Wolverhampton Corporation Tramways officially started operating on
the 1st May 1900, having taken over the lines of the Wolverhampton
Tramways Company. That company had opened its first line to
Tettenhall on the 1st May 1878. There were three lines, operated by
horse trams using standard gauge tracks (4'8½"). The cars were
double-deck with open tops and garden seats. They were also only dimly lit
inside with just two oil lamps, which also served as the tail and front lamps.
Electrification came in 1902, when the corporation started a programme of converting to the Lorain Surface Contact System. The horse tram tracks were torn up and replaced with 3'6" gauge tracks, which were becoming the agreed standard throughout the Black Country and also Birmingham, which had two of its routes terminating in Dudley and Wednesbury. Amazingly, one of the horse cars survives and is at the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, restored to company livery. Wolverhampton had originally decided to go for the overhead wire system, but some councillors (including the mayor Charles Mander) said they would never permit the streets of Wolverhampton to be disfigured with ugly overhead wiring. Protecting the revenue from the corporation's trams from incursion of the BET's trams can't have been far from their minds either. It has been suggested that it was the real reason. The first line opened on the 6th February and ironically trams started running down the same street 96 years later when the Midland Metro opened. The main service was to connect the railway station with the 1902 exhibition in West Park. Surviving pictures show the water chute and swan boats on the lake along with some magnificent halls. The new electric cars, brilliantly lit compared with the horse trams, were the first marvels of the modern age that the exhibition visitors would encounter. However, by all accounts, the exhibition itself was not a great success. Additional lines were quickly added and within 2½ years the basic system was completed. A further line was added to Penn Fields in 1909 after Worcester Street had been widened.
Wolverhampton was the only town in the world to use the Lorain system (an underground line in Washington DC used it for a few months) and one of only five places in the UK to use a surface contact system in passenger service. It was very troublesome at first, but worked well and was only replaced because the company had gone out of business when it was time to replace the worn out studs. In fact it lasted for 20 years, longer than the Dolter System in Hastings (1907 to 1914) or the Griffiths Bedell system in Lincoln (1905 to 1919). The Dolter System was also used in Torquay (1907 to 1911) and the Mexborough & Swinton tramway company (1907 to 1908), where the Board of Trade demanded it be converted after incidents with horses. We can also mention here that the Griffiths Bedell system was tried by the LCC in the Mile End Road for a 6 month trial period. There is an interesting extract in Hansard from the 21st July 1908 where M.B. Strauss the MP for Tower Hamlets cited a case where "a horse was electrified by a live stud in the Mile End Road, severely burned on the flank and forelegs, and would have been killed if he had not been promptly pulled off". The line was beset with problems and was rapidly converted to conduit before passenger service commenced. Wolverhampton appears to have had the most success with the Lorain system. As a footnote, we should mention that it was actually the Brown Surface Contact System and the firm that constructed the equipment under licence was the Lorain Steel Company. It appears the mistake in the name was made in the minutes of one of the early meetings and never got corrected. It's been referred to as the Lorain system ever since.
The system worked by having a skate, 12 feet long, fixed underneath the car with six pairs of electromagnets either side connected by iron strips to form two poles, each sixteen feet long. The studs were placed at intervals of about nine feet apart. As the car passed over the stud, the magnetic field raised the contact inside the box and the top became live. Once the car had passed, the contact dropped and the stud was switched off. A chain was trailed behind the tram, which shorted out any stud that remained live. There are several tales of horses being electrocuted by live studs, but on investigation only one has actually proved to be probably true, as it is known from the records that survive that the Corporation did pay compensation to the Great Western Railway. All these tales come from a single incident where a horse dropped dead in Piper's Row on the 24th May 1902, but it was not that uncommon for horses to drop dead in the street, as they tended to be very badly overworked. Horses are more susceptible to electrocution as was witnessed in February 2011 when two race horses dropped dead in the paddock at Newbury due to an old cable where the insulation had become damaged. However, it should be noted that in 1902 the attitudes to animal welfare were quite different from today. All the trams carried batteries, which had to be used to energise the magnets after the line current had been switched off. Once the stud the car was over was then live, the magnets would remain powered by the current fed from the studs. The batteries would also need to be used if a car got stuck on a dead stud. The trams charged the batteries as they travelled, but it was standard practice for the batteries to be taken off and charged overnight. This, in general, is believed to be because, in normal use, they weren't being charged enough.
