The Black Country’s first extensive steam powered tramway

The South Staffordshire and Birmingham District Steam Tramways Company Limited, later called the Staffordshire Tramways Company Limited, was formed on 28th November, 1878 to construct and promote tramways in the County of Stafford. It had a nominal capital of £50,000 in £10 shares, and was allowed to operate under the terms of the Staffordshire Tramways Order, 1879, confirmed by the Tramways Orders Confirmation Act, 1879. The company's headquarters and tram depot was in Corns Street, Darlaston, off Birmingham Street. The Act permitted the construction of tramways from the terminus of the Wolverhampton Tramways Company’s line at Moxley, to the Dartmouth Arms, at the junction of Holyhead Road and Dudley Street, Wednesbury, by two different routes. The first was the direct route from Moxley along the Holyhead Road, the second was via Darlaston, along Moxley Road, Pinfold Street, Darlaston Road, Trouse Lane, then via the High Bullen to Holyhead Road.

Over the next few years further acts of Parliament allowed the company to build and operate an extensive network, covering much of the Black Country. The Tramways Orders Confirmation (No. 1) Act, 1880 permitted the use of steam or any form of powered traction for a period of seven years, and for further periods of seven years if granted. As with all the acts, permission to operate would still be required from the Board of Trade and local authorities. Parts of some of the permitted tramways were not completed for many years, others such as the Holyhead Road, Moxley to Wednesbury line were never built, and some sections were modified as a result of subsequent legislation.

The acts and authorised tramways can be summarised as follows:

The Tramways Orders Confirmation (No. 2) Act, 1880. Tramways in Walsall

Tramway 1: From the Pleck at the junction of Wednesbury Road and Darlaston Road to Mellish Road via Bradford Street, The Bridge, Bridge Street, and Lichfield Street.

Tramway 2: From a junction with tramway 1 at The Bridge to High Street, Bloxwich via Park Street, Stafford Street, and Bloxwich Road.

Tramway 3: A reversing triangle at The Bridge and its junction with Park Street.

Tramways Orders Confirmation (No. 2) Act, 1881. Tramways in West Bromwich and Great Bridge

Tramway 1: From the junction of Holyhead Road and Bridge Street, Wednesbury, by the White Horse Inn, to Carter’s Green, West Bromwich via Bridge Street, and Holloway Bank.

Tramway 2: From the end of Tramway 1 at Carter’s Green, West Bromwich, to the existing tramway at New Inns, Holyhead Road, Handsworth.

Tramway 3: From Carter’s Green, West Bromwich, to the Stalk Inn on the boundary of Great Bridge and Tipton, via Dudley Street, Great Bridge Street, and Great Bridge.

The South Staffordshire Tramways Order, 1881. A tramway in Wednesbury and Tipton

From the White Horse Hotel, Bridge Street, Wednesbury, to a terminus at the junction of Birmingham Road and Tipton Road, Dudley. The route followed Holyhead Road, Victoria Street, Great Western Street, Leabrook Road, Gospel End Road, Wednesbury Oak Road, Bloomfield Road, Dudley Road, and Tipton Road, Dudley.

The Dudley and Tipton Tramways Order, 1881. Tramways in Tipton and a short length of track in Birmingham Road, Dudley

Tramway 1: Great Bridge Street, Tipton to the parish boundary in Burnt Tree Road, via the Market Place, Horseley Heath, and Dudley Port Road.

Tramway 2: From a junction with tramway 1 in Great Bridge Street, Tipton to Ocker Hill, via the Market Place, New Road, and Toll End Road.

The Staffordshire Tramways (Extension) Order, 1882. Tramways in Darlaston and Wednesbury

Tramway 1: From Pinfold Street, Darlaston to Wednesbury Road at the Pleck, Walsall via Walsall Road and James Bridge.

Tramway 2: From the High Bullen, Wednesbury to the Market Place, Wednesbury via High Street.

Tramway 3: A short line between the end of Great Western Street, Wednesbury, joining tramway 1, along Dudley Street to the line on Holyhead Road.

