When Plymouth had steam trams

by Brian Moseley
Published December 2012

The Plymouth, Devonport & District Tramways Act received the Royal Assent on July 24th 1882. It authorised the formation of The Plymouth, Devonport and District Tramways Company, of which the principal promoters named in the Act were John Freeman, Paul Wallace Sharp and William Fairmaner. The gauge was to be 3 ft 6ins and no carriage used on the tramway was to exceed 5ft 6ins in width.

Before the Company could make a start on any of the proposed Town Street into Treville Street, then along Exeter Street and tramways it had to deposit certain moneys with the respective Embankment Road to Laira where it would cross the Great Corporations of Plymouth and Devonport. Firstly it had to Western Railway. It would then continue along the Exeter prove that £30,000 worth of capital had been properly issued Road to Plympton, where it would terminate in the yard of and accepted. Secondly, it had to deposit in joint accounts the Plymouth Inn in the Ridgway, held with the respective Corporations, £6,000 in the case of the third tramway would start at a double junction with the Plymouth and £4,000 in the case of Devonport. During the other line 1 in Russell Street and line 2 in Cornwall Street. progress of the work, the money could be repaid to the From there it would run along Bedford Street, Westwell Street, Company in proportion to the work carried out. Princess Square, Lockyer Street, St George’s Place, Millbay Having done that, the Company could now proceed to Road, West Hoe Road and Radford Road, terminating in front construct the seven lines authorised by the Act of the West Hoe Pier in Grand Parade Road.

Line No 1 was to start outside the Globe Hotel Tap in Russell A condition to be imposed on this section was that the Street from where it would pass along Richmond Street, Company should not allow any carriage to stand in the space Cobourg Street, Portland Villas, Albany Place, North Road, between the GWR station at Millbay and the Duke of Cornwall Houndiscombe Road, Mutley Plain, Townshend Hill (sic), Hotel for longer than was necessary for passengers to get in Mannamead Road and terminate at the end of Compton Lane. or out of the carriage. The penalty for infringement was a Line 2 would start at the end of line 1 in Russell Street but run sum not exceeding 40 shillings (£2). The Company was even eastwards along Cornwall Street, East Street, run across Old prohibited from constructing a turnout or crossing-place at this point.

Line 4 would start at Princess Square and pass along Princess Place, Notte Street and Southside Street, to the Barbican where it would terminate at the south end of the Brunswick Inn. Tramway 5 would start at a junction with line 1 in Russell Street. From there it was to pass up Morley Street, along Cambridge Street, Oxford Street, Sydney Street, across North Road, along Albert Road [not be confused with the one in Devonport], down the hill to Pennycomequick, along Deadlake Lane, across the London & South Western Railway, along Paradise Road and Lower Stoke Road to Fore Street, Devonport, where it would terminate at the corner with Princes Street.

The sixth line would start at the junction of Deadlake Lane and Wingfield Villas, passing along Wingfield Villas, across Stoke Road, then along Osborne Villas, Osborne Road, over the Cornwall Railway, along Valletort Road, Higher Portland Road and Victoria Street to Albert Road, terminating at the Railway Inn.

The final tramway would start at the junction of Lower Stoke Road and Trafalgar Place, and pass through Trafalgar Place, Tavistock Road and Tavistock Street to a point in Stoke Road at the north end of Donegal Place.

