Electric tramcars on the South Staffordshire and Birmingham District Tramways Company Limited, Later South Staffordshire Tramways Company Limited.

Plans for Electrification

The company decided that electric traction was the way forward as early as 1888. The seventh annual meeting took place in the company's offices at Darlaston depot on 29th March, 1888. At the meeting the directors agreed to promote a Bill to incorporate the company in order to extend the company’s operating powers, and to use electric traction on the network. This resulted in the passing of the South Staffordshire Tramways Act, 1889 which allowed the company to be incorporated as the South Staffordshire Tramways Company. The Act also allowed the company to borrow a maximum of £50,000.

The following officials were present at the meeting:
Chairman - W. J. Carruthers Wain
Directors - W. Busby, C. E. Davison, C. James, and the newly appointed F. H. Lloyd
Company Solicitor - Joseph Smith
General Manager - Alfred Dickinson
Company Secretary - H. Hatchett

Mr. W. J. Carruthers was also Managing Director of the Birmingham Tramways Company.

Mr. Alfred Dickinson was also consulting engineer to the Birmingham Tramways Company, and the Birmingham Cable Tramway Company.

Mr. Joseph Smith, who had previously been Town Clerk of Wednesbury was also Chairman of the Birmingham Tramways Company, and Managing Director of the Electric Construction Corporation Limited of Wolverhampton. In October 1890 he went on a fact finding tour of the United States of America to look at electric tramway systems in the country, and while there gave a talk to the American Street Railway Association about English tramways. Around this time he changed his name to Joseph Ebbsmith.

Mr. W. J. Carruthers Wain and Mr Joseph Smith were two of the key founders of the Tramways Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Mr. W. J. Carruthers Wain became President of the Institute.

On 4th March, 1891 at the company's annual meeting, the chairman stated that running costs had increased to 12.71 pence per mile, in spite of rigorous economies. The directors felt that the only sensible way to reduce running costs was to use an overhead electric wire system. The company had already contacted a number of electrical firms who had sent representatives to see what was possible, and were expecting to receive proposals and quotations. The company produced an elaborate booklet entitled "Electric Traction for Ordinary Tramways, Descriptive Pamphlet, 1891". It extolled the virtues of electric traction and stated that the company was ready to recommend that shareholders should agree to electrifying the tramway from Bloxwich to Wednesbury via Walsall using an overhead wire.


A South Staffs electrically-powered tramcar.

In April 1891 the company approached both Walsall and Wednesbury councils to ask permission to electrify the tramway from Walsall to Wednesbury, and Walsall to Bloxwich, using a system of overhead wires. Wednesbury Council immediately agreed to the proposal, but Walsall insisted that the company should pay the expenses of Walsall Corporation's adviser on electric traction, Mr. Frederick Brown, for a fact-finding trip to the USA to investigate the various systems in operation there. The company agreed and also sent Alfred Dickinson along to gather information. During three weeks in May and June 1891 the pair travelled about 4,000 miles around the country and visited all of the main networks.

On his return, Alfred Dickinson stated that he preferred either the Thompson-Houston or the Edison-Sprague system, and applied to the Darlaston Local Board for permission to electrify the line from Darlaston to Mellish Road, Walsall. Mr. Brown submitted a report to Walsall Corporation in which he stated that the overhead system of electrical traction called the trolley system, would be the cheapest, safest, and most efficient means of running street cars. He thought that the side pole and span wire system would be the most suitable for use in Walsall.

Alfred Dickinson presented a paper to the Tramways Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, on 30th December, 1892, in which he stated that the only methods of electric traction to consider were the accumulator, conduit, and overhead wire systems, only the latter of which had so far proved to be perfectly satisfactory.

On 17th September, 1891 an extraordinary company meeting was held to decide upon the methods to be used to raise the required capital needed to electrify the network. It was decided that the required amount would be borrowed by taking out a mortgage on the company's undertaking.