The Walsall and District Tramways Order, 1882. Tramways in Wednesbury and Walsall

Tramway 1: From the White Horse Hotel, Bridge Street, Wednesbury to the Pleck, Walsall, joining the tramway to Walsall, via Lower High Street, the Market Place, Walsall Street, and Wood Green. It could only be built if at least two thirds of the owners and occupiers of the properties in Lower High Street, and Walsall Street, Wednesbury were in favour.

Tramway 2: A short section of line between the junction of High Street, and Pinfold. Bloxwich, to the junction of High Street, and Station Street, Bloxwich.

The tramways had a gauge of 3ft. 6 inches, and were mostly single track with passing places, although a few short lengths of double track were installed. Stand pipes were also fitted between the tracks at convenient stopping places to refill the engines’ water tanks.

Construction began on the Handsworth, West Bromwich, Wednesbury, and Darlaston line on 26th July, 1882 with an initiatory ceremony near the White Horse Hotel in Bridge Street, Wednesbury. Six inch girder rails, 75 to 78 lbs. per yard, were laid on a concrete bed with granite sets between the rails, and on an eighteen inch strip on either side of the track. By early September, track was being laid in Holyhead Road.

On 16th May, 1883 the Wolverhampton Chronicle carried the following brief article:

On Tuesday, considerable interest was taken in the running of tramcars from the goods depot of the L & N.W. Railway at Wednesbury to the car shed belonging to the South Staffordshire and Birmingham District Steam Tramways Company Limited, near Darlaston Station…… The cars are constructed in a manner that will afford every comfort to the passengers. They are provided with cushioned seats inside, while those who travel outside will be protected by an awning, either from the sun or the inclemency of the weather.

On 26th May, 1883 the Midland Advertiser reported: On Wednesday last, one of the new steam tram cars had a trial trip, starting from Darlaston, proceeding through Wednesbury to West Bromwich.

Major General Hutchinson, R.E., the Inspecting Officer for the Board of Trade, carried out an inspection of the line on 25th June, 1883. Special engines and cars were provided for the inspection to accommodate the company directors and invited guests. Major General Hutchinson walked the whole length of the line starting at Handsworth, to carefully examine the track, and the points and crossings.

As originally built, the line through Wednesbury from Bridge Street to the High Bullen went via Victoria Street, Great Western Street and Dudley Street, presumably to include the Great Western Railway Station. Major General Hutchinson’s only criticism was that the line would be better if it went along the Holyhead Road directly to Dudley Street and the High Bullen. He was assured that the route would be amended accordingly, and when done the Board’s approval was quickly received.

Mr. Alfred Dickinson was appointed as Traffic and Locomotive Superintendent, and the line opened for business on 16th July, 1883 with a half-hourly service. The first steam tramcars had Wilkinson patent vertical boilers, cost £850 each, and were as follows:

Fleet number Builder Year
1 to 2 Wilkinson of Wigan 1883
3 to 12 Beyer, Peacock and Company 1883
13 to 16 Thomas Green & Son 1883
17 to 21 Wilkinson of Wigan 1883
Others were soon added to make the number up to 38:
22 to 29 Beyer, Peacock and Company 1884
30 to 37 Thomas Green & Son 1884
38 Falcon Engine & Car Works 1885
The double deck bogie cars with canopy covers and open sides were as follows:
1 to 12 Starbuck Car and Wagon Company  
13 to 28 Falcon Engine & Car Works  

The lines from Darlaston to Moxley, and from Wednesbury to Dudley were soon completed, and inspected by Major General Hutchinson on 8th August, 1883. In October the company bowed to public pressure and introduced penny fares. They were as follows:

Darlaston to the Wrexham, in Holyhead Road; the Wrexham to Hill Top; Hill Top to West Bromwich Town Hall; the Town Hall to The Beeches; and The Beeches to the New Inns.

Three more sections opened in January:

14th January, 1884                  Carter's Green West Bromwich to Great Bridge.

21st January, 1884                  Wednesbury to Dudley, via Tipton.

21st January, 1884                  Darlaston to Moxley (operating as a shuttle service).

On 5th May, 1884, Wednesbury council gave permission for the building of a reversing triangle for Walsall trams from Holyhead Road to High Street, and on the same day work began on the line from the Bull Stake, Darlaston to the Pleck, which opened on 4th December, 1884.