Work evidently progressed slowly for it was not until 1884 that a much-reduced system was ready for the Board of Trade inspector. Only the lines from West Hoe to Russell Street and from there out to Compton, and part of Line 4, from Princess Square to outside the Yarmouth Inn [currently known as the Notte Inn] at the junction of Notte Street with Southside Street, a length of about 3 miles, were finished at a cost of about £3,000 per mile.
At 10.30am on Friday July 11th an engine and one passenger car left the depot in Millbay Road and made its way to a point near Mutley Railway Station where the Board of Trade inspector, Major-General C S Hutchinson RE, commenced his inspection of the line. At 11.15 he set off, accompanied by Mr W Derry, Chairman of the Tramway Company; Mr Bluest, the Secretary; Mr Freeman, the contractor; Mr Burke, the Resident Engineer; Mr King, representing Messrs Quicke & Sons, the Company’s engineers; and Mr Laxton, the newly appointed manager of the Tramway Company; plus several Aldermen, Councillors and Officers of the Borough. Mr C Whiteford, Chairman of the Compton Gifford Local Board, and Mr Edward Bennett, the Clerk, were also present.
The locomotive was in the charge of Mr Wilkinson, the inventor and manufacturer of the vehicle, and was assisted by a driver, stoker and another attendant. The train proceeded at a steady pace up the slope to Mutley Plain and ascended with ease the steep incline up Townsend Hill, where the engine’s ability to restart on a gradient was tested several times. At the terminus the engine changed ends using the siding provided. (It should be pointed out that the term “siding” was used instead of what we would today call a “loop”). On the return journey the braking power was also tested. It was reported that four engines had already been supplied at a cost of £900 each and that three more were on order.

They were rated at 20 horsepower and had a working boiler pressure of 130lbs per square inch. The maximum speed permitted by the Board of Trade was 10mph. Passengers were to be carried in 28 feet long cars built by the Starbuck Car and Wagon Company Ltd of Birkenhead. These were described as ‘very handsome, light and graceful in appearance externally’.
They were on two 4-wheel bogies capable of negotiating the many sharp curves on the route, such as at the turn out from Richmond Street into Cobourg Street. There were seats inside for 24 passengers plus room for another 6 on each of the two, canopied end platforms, where smoking would be allowed. Internally, the fittings were of varnished ash with polished and perforated mahogany seats.

Thousands of people watched the trial run, especially in Richmond Street and George Street. Upon arrival at Princess Square, the train went down the branch to the Yarmouth Inn in Notte Street, where the engine ran round in order to go back to the Square and on towards West Hoe. Everything worked satisfactory except for one unidentified set of points and the party retreated to the depot at Millbay to toast the undertaking with a glass of champagne. Major-General Hutchinson, however, had not finished his inspection and during the afternoon walked the whole of the line. The engine was also run over a part of the system. Services were expected to start at the end of July.
Incidentally, it was commented at this time the line to Plympton was unlikely to be allowed to run through Exeter Street as is was too narrow and it was thought that it would have to be laid from Notte Street ’round the quays’.

A week later everybody’s hopes were shattered. Major General Hutchinson had not liked what he had seen. From the Board of Trade report it transpires that only the lines to Compton and West Hoe had been fully constructed. Line 4 to the Barbican had been built only as far as the junction with Southside Street. Part of the system was considers unsuitable for use.

Line 1 was 1 mile 55 chains in length and had been constructed as single line throughout to Compton Lane End, except for 1 chains of what in those days were more commonly called “sidings” to enable trams to pass each other. There had been a deviation along Cobourg Street and right into North Road, in substitution for the planned route via Portland Villas and Albany Place. This change, along with the provision of a single line on Mutley Plain instead of the projected double line, was requested by Plymouth Corporation under Section 17 of the tramway’s Act, which enabled the Corporations of Plymouth and Devonport to impose such alterations to the plans.

The route through Bedford Street, Westwell Street, Princes Square, Lockyer Street, St George’s Place, Millbay Road West Hoe Road, Radford Road into Grand Parade on the, privately owned West Hoe Estate had been constructed in full. It was 1 mile 20 chains in length, of which 12 chain were double track.
Of the rest of the projected system, only the portion from Princess Square, along Princess Place and Notte Street had been constructed and then only as far as the junction with Southside Street, a length of some 19 chains. Only 3 chains were double track.

Although the lines were well laid, several changes had been made to the layout, with the agreement of the local authorities The location and form of many of the passing loops had been changed but the one alteration which undoubtedly caused the downfall of the whole project was that in some of the more narrow streets, the line had been set to one side of the street instead of in the centre. For instance, Richmond Street was; quoted as being less than 17ft wide and on an incline of about 1 in 17.