At that time the only overhead wire system in operation in the country was at Leeds on the Roundhay Line. The town councils sent a deputation to Leeds to inspect the line. After the inspection, it was felt that the overhead wires in use at Leeds were unsightly and so unsuitable for use. Alfred Dickinson however, had already been considering this problem, and on 28th March, and 21st December, 1891 he submitted patent applications for "Improvements in masts and trolleys for the Overhead System". On 13th February, 1892 a patent was granted for a mast or arm fitted to the tramcar by a ball and socket joint, and controlled by springs, so that it could swing in any direction. The trolley would be kept in position under the wire by guides extending above the wire, which were sprung on hinges so as to pass obstructions. His successful design became the standard, and fore-runner of the later swivel-head trolleys used on trolley buses.

Alfred Dickinson's design was submitted to the local authorities, and unanimously approved. The company agreed that wherever possible, the poles with the bracket arms for carrying the trolley wire would be placed on the site of existing gas lamps, and would carry the gas lamp. This would reduce the number required and reduce the amount of street clutter. The routes would also be single track with passing places in order to reduce the amount of overhead cabling.


Pleck electricity generating station.

In 1892 the company entered into a contract with the Electric Construction Corporation Limited, Wolverhampton for the equipping of the company's lines from Walsall to Wednesbury, Darlaston, and Bloxwich, and the building of an electricity generating station at Pleck. E.C.C. would also supply all of the electrical equipment and tramcars, maintain the network, and operate the services for a period of five years. Payment was to be by a fixed charge per car mile. The company had close links with the E.C.C. through its secretary, Joseph Ebbsmith who was Managing Director of E.C.C., and Alfred Dickinson who had worked closely with the firm during its installation of the the electrical equipment for the Bristol Road accumulator tramway in Birmingham. The work would be personally supervised by the E.C.C.'s Manager and electrical engineer, Mr. Thomas Parker.

Work in Progress

By April 1892 the E.C.C. were manufacturing equipment for the line, and by August, poles were being erected along the streets. The mild steel poles were made by James Russell & Sons Limited at Wednesbury, and John Russell & Company Limited at Wednesbury and Walsall. Part of the Darlaston depot was equipped for electric traction, as was part of Birchills Depot.

The generating station was built alongside Darlaston Road at Pleck, adjacent to the Walsall branch of the canal from where coal could be delivered directly to the building, and water used to condense steam. There were three 120psi Lancashire-type boilers and three 125hp. horizontal-coupled compound steam engines, all made by Musgrave & Sons of Bolton. The engines had Corliss valve gear and each drove an Elwell-Parker type shunt-wound dynamo via multiple cotton ropes. The dynamos each provided 350 volts DC at 260 amps at a speed of 450 rpm. Only two of the engines and dynamos would be in use at any one time, feeding 350 volts to the line via a switchboard.

The trolley wire was roughly divided electrically into half mile sections, each fed from a cable beneath the road, and a fusebox under the pavement, adjacent to the nearest pole.

The rolling stock consisted of 16 double deck cars, 8 built by Brown, Marshall & Company, and 8 built by the Lancashire Carriage and Wagon Company. They seated 18 passengers inside, 22 outside, and weighed 6 tons 13 cwt.

The prestigious engineering magazine, 'The Railway Engineer' was very sceptical about the project. The January 1893 edition carried the three short articles below:

All of the electrical equipment was made by the E.C.C. including two Elwell-Parker type 15hp. series-wound motors for each car, and all of the control gear. The motor controls and two sets of brake controls were fitted under the stairs, and the motor-control resistances were fitted under the floor.

The poles for the overhead wire were placed at the side of the road, and the bracket arms carrying the trolley wire stretched out over the road from 7 to 10 feet, giving a clear height of 21 feet. By a kind of universal joint, as in Alfred Dickinson's patent, the trolley was allowed a variation of several feet, so that the wire didn't have to be directly over the middle of the track.