A South Staffs steam tram passing through Wednesbury market.

By the beginning of June 1884, work on the line to Walsall from Lower High Street, Wednesbury, and the section from Walsall to Bloxwich had been completed. On 18th June a trial trip was made from Wednesbury to Bloxwich by company officials and guests. The report of the journey stated that:

The journey was accompanied without the slightest hitch, and the car was extremely steady in progress…. The several gradients on the line caused but little inconvenience, and the first stoppage for water was at Stafford Street, Walsall.

On the afternoon of 15th July, 1884, Major Marindin, R.E., inspected the line on behalf of the Board of Trade. He expressed some concern about restricted clearances on Wood Green railway bridge and insisted that drivers must stop their engines when crossing the bridge, or when called upon to do so by other road users. He also pointed out that the section beyond the Spread Eagle Inn, Bloxwich, was not wide enough to allow the statutory clearance and until land could be obtained, and widening carried out, this section could not be approved.

A further inspection of the Bloxwich section was carried out by Major General Hutchinson on 14th November. He decided that when a wall had been taken down, and a narrower footpath provided, the clearance would be adequate. The work was duly carried out and approval given. The tramway opened on 4th December, 1884, and provided a half-hourly service throughout the day, and on Sunday afternoons and evenings. It is also believed that the extension from Walsall to Mellish Road opened on the same day, or if not, certainly by the 9th December.

At this time, six more double bogie cars were purchased from the Falcon Engine & Car Works (numbers 29 to 34).

In January 1885, Walsall Council agreed to extend the deadline for the completion of the section from Bloxwich High Street to the junction of High Street and Station Street, the authorised terminus. In August of that year, Walsall Council agreed to purchase 33½ square yards of ground fronting High Street for £170. Farm buildings and a wall were taken down, and the road widened, so that the company could run its cars to Pinfold. The extension opened on 21st November, 1885. On 12th October of that year, the Great Bridge to Tipton Road, Dudley section opened.

A tragic accident occurred in Lichfield Street, Walsall in June 1886 when a five year old boy was killed after riding on the step next to the engine. The car had just left the Mellish Road terminus when he jumped off, stumbled, and was run over by the car.

The company had running rights over several other lines, built and operated by rival companies, including the Dudley and Stourbridge Company’s line to Dudley market place. In order to test its claim on the line, the company sent a tram from its Dudley terminus in Tipton Road, along the line to the market place, and from 9th January, 1885 a service ran (at least for several years) from Dudley market place to Wednesbury.

The company’s headquarters, main depot and workshops were in Corns Street, Darlaston, off Birmingham Street. There were also three small depots, one in Dudley at the end of Tipton Road, opposite the entrance to Dudley Railway Station. Another on Holyhead Road, Handsworth, near the city boundary, and a third in Bloxwich Road, Leamore, Walsall, near the railway line, where the industrial estate is today.

The Directors’ Report for 1884 states that the financial results were not very satisfactory owing to the unparalleled depression of trade throughout the district, which had considerably affected traffic receipts. Earnings for 1884 amounted to £12,414. The trams covered a total of 318,072 miles over the company’s twenty three miles of track. At this time the company had liabilities of £87,185, mainly owed to the contractors who constructed the network. Mr. L. C. Clovis was appointed as General Manager, and given the task of investigating the working of the tramways to see where savings could be made.

Due to the poor financial state of the company, it was decided in 1885 to prematurely end the building of the new lines which had been authorised. In November of that year, Mr. Alfred Dickinson, the Locomotive Superintendent based at Darlaston was appointed General Manager in place of Mr. Clovis. In 1886 Mr. Dickinson took out four patents for rail cleaners that could be fitted to the front of the engine. One of them proved invaluable during the winter of 1887 when snow and ice was quickly cleared from the lines.