The line had been laid on the right side of the road, looking up it, and thus descending traffic would meet the trams going in the wrong direction. The inspector refused to sanction this line at all until a second track was put in on the west side of the Street so that ascending cars would be on the correct side of the road. In addition, because of the narrowness of Richmond Street, this double track would be regarded as single track and passing would thus be forbidden.

If these major alterations were made, coupled with some minor ones, then the Board of Trade were prepared to sanction the opening of the line. But then came the real coup de grace. Permission would only be given for horse drawn trams. The use of the already purchased steam vehicles was altogether a different matter.

Major-General Hutchinson noted especially the narrowness of Richmond Street, Cobourg Street and North Road and considered that the use of mechanical power on that portion would be objectionable. He also found that the points were too flimsy for the use of mechanical power. In addition to the overall speed restriction of 10mph, several sites were made subject to a 4mph limit. On line 1 this applied to Russell Street and to descending Townsend Hill and on line 3 to Bedford Street and to the narrow part of Millbay Road immediately outside Millbay Station. No lower limits were applied to route 4.

As usual the Board of Trade also issued a list of places at which trams were compelled to stop before proceeding any further. These were for safety reasons not for setting down passengers. On line 1 these were at the junction of Russell Street with Cornwall Street; at the junction of Houndiscombe Road and Mutley Plain and at the top and bottom of Townsend Hill. On line 3 they were at the junction of Bedford Street and Westwell Street; at the intersection of Westwell Street with Princess Square; at the junction of George Street with Athenaeum Place; at the corner by the Royal Hotel; at the intersection of Millbay Road with Athenaeum Street; before entering the north end of the passing loop near Millbay Barracks [this was on a bend, I think], and finally at the entrance to the West Hoe Estate. There was only one compulsory stop on line 4, at the junction of Princess Square and Princess Place.

As can be imagined, the news that the BoT inspector had refused to allow the tramway to start operating was met with disbelief in Plymouth. The lesser objection was the suggestion by Major-General Hutchinson that a second set of rails should be laid in Richmond Street. It was now revealed that the reason the line had been laid on the eastern or right-hand side was that ‘the houses there are invariably tenanted and there is no break, whereas on the other side shops abound and there are two considerable openings’. The local press thought this was an admiral arrangement ‘calculated to avoid giving inconvenience to vehicular traffic’. But the most contentious objection was to the refusal to allow steam traction over that part of the line.

It was suggested, probably with good reason, that the inspector had passed that way when the children were pouring out of the public school in Cobourg Street and that this had prejudiced the case. It was claimed by the press that only a small proportion of pupils pass down Richmond Street and thus ‘the dangers conjured up are for the most part imaginary’. It was suggested that special speed restrictions might be imposed at these times. Fears were expressed about the viability of the project if the Company was forced to maintain both steam engines and a stud of horses and it was pointed out that if BoT approval was not forthcoming ‘Plymouth will be burdened with unused lines of rails and granite supports, and the inhabitants deprived of a useful means of town traffic’. There was then a long delay while the Company made representations to the Board of Trade and generally deliberated on what to do next. Finally, on Monday November 3rd 1884 a steam tram accommodating 30 passengers was run over the entire line from the Pier Head to Mannamead and gave free rides, despite the fact that they still did not have authority to continue beyond Russell Street. The journey took 35-minutes.

On the following day, Tuesday November 4th, the service proper began, running two services, from the West Hoe Pier to the corner of Southside Street and from the Pier to the bottom of Richmond Street, where it joined Russell Street. (The West Hoe Pier should not be confused with the Promenade Pier, which was not in existence at that time).

From Wednesday November 5th, the service ran to a timetable. The first car left the Pier for Southside Street at 6am and returned from the terminus at 6.20am. At 6.40 it left the Pier again and left Southside Street at 1am. There was then a break until 8.20am from when it ran at 40 minute intervals until the last trip from the Pier at 10.20pm, and from Southside Street at 10.40pm. The service to Richmond Street started at 6.20am from the Pier, returning at 6.40am off Richmond Street. This was also followed by a break, until the 8am departure, after which there was again a 40 minute service until 10.40pm from the Pier and 1 pm back from Richmond Street. Sunday services commenced at 12.40pm to Richmond Street and 1pm to Southside Street, the return starting 20 minutes later. A 40 minute schedule was then maintained on both routes until the 10.20pm departure from Richmond Street and 10.40pm from Southside Street. Both routes were split into two 1d stages, from the Pier to Derry’s Clock and from there to either terminus, the through fares thus being 2d.

