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 initial 1.5-mile, horse-drawn line ran from Woodside on the Mersey to the entrance to Birkenhead Park, being extended southwards to Oxton in late August 1861. 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 run, as per British practice.

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 inside edges of which were 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.

Train sold his interest in the BSRCo 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. The latter was to have serious repercussions for the company, when in early 1862 a local omnibus proprietor — Thomas Evans — started to run vehicles (with flanged wheels) over the tracks, which somewhat surprisingly, led to the company granting him a lease to work the services! The company was however in poor health financially, and a failure to pay a fine — due to contempt of court — led to the tramcars being seized by the bailiff around the 5th August 1862, all services stopping as a consequence. After a short hiatus, during which the various parties evidently reach agreement, services were restarted on the 18th August, but were now worked by a Mr Charles Castle.

A much-needed injection of capital came in 1864 via James McHenry, which resulted in operation once more being taken over by the BRSCo, but more importantly, included 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 system was converted in two stages (September 1864 and September 1865), and an extension was built to Woodside Ferry, which opened on the 21st November 1864; the latter was owned by Birkenhead Improvement Commissioners, making them the first local authority in the British Isles to a own a tramway. This took the tramway to its final size under the BSRCo of circa 2.5 miles.

The company continued to struggle financially, never paying a dividend on the ordinary shares, though it did manage to make ends meet by the 1870s, before finally selling out to the newly formed Birkenhead Tramway Company in 1877.

Although the opening year (1860) of the tramway is 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 marked 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, 30th August 1860, at the junction of Argyle St and Price St. 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.