South Staffordshire Tramways.  From The Engineer, 18th November, 1892.

Early in the present year the South Staffordshire Tramway Company entered into a contract with the Electric Construction Corporation, of Wolverhampton, for the equipment of a section of its lines with plant for electric traction on what is generally known as the trolley wire system, the lines having hitherto been worked by steam locomotives. The plant is now practically completed, and the inspection by General Hutchinson and Major Cardew, on behalf of the Board of Trade, took place on Saturday, November 12th, so that the electric cars will very shortly come into service.

The lines over which the electric cars are to be run extend from the junction of Holyhead Road and Bridge Street in Wednesbury, through the centre of the borough of Walsall, to Bloxwich, with two branch lines, one running from the Pleck to Darlaston, and the other from Walsall to Mellish Road. The length of streets occupied by the tramways is just over eight miles, six miles having a single line with turn-outs, the other two miles having a double line, making a total length of track, and therefore of trolley wire, of over ten miles. The route taken by the lines is shown on the map - Fig. 5 - which also indicates the position of the generating station on the line between the Pleck and Darlaston.


Fig. 5. A map of the tramway.


The generating station at Pleck, Walsall.

The generating station is on the side of the canal, and has a basin for receiving the barges bringing coal, which discharge directly into the boiler room. The canal water is used for condensing.

The general arrangement of the buildings and plant is shown on the plan and section - Figs. 6 and 7. The three boilers are of the Lancashire type, 7ft. diameter, 30ft. in length, designed for a working pressure of 120 lb. per square inch. The three engines, which, together with the boilers, were made by Messrs. J. Musgrave and Sons, of Bolton, are of the horizontal coupled-compound pattern, each easily capable of indicating 125 horse power with the above steam pressure, when running at a speed of 100 revolutions per minute. The cylinders are 10½in. and 20in. diameter, 30in. stroke, both cylinders being fitted with Corliss valve gear; the flywheels are 10ft. in diameter, and grooved for seven l¼in. diameter ropes. A surface condenser is attached to each engine. The steam and feed pipes are arranged so as to give a duplicate service between the engines, boilers, and pumps.


Fig. 6. The generating station.


Fig. 7. A plan of the generating station.

Arrangements are also provided so that the engines can be run non-condensing if required. The dynamos, one of which is driven from each engine by means of cotton ropes, are of the usual Elwell-Parker type, and give an output of 260 amperes at 300 volts, when running 400 revolutions per minute, the field magnets being shunt wound. The driving pulleys are carried between two bearings, and there is a coupling between the pulley and armature shafts, so that the latter can at any time be removed without taking off the ropes or dismounting the pulley.
Each dynamo is connected by cables carried under the floor to a patent Elwell-Parker automatic magnetic contact, which also acts as the main switch for the machine.

These contacts are adjusted so that, in the event of an excessive current being demanded from the machines - due to any accident or short circuit on the lines - the circuit is opened, and any damage to the machines prevented.

All three machines feed in parallel on to common omnibus bars, between which and the feeders taking current out to the line there is a simple main switch. Ammeters are provided in each dynamo circuit, and a voltmeter with large dial indicates the electromotive force across the omnibus bars.

Multiple contact switches and resistance coils are connected in the shunt circuits for regulating the electromotive force.

A section of the switchboard showing the arrangement for each machine is illustrated in Fig. 4.


Fig. 4. The switchboard.

From the generating station the current is supplied to the 0 gauge copper trolley wire by underground feeders, these being insulated with vulcanised bitumen, lead sheathed, and armoured with a double layer of steel tape, so that they can be laid directly in the ground without further protection; the lengths and sections of the feeders are indicated in the map - Fig. 5.

