Corporation Tramways inspector 1913
A blow-up of the above photo showing the inspector, whose uniform is typical of tramway practice at this time.


Female staff
Birkenhead tramways conductress and driver
A rare photograph showing a Birkenhead conductress, with motorman, aboard Tramcar No 5 - photo undated, but almost certainly taken during the Great War. Author's Collection.