Birkenhead Corporation Tramways

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 tracks 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 Birkenhead Street Railway Company, and on the 12th October 1879, the Hoylake and Birkenhead Rail and Tramway Company'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 Birkenhead Tramways Company's tracks (circa 6.3 miles), and a new company — the Birkenhead United Tramway, Omnibus and Carriage Company Limited — which took over operation on the 15th August 1890. Birkenhead's other tramway, the Wirral Tramway Company, 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 five 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 in the town 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 yet ready to start reconstruction, the company was allowed to continue running the services, though following a disagreement over the details of this arrangement, 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 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. Although the loss-making Claughton Road route had been replaced six years earlier in 1925, this was not part of a formal tramway abandonment policy.

The undertaking's name was changed to Birkenhead Corporation Transport in 1935, to reflect the changed circumstances, with the last corporation tram running on the 17th July 1937.

Early photographs — and an article from Tramway and Railway World (1901) — reveal that tramcar crews were initially issued with smart double-breasted, lancer-style tunics (made from heavy blue serge) with five pairs of buttons (in 'German silver' and narrowing from top to bottom; see link) and stand-up collars. The collars, cuffs and trouser seams were all piped in scarlet cloth, with the cuffs 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. The piped, drooping-peak caps, bore a small, municipal-device badge, which was worn above a script-lettering grade badge, either 'Driver' or 'Conductor'; all the insignia were nickel. 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 rather dated drooping-peak caps gave way to more modern tensioned-crown peaked caps; these continued to carry the same insignia as previously. Shortly before the tramway closed, the cap badge arrangement (a small municipal -device badge and a grade badge) was changed in favour a large nickel municipal-device 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 life, at which time a switch was made to double-breasted jackets with lapels, which were distinctly naval in appearance. It is uncertain when this change was made, as the vast majority of surviving photographs show tramcar crews in long, double-breasted greatcoats (with lapels). Other than the five pairs of buttons, these garments appear to have been devoid of insignia.

Photographs of inspectors are rare, and the one example known to me (from 1913) indicates that they wore typical tramway inspector garb, namely: single-breasted jackets with hidden buttons (or more likely with hook and eye fasteners), edged in a finer material than the main jacket, and with stand-up collars; the latter carried the designation 'Inspector'; it is however unclear whether these were metal badges or embroidered. It seems likely that the styles of cap mirrored those issued to tramcar crews, which by 1913 were of the tensioned-crown peaked type; the latter caps bore the grade — 'Inspector' — in embroidered script lettering on a brocade hat band, above which a standard municipal-device badge was worn.

As with many tramway systems, women were employed in significant numbers during the Great War to replace male staff lost to the armed forces. The first women were employed as conductresses (six started on 13th September 1915) and by 1917, this had risen to eighty-four, virtually the entire conducting staff. Although six 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 certainly worn, together with wide-crown peaked caps; the latter bore the standard cap insignia.

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).


Motormen and conductors
Birkenhead Corporation Tramways driver and conductor
A commercial portrait of a Birkenhead motorman (driver) and a conductor (No 17). Both men are wearing lancer-style tunics with drooping-peak caps. 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 badges of the type used by Birkenhead Corporation Tramways on tramcar crew caps — nickel.

Birkenhead Corporation Trmawys Tram No 52 and crew
A motorman and a 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
An enlargement of the above photograph 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 a 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 photograph showing a rather informal grouping of motormen and conductors. The photograph 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, which carries a top cover, making it either No 16 or No 17; these vehicles were top-covered in 1903, so the photograph was certainly taken no earlier than this. Author's Collection.

Birkenhead Corporation Tramways conductor and motorman
An enlargement of the above photograph showing a motorman (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; obvious candidates are 'Points Boy' or 'Parcels Boy'. Although the style of uniform is unchanged from that first issued, the caps had by this time clearly been superseded by a more modern tensioned-crown type.

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.

A large municipal-device 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.

Birkenhead Corporation Motors and Tramways Silver Band
Birkenhead Corporation Motors and Tramways Silver Band — photo undated, but probably taken in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Photo courtesy of Gavin Holman.

Birkenhead Corporation Motors and Tramways Silver Band
An enlargement of the above photograph showing three of the bandsmen. Unlike the majority of tramway bands, the men are wearing bespoke band uniforms, heavily embellished with cording and piping, all in a much lighter colour than the main body of the tunic. The caps bear a striped hat band, no doubt also in a contrasting colour, along with what is probably a bespoke cap badge.

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
An enlargement of the above photograph 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, aboard Tramcar No 5 — photo undated, but almost certainly taken during the Great War. Author's Collection.