Birkenhead Street Railway

The Birkenhead Street Railway Company was the first true street tramway in the British Isles, opening for business on the 30th August 1860. Whilst some have claimed this accolade for the 'Oystermouth Railway or Tram Road Company', which began carrying passengers on the 25th March 1807, this hardly qualifies as a street tramway, though it did eventually become one over a century later (the Swansea and Mumbles Railway).

The BSRCo was promoted by American entrepreneur George Francis Train, who was also the man behind several other early street railways in Britain, including three separate lines in London (Marble Arch Street Railway; Surrey Side Street Railway; Westminster Street Railway), one in Darlington (Darlington Street Railway) and one in Stoke (Staffordshire Potteries Street Railway). The rails used on all these lines were 'step' rails, the space between them being lower than the main road surface, a design which inevitably invoked opposition from the influential carriage-owning classes, especially in London, where Train seems to have taken personal pleasure in aggravating the establishment; as a consequence, all three lines were closed within 15 months of opening.

In order to finance and build his proposed tramway in Birkenhead, Train formed a company — the Birkenhead Street Railway Company — on the 7th May 1860, construction starting two months later with the blessing of Birkenhead Improvement Commissioners (the local authority). The initial 1.5-mile, horse-drawn line, which was opened on the 30th August, ran from Woodside Ferry on the River Mersey — via Shore Road, Argyle Street and Conway Street — to the entrance to Birkenhead Park. The tramway was built to the rather odd gauge of 5ft 2ins, which appears to have been a mistake due to differences in the way gauges were measured in the USA and Britain, 5ft 2ins in the USA being standard gauge, but measured to the outside of the rail rather than the grooves where the wheel flanges ran, as per British practice.

Train sold his interest in the BSRCo to other shareholders at the end of 1860, leaving the company to grapple with a legacy of hastily laid 'step' rails, over which they did not have exclusive usage rights. Although the company was not in good financial health, it did manage to raise enough money to build an extension of the line southwards from the Park Gates to Oxton, which was opened in late August 1861, as well as a new line from Woodside Ferry approach to Argyle Street — via Bridge Street and Chester Street —which replaced the Shore Road line.

The company's lack of exclusive rights to use the track was to have serious repercussions, when on the 30th January 1862 a local omnibus proprietor — Thomas Evans — started to run vehicles (with flanged wheels) over them. This led to all sorts of chaos, the company eventually dealing with the situation by granting Evans a lease to work the services from the 10th March 1862. However, the company was by now in financial difficulties, and a failure to pay a fine — due to contempt of court — led to the tramcars being seized by the bailiff, on or around the 5th August 1862, all services stopping as a consequence. After a short hiatus, during which the various parties evidently reached agreement, services were restarted on the 18th August, but were now worked by a new lessee, a Mr Charles Castle.

The unsatisfactory situation with respect to exclusive use of the rails was resolved on the 20th June 1863 when the Commissioners obtained powers, under the the Birkenhead Improvement Commissioners Act (1863), to enable them to authorise or construct tramway tracks, and to grant access to them as they saw fit. Following this, agreement was reached between the company and the Commissioners (in May 1864), which resulted in a much-needed injection of capital (via James McHenry), including a major investment in the track, which was converted from 'step' rail to 'grooved' rail, and at the same time was regauged to 4ft 8½ins. The line along Argyle Street was lifted, a new line being built along Price Street and Vittoria Street, as well as one from Conway Street to Woodside Ferry via Hamilton Street, which effectively created separate out and back lines between Woodside Ferry and Park Gates. The system was converted in two stages (opening September 1864 and September 1865), and was complemented by a short extension from Woodside Ferry Approach into Woodside Ferry, which opened on the 21st November 1864; the latter was owned by the Birkenhead Improvement Commissioners, making them the first local authority in the British Isles to a own a tramway. Operation was once again taken over by the company, the newly rebuilt system now totalling circa 2.5 miles.

Despite these major changes, the company continued to struggle financially, having made a major outlay in reconstructing the tramway, and at the same time having fought expense legal battles with various opponents; it did, however, eventually manage to secure some concessions from the Commissioners (in relation to charges the latter made for street maintenance), which along with various other steps, placed operation on a firmer footing.

Although the company was turning a profit by the 1870s, it never paid a dividend on its ordinary shares, and at several junctures, the tramway was offered for sale. In 1876, one of these periodic offers bore fruit, new promoters stepping in. The old company was dissolved by an act of parliament — the Birkenhead Tramways Act (1877) —on the 2nd August 1877, the act also authorising the incorporation of a new company to take over, the Birkenhead Tramways Company, as well as the construction of new lines.

Although the opening year of the tramway was by definition 'early', it was not too early for the odd photograph to have been taken, especially as its opening was a historic event. The photograph below reveals that conductors were provided with single-breasted jackets bearing titled buttons (see link) and tall kepi-style caps; the latter appear to have carried a large badge (of unknown pattern). A wide diagonal leather strap — like a bandolier — was also worn, probably to carry a satchel or money bag. Staff working all Train's street railways are known to have worn uniforms (likened by contemporary commentators to those worn by the Rifle Brigade), and these were probably Oxford grey.

Further reading
For a detailed history of early street railways, including Birkenhead, see: 'Pioneers of the Street Railway in the USA, Street Tramways in the UK…and elsewhere' by John R Stevens and Alan W Brotchie; Stenlake Publishing Ltd (2014).


Horse tram drivers and conductors
Birkenhead Street Railway
A famous shot of Birkenhead Street Railway Car No 2 taken on the opening day, the 30th August 1860, at the junction of Argyle Street and Price Street. George F Train, the pioneer of horse-drawn tramways in the UK (top deck, extreme left), adopts a somewhat theatrical pose with arm outstretched, whilst the boy on the extreme right (upper deck) is James Clifton Robinson, later chairman of London United Tramways. The conductor stands on the front platform (lower right), and appears to be wearing a uniform with a cap bearing a large badge, though details are very unclear. Photo courtesy of the Tramways and Light Railway Society, with thanks to David Voice.