The return circuit is completed through the rails and earth. At distances of approximately half a mile apart connections are made between the feeders and trolley wire by means of cables drawn up inside the posts. Each section of trolley wire is fed into at both ends, the current passing through fuses placed in an underground box - Fig. 8 - at the foot of the feeding posts. These fuse boxes are made on the diving bell principle, to prevent any possibility of water accumulating in them and rising sufficiently high to reach the connection. The covers are easily drawn up to allow of examination or insertion of new fuses. The map - Fig. 5 - shows the position of the feeding points and fuses.


Fig. 8. Underground fuse boxes.

The trolley wire is carried at a height of 20ft. from the surface of the streets by poles along one side of the road only; arms projecting from the poles - Fig. 7 - carry the insulators supporting the wire. A special arrangement, suggested by Mr. Dickinson, the Tramway Company's engineer, makes it unnecessary that the trolley wire should be at a regular distance from the centre of the rails, the collector being designed so as to allow a variation of several feet. Where there is a double line of rails the pole arm carries two insulators and two trolley wires, one for the up and one for the down line. Automatic overhead switches are fixed at the turn-outs, so as to guide the collector wheel along the right wire.

Fourteen cars made by Messrs. Brown, Marshall, and Co., and the Lancaster Wagon Company, are being supplied for the equipment of the line, each carrying forty passengers, eighteen inside and twenty-two outside. The collector is fixed on one side of the roof of the car, the arrangement being clearly shown in Fig. 7.


Fig. 2. An under truck with motors.


Fig. 3. An Elwell-Parker motor.

The under trucks - Fig. 2 - carry two Elwell-Parker series wound motors - Fig. 3 - each capable of running continuously with a load of 15 horsepower, the normal speed being 400 revolutions per minute; the armatures are geared up to the axles by means of cast steel double helical wheels and pinions, having a ratio of 4 to 1. One motor is considered to be amply sufficient to take a fully loaded car up the heaviest gradient of 1 in 28 occurring on the line. The practice of using two motors on each car appears to have been brought over from America, where the lines are not so well laid, and where, also, they have to contend with snow and ice throughout the winter. On very few lines in England do we consider that it will be necessary to use two motors, although it will be necessary that the one motor shall be more than 15 horsepower, unless a simple form of gear for varying the speed with a constant speed of motor be used. Driving switches are fitted at both ends of the car, and arranged so that either or both of the motors can be in use, the regulation of speed being effected by putting resistance into the motor circuit.

The whole of the electrical plant has been designed, manufactured, and installed by the Electric Construction Corporation, who are also responsible for the other portion of the plant supplied to them by various firms as sub-contractors. The running of the line is also in the hands of the Electric Construction Corporation, they having undertaken to work it at a fixed charge per car mile for a number of years. Mr. Alfred Dickinson has been appointed to superintend the working on their behalf.

The Line in Operation

The electrification work had been completed by November, and so the Board of Trade inspection was carried out on Saturday 12th November by Mayor General Hutchinson and Major Cardew. They arrived by train at James Bridge Station and were met by a large party including the mayors and officials from Walsall and Wednesbury, several of the tramway company's directors, Alfred Dickinson, and Thomas Parker from the E.C.C. They boarded one of the new trams and travelled to Darlaston depot, where the motors were inspected. The party then re-boarded the tram and travelled back along the same route to Pleck generating station for an inspection of the mechanical and electrical machinery. Afterwards they travelled in the tram over all of the electrified lines, which were duly inspected.

Mayor General Hutchinson's favourable report arrived on 21st November and the official opening ceremony took place at Pleck generating station on Saturday 31st December. Guests included the Bishop of Lichfield, the mayors of Walsall, Wednesbury and West Bromwich, the chairman and directors of the tram company, and directors of the E.C.C. The current was turned on by Mrs Carruthers Wain, and the party proceeded in one of the new trams to the drill hall in Walsall for lunch.