On the same day that the timetable appeared the Company also published its Bye-Laws and Regulations. [These are reproduced in full elsewhere.] These covered all the usual transport matters, like paying fares on demand and not obstructing the Company’s servants, and were to come into force, rather optimistically as it happened, on January 8th 1885.

Two days after the opening on Thursday November 6th Mr William Derry presided at the first annual meeting of the Company. This was held at the Canon Street Hotel in London. Surprisingly he opened by stating that the line was not yet opened but this was probably meant to refer to the whole of the system so far constructed as later in the meeting reference was made to the two sections ‘at length opened for traffic’.

The first report repeated what we already know. Only lines 1 and 3 and part of 4 had been finished ‘these being wholly in Plymouth’. As a result, Devonport Corporation had blocked the opening of these lines until the ones in Devonport were built. ‘The Directors are of the opinion that the attitude issued by Devonport Council is arbitrary in the extreme’, he continued before pointing out that the new Bill for the extension of time to finish the tramways had received the Royal Assent on August 7th 1884 and the Company now had until July 24th 1885, ‘but the extension will avail little unless further capital is subscribed by the inhabitants of Plymouth and Devonport’.

Expenditure on construction and equipment had so far reached £43,540. With office costs and fees added, the total expenditure was £46,65813s 10d. The total capital subscribed was £47,860 (4,786 shares of £10 each) and thus there was only £49 5s 9d left in hand. In such a dire position, the Chairman expressed the view that ‘to have begun at both ends when they did not have the capital to complete the work would have been folly’.

A shareholder asked why the local people had not taken up shares, to which William Derry had no answer. Another, Baron de Samoren, remarked that the system had cost £10,000 per mile so far. At the conclusion of the meeting mention was made by one of the Directors of ‘the unfortunate jealousy existing between Plymouth and Devonport as a cause of the hostilities at Devonport’ and that the Directors proposed to abandon the line to Plympton. A further deputation was to visit the Board of Trade the day after the meeting.

From Monday November 10th, there was a drastic alteration to the timetable. The early morning services ceased, the first car from the Pier to Southside Street leaving at 7.30am and to Richmond Street at 8am. The return trips started 30 minutes later instead of 20 minutes as previously and the trams ran at hourly intervals from each terminal point. The last cars were at 10pm from Southside Street and 10.30pm from Richmond Street.
Sunday services were similar but to confuse matters the Richmond Street cars started at 12.30pm and ran on the half-hour while the Southside Street trams started at 1pm and ran on the hour. The fares remained as before.

The end of the Company’s aspirations came swiftly. On Friday November 14th Devonport Corporation went to the Chancery Division of the High Court in London to ask Mr Justice Chitty to issue an injunction restraining the Company from opening or operating lines 1, 5, 6 and 7 until the whole of the system was complete. The injunction was granted. It appears that this was anticipated and the trams never ran on that day, or ever afterwards. However, the Company went to the Court of Appeal and their case was heard before Lords Justice Bowen and Fry on Saturday December 6th. The appeal was dismissed with costs. Plymouth had enjoyed steam trams for just 10 days.