However, Wolverhampton Corporation trams were isolated from the rest of the tramways in the area as a result of using the Lorain system. The two photographs show two trams of the 1908/9 batch, one taken in Lorain days and the second in 2002 at the Black Country Living Museum. The older photograph illustrates the desire of the council to avoid traction poles and wiring, which they claimed would disfigure the town's streets. This had resulted in Wolverhampton District Electric Tramways company routes on the overhead wire system having termini a few yards away from the Corporation's Lorain routes and through passengers having to walk between the two. The company had suggested the erection of wires on these routes, but the Corporation was adamant that overhead wires would not be permitted within the borough. However, there was still a desire to have some form of link-up with neighbouring systems and so through working was proposed with the Wolverhampton District Electric Tramways on the routes to Willenhall, Dudley and Bilston the company would operate the Dudley route and the corporation the other two. These were the routes where it had been necessary for passengers to have to walk between the termini at the boundary to make a through journey. Some corporation cars were fitted with trolley poles and the company fitted some of its cars with Lorain skates. This wasn't very successful as it made the company cars very slow - nobody seems to have taken into account the extra weight of the collector and electromagnets (around 1 tonne). The company cars ran on the Dudley route from 1906, but due to complaints from passengers of the unreliability of the service and the unwillingness of the council to convert to overhead wires, this ceased in 1909 when the Dudley route reverted to running to Willenhall from Fighting Cocks. Through running only resumed on the 26th March 1921, when Wolverhampton converted the route to overhead wires. The Bilston and Willenhall routes continued to be operated by the corporation throughout this period. In 1915, the General Manager, Mr Luntley, was killed in a firearms incident and Charles Owen Silvers was appointed General Manager. Under his 34 year term, the department had its best years.
It should be noted that the name of the company was "The Wolverhampton District Electric Tramways" and not "The Wolverhampton and District Electric Tramways" as it is quite frequently misquoted. Apart from the three years of joint operation on the Dudley route, company cars never ran in Wolverhampton itself until the Corporation converted to overhead wires in 1921.
When the time came to upgrade the track and electrical equipment, the council again argued between the overhead wire and Lorain systems. This time the pro-Lorain lobby lost the argument, the cost being far too high as the Lorain company had long since ceased manufacture and the running costs of Lorain cars were around twice that of overhead wire cars. Thus overhead wires were erected and the Lorain studs disconnected. A side effect of this was, as the Lorain gear was removed, to make the cars 1 tonne lighter and so they tended to roll quite badly. The last trams to be purchased worked only on the overhead system and ended up having a very short working life. Ironically, the Wolverhampton system was reintegrated into the Black Country tramway network, just at the point when it started to close down.
On the 29th October 1923, Wolverhampton converted the Wednesfield tramway to trolleybus operation using Tilling Stevens vehicles. Due to a low bridge, these had single deck Dodson bodies. They were actually petrol-electric chassis with the petrol engine and generator removed. They also had a new style controller which was foot operated and switched the resistances via relay operated contactors, which was a revolutionary change from the large hand operated tramcar controllers that had been used up until then. Over the next 5 years the whole system was converted, including the Wolverhampton District Electric Tramways company, which the corporation bought in 1928. The trams were all disposed of, but two survive at the Black Country Living Museum - No 34 a WDET Tividale car of 1920 which passed on to the corporation in 1928 and a Preston Lorain open top double deck car of 1909. In 1931, joint operation with Walsall started and by 1935 some motorbus routes had also been converted. Wolverhampton was also home to two trolleybus manufacturers Guy and Sunbeam. The first Guy trolleybus was made in 1925 and the first Sunbeam in 1931. Both of these vehicles were bought by the corporation and all further trolleybuses were Guys or Sunbeams. It was due to Charles Owen Silvers, the General Manager, that the "trackless tram" became the modern trolleybus, which ensured that the Wolverhampton system was at the forefront of trolleybus design. Under his tenure, the town became the one that set the standards. In 1949 Charles Owen Silvers retired and R H Addlesee was appointed General Manager. He lacked the enthusiasm and vision of his predecessor and the fleet began to attain the shabbiness that noted the last years of the Corporation's buses. No new trolleybuses were bought after 1950, the last ones being 8 feet wide with Park Royal bodies. In 1959 and 1960, the wartime specification buses had new bodies fitted by Charles Roe of Leeds. One of these (No 433, DUK833) was still running on Sundays between Easter and Christmas at the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley until part of the overhead wiring was stolen in early 2011.
In 1957, the first sign of abandonment appeared. The department had asked the government (in the light of the previous year's Suez crisis and along with several other trolleybus operators) to lift the restrictions on operation and expansion. This wasn't done, presumably because the largest system (London) had already decided to abandon. Nationalisation of the electricity supply now meant that the corporation was now buying in electricity, rather than using its own power station.
