How Birkenhead built the first street tramway in Europe
The Wirral has long been a hub for cutting edge transportation. From ship-building expertise and railway innovation to pioneering underground tunnels, our peninsula has always found interesting ways to keep moving. However, many people are still surprised to discover that, during the nineteenth century, Birkenhead was home to the first street tramway in Europe. It's a story cherished by local historians, but one that deserves greater attention from the masses. So let's take a step back in time and relive that gilded age.
It all began with an American chap named George Francis Train. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, the aptly-named Train was a transport pioneer who made a fortune in shipping before turning to other projects. He also operated tram services in major US cities such as New Orleans, New York and Philadelphia, and yearned to export the concept around the globe.
A progressive who supported the Suffrage movement in his native land, Train eventually ran for US President as an independent candidate, but that came many years after his tramway exploits. Initially, he homed in on Liverpool as an ideal starting point for his ventures in Britain, perhaps owing to the strong shipping heritage with which he was familiar. Nevertheless, Train couldn't convince the authorities and his plans never gained traction.
Next, he turned his attention to Birkenhead, located just across the Mersey. The 30-year old liked the town's layout, which was similar to the grid pattern of many American cities. While a train service had operated between Chester and Birkenhead since 1840, and a horse-drawn omnibus was also popular, Train also saw a gap in the market. He managed to convince John Laird, chairman of the Birkenhead Commissioners, to grant a six-month trial to the idea of a street tramway, and plans moved on apace from there.
Liable for any damage incurred by the tramway, Train formed a company to oversee the project, then recruited labourers, before putting his vision into action. The parts for his trams were bought in America and then shipped to Wirral, where they were assembled swiftly. Each tram was 24 feet long and seven feet wide, and capable of accommodating 48 passengers. The first trams would be horse-drawn, and it took just six weeks to install the lines, which ran from Woodside Ferry to the entrance of Birkenhead Park. By 30th August 1860, everything was set for launch, as Birkenhead prepared to blaze a trail through the world of transportation.
The flamboyant Train laid on a lavish banquet to mark the opening of his creation. The lunch party began at two o'clock, ended at eight, and featured fine music and ample toasts. Train invited more than over 1,200 important guests, including many heads of state, most notably the Queen and Pope, but few could attend. Still, a large crowd assembled to watch the tramway's inauguration at Hamilton Square, and a wonderful time was had by all.
Almost 5,000 passengers used the trams on their first day, riding at seven miles per hour and enjoying the smoother ride. The original route was one and a quarter miles in length, encompassing Shore Road, Argyle Street and Conway Street before terminating near the park. The tramway caused some controversy by operating on Sundays, but was otherwise generally well received by a populace keen for progress in all facets of life.
Buoyed by the success of his enterprise, Train attempted to replicate the service in London. Unfortunately, the tram rails stood too high above the roads there, disrupting traffic. Train was subsequently arrested for damaging the streets, as his plans were halted. Nevertheless, common sense soon prevailed as Parliament permitted trams in the capital, from where the phenomenon spread into Europe.
But no matter where new lines were established around the world, Birkenhead was always deemed the spiritual home of street trams. In August 1901, the service was electrified as part of Birkenhead Corporation Tramways, further improving reliability and timeliness. It remained that way until closing in 1937, when an economic depression coupled with the World War and increased popularity of motor buses signalled the end for Birkenhead trams. After seventy-seven years, the service was discontinued, ending a vibrant chapter in our history.
Train always enjoyed a colourful lifestyle that couldn't be confined to one city, let alone one objective. Therefore, it's difficult to decipher how involved he was with operations at Birkenhead. During his Presidential campaign, the showman took an 80-day trip around the world, strumming up support both for his political and business ambitions.
It is widely believed that this episode inspired Jules Verne's Phileas Fogg character in Around the World in Eighty Days, but Train's bid for power never gained serious momentum. Later in life, he became increasingly eccentric and attached himself to a wild variety of projects, before dying in New York City on 5th January 1904 at the age of 74.
It can be argued that the man did too much to be remembered for one sole act, but his contribution to Birkenhead, and to transport more generally, should never be forgotten in these parts. The Wirral Tramway and Transport Museum, based in Taylor Street, ensures that Birkenhead's place in the tale of world travel will always be remembered. A ceremonial tram line is also in operation along part of the old route, affording visitors the opportunity to step back in time.
Ultimately, we have a lot to be satisfied about on the Wirral. Our peninsula has a diverse and captivating history, and has played a pioneering role in more areas than many people tend to appreciate. Accepting, building and embracing Europe's first street tramway is one of the more overlooked aspects of our heritage, and that deserves to change.
Without George Francis Train and the progressive outlook of Birkenhead planners, a crucial step in the transport saga may have been skipped. Our forefathers played a huge role in helping Britain to move forward, and for that we should be immensely proud.