It was not the Plymouth, Devonport & District Tramway
Company that came in for criticism though but the member of Devonport Corporation and the people of that Town. Letters of condemnation abounded. “A Neighbourly Man” pointed out ‘that Devonport had not paid a shilling towards the construction of these tramways’ and asked ‘Do the inhabitants of Devonport desire to see their neighbours treated in this, manner?’ He also hoped that the townspeople ‘may yet show that the action of the Corporation is not in accordance with their wishes’. Another correspondent, “One of the Public”, wondered whether Devonport people were mad and strongly blamed the ‘essentially Liberal’ Town Council: ‘They must know that the Tram Company are prevented from extending their system by the lack of funds’. The point was echoed by Samuel Roach a monumental mason living in Union Street, who sensibly suggested that ‘would it not be much better to allow the company to earn what money they could to recoup some portion of the outlay and perhaps enable them to place the rest of their shares’. Even the editorials were drawn into the discussion with the Western Daily Mercury suggesting that ‘The Devonport authorities are evidently quite convinced of their security of their status, they have apparently made up their minds that the Company must go into liquidation….’. Perhaps the most poignant letter came on December 20th 1884, a few days before Christmas, which revealed that the engine drivers had been recruited from experienced men in Lancashire and Yorkshire. These men had been encouraged to leave their homes and families to come to Plymouth in the expectation of a permanent job. One man from Yorkshire had told the correspondent that he had not earned enough money to cover the costs of leaving Huddersfield and he had not even earned five pounds before he was dismissed as a result of the injunction. He could not afford the fare back to home. Once again the letter writer, who signed himself as “Justice”, strongly criticised Devonport Corporation, who were ‘severely punishing each of the staff, their wives and children, withholding the convenience of the trams from the inhabitants of Plymouth, and to what commensurate benefit to the town and Corporation of Devonport?’

Early in February 1885 the Company Secretary, Mr Frederick Bluets, called an Extraordinary General Meeting for Wednesday February 18th at 2pm, to be held at the Cannon Street Hotel in London. Its main purpose was to consider the future of the Company and to that end to discuss which course of action to take. Consideration was to be given to raising additional capital, the possibility of entering into an arrangement with the Provincial Tramways Company (who owned the Plymouth, Stonehouse & Devonport Tramway system) with a view to them working the tramway, or putting the PD&D into liquidation.

The day after the notice of the meeting was published it was announced that the contractor, Mr John Freeman, had petitioned for the winding-up of the Company. The hearing was to be held on Saturday February 7th. Sadly no reports of the hearing were published in the press. Finally, on Friday 9 December 1887 the Western Daily Mercury announced, under the heading “Plymouth Steam Trams”, that ‘some gentlemen from London, who arrived in Plymouth few days since, have been engaged in making negotiations with respect to buying up the plant of the Plymouth Tramway Company, which they have secured for the sum of £4,000.’

Before ending, a word or two about the steam tram itself might not be amiss. Mr William Wilkinson, who at the time was running a foundry at Wigan, patented the ones used at Plymouth. In 1881 he arranged with the Wigan Tramways Company to replace their horse-drawn trams with an experimental steam locomotive that he had designed. It had a vertical boiler and engine, constructed in Plymouth’s case by the Steel Company of Scotland, and the small bore cylinders acted upon a crankshaft that was in turn connected to the four, coupled wheels by means of cog-wheel gears. The axles, wheels and nearly all the working parts of the engine were made of Sieman-Martin’s best quality steel and all the brass workings were of phosphor bronze. The exhaust steam was superheated in the firebox before escaping to the atmosphere through the chimney. The fuel was coke and the emission of smoke was described as ‘scarcely perceptible’. Mr Wilkinson’s engines were thus small and light and smokeless. Despite claims that the smoke caused a nuisance and was the trams’ downfall in Plymouth, I have been unable to find a single reference in the contemporary press to any such objections, although one gentleman with knowledge of steam trams in Dewsbury did remark that outside passengers would experience a whiff from the confined engine box ‘that is not conducive to good digestion or appetite’. In addition to the steam brake from the engine and the normal hand operated brakes, the locomotive was also fitted with an automatic speed governor, which operated if the Board of Trade speed limit of 10mph was exceeded. The Wilkinson engine became so popular that he had to subcontract production to three other firms in Leeds, Gateshead and Manchester. 204 engines were apparently built, of which 63 were by Wilkinson himself. The Plymouth locomotives were apparently from his own works. They cost between £600 each for the non-condensing version and £1,100 for those fitted with the condensing apparatus.

So Plymouth had a very brief encounter with steam trams but even as it did so, their days were numbered. Just a couple of days before the Board of Trade inspection there was a trial in Paris of electric traction for tramcars. This was to prove a lot more successful.

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