In 1961 the first trolleybus route (route 32 to Oxbarn Avenue) was abandoned due to the construction of the ring road. Several routes were suspended between January and May of that year and operated by buses borrowed from Birmingham, the Oxbarn Avenue route never resumed as it had become a short-working of the Warstones Estate motorbus route by then. The majority of the routes were converted between 1963 and 1965. The Dudley route was left running for another 18 months and was converted in 1967. The last trolleybus ran on the 5th March 1967. That same weekend saw electric trains replace diesel ones due to electric trains being cheaper and more efficient according to British Rail. At the same time, Wolverhampton Council were trying to tell us that diesel engines were cheaper and more efficient than electric motors. We now know that BR got it right and the corporation got it very wrong. The abandonment of the trolleybuses also left Wolverhampton with a bit of a problem with their women trolleybus drivers. At the time, women were not permitted to drive PSV vehicles but were permitted to drive trolleybuses. Unfortunately, these drivers had to return to the ranks of the conductresses. By the time the system finally closed in 1967, there was only one left.
Wolverhampton also operated an extensive network of rural services to outlying villages and towns. These were started in the 1920s and ran out to Bridgnorth (taken over from Great Western), Swindon Staffs, Claverly, Pattingham, Beckbury, Tong Norton, Weston-under-Lizard, Cannock and Cheslyn Hay. The network was so extensive, that the department had to purchase a motorcycle and sidecar outfit for the inspector to be able to cope. After 1953 all motorbuses were 8' wide and apart from the very first (No 585 NUK585, which was also the last to have a crash gearbox), the numbering restarted from 1 and the livery changed to have a narrow yellow band rather than the older livery with the wide band. The first 19 had conventional open rear platforms and were delivered in the old livery, while the rest had front platforms behind the front axle and the infamous "bacon slicer" sliding doors, which were operated by compressed air. The "penny pinching" purchasing policy meant that most of the later purchases were quite shoddily built with vehicles rattling and squeaking like old bangers after only a few months in service. Single deckers were also bought and some of the country routes were converted to one man operation in 1967. The double deck vehicles which were used on all the town routes remained crew operated as despite having a forward entrance, it would have been virtually impossible for the driver to collect fares (though WMPTE did install an Autofare box on one of them, it was never actually tried in service).
In 1969 the corporation transport department closed and the routes and vehicles were taken over by the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive along with the fleets of Walsall, West Bromwich and Birmingham, though in effect the PTE was just an enlarged Birmingham City Transport under a different name. This took effect from the 1st October 1969, though most vehicles remained in corporation livery with the WMPTE logo (on a self-stick vinyl sheet, stuck over where the coat of arms had appeared) until they were withdrawn. Fleet numbers all had the suffix 'N' added to eliminate duplication (Walsall vehicles had 'L' added and West Bromwich 'H' with Birmingham vehicles keeping their original numbers). Those vehicles scheduled for a repaint appeared in the PTE blue and cream. Most of Wolverhampton's fleet was in a poor state, though, especially the Park Royal and Strachan bodied motorbuses which were falling apart. It's quite ironic that the vehicles that were in the best condition at withdrawal were the rebodied wartime trolleybuses. At handover, Wolverhampton had no rear engined double deckers, though 25 Fleetlines were on order, however all orders from the four corporations were taken over by the PTE before the official handover. Some of the newest double deck vehicles had to be withdrawn immediately and replaced by Birmingham Standards hurridly put back into service as their condition was so bad. The department was also in a mess financially as the so-called cheaper diesel buses had proved far more expensive to run than the trolleys they replaced.
By 1975, the fleet operating in Wolverhampton consisted almost entirely of the standard WMPTE Daimler Fleetlines.
Very few vehicles survive, only 3 motorbuses and 4 trolleybuses as far as I can find. They are all listed in the table below. 78 and 433 are at the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley. 616 is at Wythall and is in very poor condition. It has been restored as a static display, but was structurally unsound and, I understand has only been reinforced enough to prevent further decay. It now looks good, but is very delicate. 654 externally appears to be in the same condition as 616 was on arrival at Wythall. I am informed by its owners (as at March 2008) that it is actually much sounder than it looks and they are hopeful of making a full restoration. It is extremely unlikely that 616 will ever run again but at least it has been saved in time.
The amazing survivors have to be the three trams. No 34 runs daily at the Black Country Museum and was a corporation car for only a few weeks. No 49 was completed in 2004 and is running on a few weekends in service - it is an extremely popular attraction, especially in fine weather. No 23 is complete, but is awaiting a suitable track to be laid as it is standard gauge (the museum does have some willing horses to pull it).
Park Royal H28/26R
(Repainted, but superficial restoration only)
Park Royal H28/26R
Guy Arab IV
Metro Cammell H33/27R
Guy Arab II
Daimler Roadliner SRC6
For further reading, these two volumes give a very
comprehensive history of the corporation's transport department.
The jacket colours are in the two main liveries. Volume One is the Olive Green and Gamboge of the trams, while Volume Two is the Apple Green and Primrose Yellow of the trolleybuses and motor buses.
Click Here for the Full Site Index
The Black Country Museum Trolleybus Rally
The Ultimate Driving Experience
The Story of the Forgotten Trolleybuses
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the Wolverhampton coat of arms.