The Soho Road trams - 1: the horse trams, 1872 - 1887 by Peter Walker

The first trams in Birmingham ran on the Soho Road, but it wasn't in Birmingham at the time. There was a near-miss before that, as a 31-year old American named George Francis Train entered into an agreement with the Birmingham authorities in 1860 to build and operate a horse tramway from New Street to Five Ways Edgbaston, but the Public Works Committee made it a condition that the line be extended to Monument Lane (now Monument Road). He had already opened lines in Birkenhead and London, and was instrumental building other installations in Europe, notably Copenhagen, but nothing came of the Birmingham proposal.

In those days Birmingham was a very progressive borough, and as early as 1861, its leaders obtained parliamentary powers under the Birmingham Improvement Act to build tramways, although it formally rescinded the agreement with G F Train in 1862, after he disappeared from the country. But horse bus traffic increased with the dramatic growth of work and the population. Over the next few years, local politicians were eager for new tramway proposals, but it was not until 1870 that three schemes were considered, The Tramways Act 1870 made promotion easier.

The first (horse) tramway

Many deals were done, and the Birmingham and District Tramways Co. Ltd. started to build a horse-drawn line from the Birmingham boundary at Hockley Brook through Handsworth and West Bromwich to Great Bridge, which was opened on 20 May 1872. Unlike later tramways in Birmingham and the Black Country which had a track gauge of 3ft 6in (1076mm), this line was built to the standard railway gauge of 4ft 8-1/2in. (1435 mm). Over a year later, on 6 September 1873 the line was extended into Birmingham, over tracks built for Birmingham Public Works Committee, to Monmouth Street, later Colmore Row, at first with through services to Dudley Port and Hill Top. It took a little time until a continuation past what became Victoria Square and Paradise Street and along the Bristol Road as far as Bournbrook was opened in 1876. However the original tram route through West Bromwich did not pay its way, and the service from Carters Green to Dudley Port ceased in December 1873, and to Hill Top in September 1875, but a new branch, closer to Birmingham, opened on 23 November 1874, off Soho Hill at Villa Road and going through "The Village" to a point in Lozells Road past the Villa Cross pub, where a depot was built. Stables were provided next-door to the "Red Lion" in Soho Road and beside the "New Inns" on Holyhead Road.

In 1876 the horse tramway 'main line' was cut back further from Carters Green to New Inns, Handsworth. The operating company was merged with horse bus undertakings to become the Birmingham Tramways & Omnibus Co Ltd, later consolidated into the Birmingham Central Tramways Ltd in 1886.


The Soho Road trams - 2: the cable trams, 1888 - 1911


The second (cable) tramway

As population grew, traffic on the Soho Road tramway increased, while proposals for a new 3ft 6in gauge tramway outside Birmingham, between Darlaston and New Inns were mooted in 1881 and opened as a steam tramway by the South Staffordshire Tramways Co Ltd on 16 July 1883. In Birmingham and Handsworth there was local pressure against steam traction and, after investigation into recent projects in San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia and a visit to the new cable tramway on Highgate Hill in London, it was agreed that the two councils would rebuild the old standard-gauge horse tramway from Colmore Row to New Inns as a cable tramway to 3ft 6in gauge. Work started in 1887, while a bus service was operated by the company, and the new line opened as far as Hockley Brook on 24 March 1888, extended to New Inns on 20 April 1888. Two continuous loops of steel cable ran on pulleys in channels between the rails from either terminus to Hockley Brook, where they entered the stationary steam engine house next to the depot. The were propelled a movable gripper device which could be manipulated to clutch on to the moving cable, but starting and stopping must have been very jerky, and the multi-stranded cables tended to fray. Nevertheless the system continued to operate for 23 years.


The Soho Road Trams - 3: the Electric trams, 1911 - 1939


The third (electric tramway)

Only a year after the cable trams began, the other part of the original horse tramway in Birmingham - along the Bristol Road - was also re-gauged and "modernised", in this case using electric cars powered by lead-acid accumulators beneath the passenger seats (not a Health and Safety recommendation!). Overhead-powered electric tramways became the obvious choice - indeed the South Staffs Tramways company opened its own pioneer line between Wednesbury and Walsall on 1 January 1893. Within Birmingham the city fathers wanted to see underground conduit supply rather than unsightly overhead wires, and from 1897 the City Council was locked in dispute with the new British Electric Traction Company, which was acquiring all the private tramway systems with a view to electrifying them, insisting on the expensive and technically problematical conduit system rather than straightforward overhead wires. By 1900 the company finally won agreement to erect wires on the Bristol Road, to get rid of the potentially lethal battery cars, and from then onwards the overhead wire system had proved its point.

Again the Black Country was quicker off the mark as the South Staffs steam tramways in West Bromwich were rebuilt and electrified by 19 December 1902 between Carters Green and the "Woodman" near the Hawthorns ground, cars being stabled, together with some remaining steam trams, at the small depot on the non-electrified bit between the "Woodman" and New Inns. The depot was not wired up, and the electric cars had to be towed in and out of the depot by steam tram engine. The Handsworth Council seems always to have had bad relations with the tramway company. The council used its powers to purchase the remaining steam tracks on 5 June 1903 and to lease them to the company until 1911, when the lease of the cable tramway would also expire.