Mr. Dickinson also patented a road-rail vehicle for use with goods traffic. It had rail and road wheels, either of which could be swung into position so that the vehicle could be used on the tramway, or horse-drawn on conventional roads. The company was greatly in favour of goods traffic and ordered several wagons built to Dickinson’s design. In June 1887 a goods service began across the system, but not initially in Walsall. Around 150 tons were carried each week between Smethwick and towns in the Black Country, mainly Darlaston and Willenhall. Around 50 tons were carried daily between the Pleck and Wednesbury. Unfortunately both West Bromwich and Handsworth councils insisted that the goods traffic had to stop because it was much noisier than passenger cars. The company then came to an arrangement with the Birmingham and Midland Tramways so that the lucrative goods traffic could continue on a different route. Also in 1887 the company inaugurated a parcel delivery service by tram, to and from Birmingham, and opened a parcels office in Colmore Row, Birmingham. The 1894 timetable stated that parcels could be delivered by tramcar to any part of the company's system, and delivered free of charge by a company agent within three quarters of a mile. Above that distance one penny was charged for each additional quarter of a mile. The standard charges were as follows:

Parcels not exceeding  
2lbs 2 pence
8lbs 3 pence
16lbs 4 pence
30lbs 5 pence

Plus 1 penny for each additional 10lbs

An impression of a Dickinson wagon and steam locomotive at Darlaston Bull Stake.

Mr. Alfred Dickinson, J.P. General Manager.

Mr. Alfred Dickinson, J.P. was born in Peterborough on February 29th, 1856 and educated at the Academy in Gorton near Manchester.

Before joining the Staffordshire Tramways Company in 1883, he spent seven years at the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway which in 1897 became the Great Central Railway. During his time with the railway company he worked in most of the departments.

As a Justice of the Peace, he served on the Wednesbury Borough Bench.


The following passenger timetable was published in the Walsall Observer in 1887:

The Tramway Service

The Bridge to North Walsall and Bloxwich. At 25 minutes past, and 5 minutes to every hour, from 8.25 a.m. to 9.25 p.m. Extra on Tuesdays and Saturdays at 9.55 p.m.

Bloxwich and North Walsall to The Bridge. At 5 minutes to, and 25 minutes past every hour, commencing at 8.55 a.m. and continuing until 9.55 p.m. Extra on Tuesdays and Saturdays at 10.25. North Walsall 10 minutes later than Bloxwich.

The Bridge to Pleck, Wood Green, and Wednesbury. At 15 minutes past, and 15 minutes to every hour, from 9.15 a.m. 10 10.45 p.m. Extra on Saturdays to the Pleck only at 10.30 and 11.0 p.m.

Pleck to The Bridge. At 15 minutes past, and 15 minutes to every hour, from 8.15 a.m. to 9.45 p.m. From Wednesbury 20 minutes and Wood Green 7 minutes earlier than Pleck, except the first tram which starts from Pleck. Extra from Pleck only on Saturdays at 10.15 and 10.45 p.m.

The Bridge to Mellish Road. At 10 minutes past, and 20 minutes to each hour, from 9.10 a.m. to 9.40 p.m. Extra on Tuesdays and Saturdays at 10.10 p.m.

Mellish Road to The Bridge. At 9.25 a.m. and at 25 minutes past, and 5 minutes to every hour, from 10.25 a.m. to 9.55 p.m. Extra on Tuesdays and Saturdays at 10.25 p.m.

The Bridge to Pleck, James Bridge, and Darlaston. At 5 minutes past each hour, from 11.5 a.m. to 10.5 p.m. Extra on Tuesdays and Saturdays at 10.35 p.m. Extra from Pleck to Darlaston at 9.45 a.m. each day, and at 11.10 p.m. on Saturdays only.

Darlaston to The Bridge. At 15 minutes to every hour, from 8.45 a.m. to 8.45 p.m. Extra from Darlaston to James Bridge and Pleck only at 8.0 a.m. every day, and 9.45 p.m. on Tuesdays and Saturdays from Darlaston to The Bridge. James Bridge 8 minutes, and Pleck 15 minutes later than the Darlaston times.

Sundays. There are no Sunday trams between The Bridge and Mellish Road. On the other sections the trams run as on weekdays, but in the afternoons only.