The new trams began running on 1st January, 1893. The E.C.C. appointed Alfred Dickinson to oversee the working of the line. They were operated by the E.C.C. as agreed in the terms of the contract. The tramway company then paid the E.C.C. 4½ pence per operational mile. Eight of the new trams were based at the Darlaston depot, and eight at Birchills. Each driver and conductor was responsible for the operation of their tram, which they ran for six days a week. On the seventh day it was checked-over at the depot. No uniforms were supplied. Drivers usually wore a bowler hat, and conductors had an ordinary flat cap.

The new system worked well, much to everyone's satisfaction. In the first twelve months of operation the electric tramcars ran 262,692 miles and carried 1,668,057 passengers, at a cost of just 4.06 pence per mile, compared with 7.04 pence for the steam trams. Although the electrification had been a great success, the tram company faced an uncertain future. Some of the shareholders were extremely unhappy with the company, and in April and May, 1894 they urged their fellow shareholders to sign a petition asking for the winding-up of the company. The petition was presented by Mr. Alfred Dawson and other shareholders to Mr. Justice Vaughan Williams in the Chancery Division of the High Court of Justice. It made allegations of fraud, and stated that the shareholders wanted more say in the running of the company, and a new chairman. As a result, an extraordinary meeting of the shareholders was held on 12th June, and a new Board elected. They were: Chairman - Alftred Dawson, Directors - William Somers Schuster, and Samuel Richardson Blundstone.

The April 1894 timetable for the electric tramcars includes details of a fifteen minute service between Bloxwich and Wednesbury via Walsall, and a half hourly service between Darlaston and Mellish Road, Walsall, via The Bridge.

The fare from Darlaston to The Bridge was three pence, as was the fare from The Bridge to Wednesbury.

Return tickets and season tickets could also be purchased.


Another view of Pleck generating station, possibly taken during an early inspection.

Stormy Times

The company remained in a poor financial state, so much so that the E.C.C. announced that as from midnight on Friday 14th December, 1894, it would end its contract with the tramway. The E.C.C. claimed that it was owed between £7,000 and £8,000 by the tram company. The sudden stoppage came as a blow to many people. The electric trams had been very popular, operating a frequent and punctual service that had become a necessity for much of the local population. The Mayor and Town Clerk of Walsall stepped-in to try and resolve the problem in order to get the trams running again. Agreement was reached between the two parties, and the trams began running again on 22nd December, but from the 7th January, 1895 the fifteen minute service on the Bloxwich, Walsall, and Wednesbury route became half hourly. The fifteen minute service was reinstated in the following September.

On 18th August, 1895 Mr. Alfred Dickinson J.P., C.E. left the company to form his own business in Birmingham as a tramway consultant. He was replaced by Mr. J. J. Robins, but remained in overall charge of the electrified lines on behalf of the E.C.C.

Problems resurfaced towards the end of 1895 when the E.C.C. informed the local councils that it could not continue to operate the line after the end of the year because of the dreadful condition of the track, which was in bad need of repair. Some work must have been carried out because the trams continued to run.

In 1896 the tram company became involved in two court cases. The first in February was against Joseph Ebbsmith and W. J. Caruthers which resulted in the company being awarded £12,845 plus costs. The second involved the E.C.C. which was still asking for the money it was owed. The case, held in the Chancery Court was won by the E.C.C. and resulted in long-term negotiations between the two companies. By June 1897 a provisional agreement had been reached. The E.C.C. took-up an interest in the tramway company and received a lease on the electrical tramways.

Towards the end of 1896 the newly formed British Electric Traction Company attempted, but failed, to promote a Bill in Parliament to enable it to take-over all of the local tramways, including the South Staffs, and form a unified electrically-powered system. After the failure of the Bill, B.E.T. began to contact individual companies, and local authorities with the intention of taking-over individual lines. On 11th June, 1897 it reached an agreement with the E.C.C. in which the E.C.C. handed-over its entire interest in the tramway in exchange for £50,000 in debentures. This was assigned to BET by an indenture dated 29th July, 1897 which gave BET a controlling interest in the company.


Another view of one of the electric tramcars.

The story continues in the following sections:


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