In 1904 the Handsworth council rebuilt and electrified the steam tracks on this section, but at first did not provide an electrical supply, it being hoped that power could be taken from the West Bromwich section, which was owned and supplied by West Bromwich council. However the company was not on the best terms with that body either, and the formal lease had not yet been completed let alone signed, and no rental had been paid since electrification in 1902! By 8 September 1904, the contract had been signed and the company paid up, early next morning connected the new Handsworth section to the West Bromwich supply and ran its first electric car under power. Handsworth responded by parking its steam roller across the tracks, disconnecting the power supply and earthing the overhead wires. No trams ran in this part of Handsworth until a new lease agreement was completed on 1 October 1904. Trams ran from New Inns to Dudley and Wednesbury, with occasional excursion workings at weekends and bank holidays to Kinver, which must have been an experience.

In 1909 Handsworth purchased the cable tramway between New Inns and Hockley, and leased it to the company and obtained powers to rebuild and electrify it by the expiry date of 30 June 1911. From the next day, 1 July 1911, electric services ran from the 'Woodman' through to Colmore Row, operated by Birmingham Corporation. On 9 November 1911 the Urban District of Handsworth was taken over by the City of Birmingham, together with many outlying areas such as Aston Manor, Erdington, Yardley, Moseley, Kings Heath and Selly Oak.

By 1911, Birmingham Corporation already had a fleet of 360 electric cars, which was growing rapidly as new routes were opened and the last of the company routes were taken over. By 1913 the fleet totalled 450 cars less than ten years old plus a motley collection of 61 ex-company cars, after which a new type of car was introduced which was to become the workhorse of the Soho Road routes for the next 25 years, the 512 - 586 class. During 1912, a new "Black Country Through Car" service was operated by the South Staffordshire Company between Snow Hill Station and Darlaston (later cut back to Wednesbury) using Corporation tracks within Birmingham. On 20 November the Lozells routes via Wheeler Street and via Hamstead Road were opened, and the branch from Soho Road to Grove Lane and Oxhill Road followed on December 1912. The Corporation also started its first bus service in 1913,

World War 1 brought few changes to then trams, except for a new route numbering scheme which the Corporation introduced in 1915. The outer termini of the tram routes running at that time were numbered very roughly clockwise from 12 o'clock, for the northern half, then anticlockwise for the south, so 1 was Stockland Green and 2 was Erdington, 3 was Witton via Six Ways and 3X Witton via Aston Cross. 4 was a real ******* - Stoney Lane, off Stratford Road in the south, but 5 was Lozells and Gravelly Hill, 6 was Perry Barr, and 7 was Nechells, 8, 9 and 10 were Alum Rock, Ward End and Washwood Heath, and so it went on. After Bolton Road 22, we somehow got Colmore Row to Handsworth (Woodman) as 23, the two Lozells routes as 24 and 25, Oxhill Road as 26, Stafford Road, by the Library as 27 and New Inns as 28. In addition to material, and cash shortages the early post-war days saw grandiose plans for the future, with new homes for heroes, and plenty of wide new roads to serve them. Most of the new houses were semi-detached and some of the wider roads were laid out with a dual carriageway, as in Island Road. But most of Handsworth was already built up, and so people (mainly the younger ones) moved out to new areas like Great Barr, Kingstanding and Perry Barr.

Until 1924 Birmingham Corporation buses and trams never ran outside the city boundary, but in the previous year West Bromwich started negotiations withy Birmingham over running its trams through that borough after the lease to the South Staffs Company expired on 31 March 1904. Birmingham was already supplying gas and electricity outside its territory and the Municipal Bank (God bless it) had branches outside the city, so it wasn't such an incredible thing. Birmingham agreed, and took over the through route as far as Wednesbury (75) and opened another through route to Dudley (74) on 1 April 1924. West Bromwich paid towards the maintenance of the extra cars, and received all the fare revenue - 'special' tickets with two crosses printed on them were issued for journeys outside the city, and these were accounted for separately.

During the 1920s the design of the double deck motor bus made great strides, and the new AEC Regent brought out in 1929 proved a winner. But the Soho Road trams continued to run until after the agreement with West Bromwich expired at the end of 1938, owing to a delay in obtaining new replacement buses. The last trams ran on Soho Road on 1 April 1939, replaced next day by buses run jointly by Birmingham and West Bromwich Corporations.


My special memories

Although I was only 5 years old I was intensely interested in the Soho Road trams and knew them quite well, as my grandparents lived in Grasmere Road. I especially remember the little depot at the "Woodman", which was normally used only for parking football specials when the Albion was playing at home. Just by the grounds, the tram tracks divided into four and the kerbside tracks were used to store and load home-bound football supporters going into Brum and the Black Country.

I remember that the staple diet of tramway men was tea, which was dispensed outside Hockley depot in enamel pots and drunk out of a enamel mug. I was impressed to see a driver using both hands to pour out his tea while ascending Soho Hill. Once over the top, past Villa Road, and we coasted down to the stop at Soho Road station, as he wound his brake on and sipped his tea before the car had come to a standstill.

Fifteen years later at Miller Street depot I was looking round a tram that had once run on the Soho Road routes, and was then about to be broken. Under some panelling I found some old 'special' tickets which had been issued beyond the Boundary in West Bromwich.


Peter Walker

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