Wirral Tramway Company

The Wirral Tramway Company was formed in 1874 with the aim of building a 3-mile, standard-gauge horse tramway from Woodside in Birkenhead, southwards to New Ferry in Tranmere. Horse-drawn services commenced operation on the 28th March 1877, though only provisionally, as the inspector was not satisfied with the laying of the setts around the track; in fact, the track in general — both the quality of construction and the design selected — proved to be problematic, and it soon deteriorated under the heavy loadings. An extension into Woodside Ferry, built and owned by Birkenhead Commissioners (the local authority), was opened on the 19th January 1878, the WTCo renting the line, as did the other two horse tramways which operated into the ferry (the Birkenhead Tramways Company, and the Hoylake and Birkenhead Rail and Tramway Company).

The track had to be completely relaid in 1879 at considerable cost, but revenue was strong, so the company was able to stand a financial blow that may have sunk other concerns, given that it came a mere two years after opening. Prosperity continued into the 1880s, but there was no escaping the impact of the Mersey Railway's completion of its tunnel under the river and the opening of a new station at Green Lane in Tranmere (1st February 1886). Subsequent railway extensions were to lead to a further downturn in passengers, but before they came into play, the WTCo, which had borrowed money (in the form of debenture shares) found itself unable to pay the loans back, even though it had taken the precaution of insuring itself, as the insurance company failed. In early 1894, the WTCo was forced to go cap in hand to Birkenhead Corporation, a move which resulted in the latter taking over the track in Birkenhead (it already owned all the track of the H&BR&TCo, as well as the Birkenhead United Tramway, Omnibus and Carriage Company, the successor to the BTCo). The corporation's common sense seems however to have deserted it, as not only was the WTCo track in appalling condition and in need of renewal, but they then proceeded to grant the company a 21-year lease, something that they would have to buy the company out of less than 5 years later.

The corporation and the WTCo eventually reached agreement, with the former purchasing the assets of the latter, including the track in Lower Bebington (outside the municipal boundary) on the 31st December 1899. The corporation was however not ready to take-over as agreed, so the WTCo was allowed to continue working the trams without a formal lease or rent being paid, ahead of reconstruction. The company and the corporation could however not agree on the precise working arrangements during reconstruction, so the company pulled out, the last WTCo horse tram running on the 8th May 1900. This was however just a short inter-regnum in the horse tram service, as the corporation asked the BUTO&CCo to step in, which it did on the 16th May, the final horse tram running some 8 months later on the 22nd January 1901.

Photos of the early days of the tramway company have not survived, or are at least yet to come to light, so it is currently impossible to say whether official uniforms were issued or not during these years. Fortunately, the closing years of the tramway (i.e., the late 1890s) are reasonably well represented photographically, so it is possible to state with some degree of certainty what was worn.

In common with the majority of horse tramways in the UK, drivers simply wore heavy-duty informal attire — trousers, jackets, knee blankets (see last photo below) and the normal headgear of the day, invariably the bowler hat. Conductors wore overcoats that were not dissimilar to those issued to another local concern, the Birkenhead United Tramways, Omnibus and Carriage Company Limited, suggesting that the company required them to buy them from a local supplier. Conductors were certainly issued with kepi-style caps, which appear not to have carried a badge, though this is, due to the quality of the photos, certainly not a foregone conclusion.

Further reading
For a history of the Wirral's tramways, see: 'The Tramways of Birkenhead and Wallasey' by T B Maund and M Jenkins; LRTA (1987).


Horse tram drivers and conductors
Wirral Tramway Company horse tram No 9
Wirral Tramway Company Horsecar No 9, pictured in front of the New Ferry Road depot — photo undated, but almost certainly taken in the last years of operation. Photo courtesy of the Tramways and Light Railway Society, with thanks to David Voice.

Wirral Tramway Company horse tram No 9
A blow-up of the above photo showing the conductor, who appears to be wearing a kepi-style cap, though this is far from certain.

Wirral Tramway Company horse tram No 9
The same horsecar as above (No 9), on the same day, but taken just two minutes later than the previous photo, at 5 minutes to 3 o'clock (see clock above the office door). Photo courtesy of the Tramways and Light Railway Society, with thanks to David Voice.

Wirral Tramway Company horse tram No 9
A blow-up of the above photo showing the conductor, in a little better detail than the first photo. Photo courtesy of the Tramways and Light Railway Society, with thanks to David Voice.

Wirral Tramway Company horse tram No 8, conductor and driver
Wirral Tramway Company Horsecar No 8, pictured in New Chester Road — photo undated, though it may have been taken on the last day the company worked the service (8th May 1900). The driver is wearing fairly standard horse tram attire, whilst the conductor sports a kepi-style cap and long overcoat. The cap would probably have been issued by the company, though it does not appear to carry a badge of any kind. Photo courtesy of the Tramways and Light Railway Society, with thanks to David Voice.