Although a large number of people greatly benefitted from the trams (3,438,819 passengers were carried in 1885), the company received some complaints from local authorities. Both Handsworth and West Bromwich councils complained about the emission of smoke and steam, and noise and clatter. The Board of Trade sent Major General Hutchinson to look into them. He made a report suggesting several minor improvements, which were duly carried out by the company. Complaints were also received from Walsall about congestion caused by the trams when they stopped to load or unload at The Bridge.

Read about the
Darlaston Depot

At the sixth annual meeting of the company, held at the offices in Darlaston, on 28th April, 1887, it was stated that the continuing depression in trade had been very prejudicial to traffic, which had also been affected by exceptionally severe weather. The mileage of 434,486 and the number of passengers, 2,855,690, were both down on the previous year, though traffic receipts were up by £495, to £18,110. Working and general expenses had been reduced, as had wages, but repairs had increased, from £2,109 to £3,195. Gross profit was £3,291, as against only £628 in 1885.

On Saturday, 10th September, 1887, a fatal accident occurred on the reversing triangle at the Dudley terminus. A Birmingham and Midland car was standing on the triangle with the rear of the passenger car just clear of the points as a South Staffs car came down from Dudley, bound for Wednesbury. The engine took the points, but the car jumped them and crashed into the rear of the other engine, fatally injuring a woman passenger who was boarding the Birmingham and Midland car.

The operation of the trams was controlled by the Board of Trade regulations which allowed a maximum speed of eight miles per hour, and four miles per hour through facing points. All engines had to be fitted with governors that could not be tampered with by drivers. They were designed to cut-off steam and apply the brakes if the speed exceeded ten miles per hour. A speed indicator also had to be fitted, along with a fender to push obstructions aside. All machinery including wheels, and coupling and connecting rods, had to be behind covers, from four inches above rail level, and as far as possible, no smoke or steam was to be emitted by the engines.

The company’s annual meeting took place on 29th March, 1888 at the Darlaston Depot. The annual report stated that traffic receipts had increased by £1,126, equalling 10 shillings and 48 pence per mile.

The average fare per passenger was 1.49 pence. Annual profit was £2,416. The cars had run 434,011 miles, and carried 2,966,000 passengers.

The company’s thirteen goods wagons had run 4,500 miles on rail and road, and carried 3,332 tons of goods, at an average rate of 2s. 5d. per ton, or 20.02 pence per mile run. The company’s fortunes continued to improve.

At the end of the following year the profit had increased to £3,250, and 3,027,361 passengers were carried, as well as 5,100 tons of goods.

At the 1888 annual meeting the directors decided to promote a Bill to incorporate the company as a Parliamentary Company so as to extend the company’s operating powers, and to use electric traction on the network. The Bill resulted in the passing of the South Staffordshire Tramways Act, 1889, and the company was re-formed as the South Staffordshire Tramways Company. At the 1890 annual meeting it was reported that traffic receipts were higher than the previous year by £2,113. During the previous twelve months the cars ran 395,758 miles and carried 3,276,285 passengers. The number of goods wagons had been increased to twenty, and the amount of goods carried had increased to 5,783 tons at an average rate of 37 shillings and 4 pence per ton.

It was clear that the new company intended to run electrically-powered trams, but it would be some time before they came into operation. In the meantime, complaints about excessive steam and smoke continued, particularly from Handsworth Council who had strong feelings on the matter.

The Board of Trade granted only a two years extension to the company’s licence to operate steam, although this was extended to 1st October, 1894, then to 15th February, 1895, again to 25th March, 1897, and finally to 23rd October, 1904.

On 22nd November, 1894 a fatal boiler explosion occurred at Darlaston Depot involving tram number 13, built by Thomas Green & Son in 1883. A fitter was tightening down the boiler manhole, when the boiler exploded, from which he received fatal injuries. This is the only recorded boiler explosion on the company’s network.

Steam traction remained in use on the Wednesbury to Darlaston route until well into the 20th century. The last steam tram ran from Wednesbury to Darlaston on 15th June, 1904.

The change-over to electric traction was a vast and expensive undertaking. If the steam services had finished earlier, the company would probably not have survived. Although the steam trams were not liked by many, they had offered a reliable and punctual service for many years, allowing people to easily commute from town to town, greatly changing their lives.

The story of the company will continue in the next section, which is about electric traction.

Return to the
previous page