Our Curator of Technology, Liz McIvor agreed to write this week’s blog.

She writes:

What’s the difference between a tram and a trolleybus?

Both forms of transport are run by overhead electrified hangars and cables, but tramways are metal rails set in the road surface, provided for tramcars to follow a fixed route, whereas trolleybuses have wheels. In UK cities, trams especially (being established before the trolleybus) seem to be perceived as both a sign of modernity as well as a symbol of nostalgia. How has this happened?

Visitors to some popular seaside resorts like Blackpool and heritage attractions such as Crich tramway museum in Derbyshire can see and travel on vintage tramcars to try to capture a sense of what it was like to travel the rails in the previous century.

This sort of heritage experience is popular, although not as easy to find as heritage railway lines on the tourist trail. Like travelling by steam train or British rail diesel class, most of the people who buy the tickets for a day out now, have no memory of travelling this way. Even those who do remember what it was like to make a journey by steam or by electric around the North of England tend to remember very fondly, and are less likely to recall crowded carriages, the smell of wet coats, threadbare seats or what happened when it snowed.

For the enthusiast, all such supposedly negative points are part of the attraction. There are plenty of tram as well as trolleybus enthusiasts with us today, but even in their heyday one local man, Frank Hartley, could have been said to eat, breath and sleep trams.

Living in Eccleshill, Mr Hartley had something of an obsession with documenting all types of tramcars, street furniture, tools and documents connected with Bradford City tramways, as well as those services offered in other parts of the UK both past and present. He collected photographs, plans and parts of vehicles, built his own models and made it his mission to pass on his extensive knowledge to other enthusiasts as well as non-specialists, by donating his collection to Bradford Industrial Museum.

Now a part of the Photographic Archive, apart from the occasional use by transport historians enthusiasts, it forms a fascinating record of public transport in the city, which was one of the last to phase out electrified transport in the 1970’s.

Trams were first introduced to the public streets by private entrepreneurs to be pulled by horses or run with steam engines, but they had been used in industry long before.

Coal fields and quarries had installed rails for wagons or corves to make moving heavy goods easier, and they are documented as early as the 16th century. It took centuries before the technology would be adapted to carry people, and it was massive urban populations with their demands for travel which made it profitable.

In 1823, French immigrant Engineer Marc Isambard Brunel wrote a birthday greeting to his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel in which he suggested that his son learn all he could about the making of iron at Bowling Ironworks in South Bradford. Brunel Senior suggested that his son might already be spending his 17th birthday there as he wrote.

“I hope, dear child, that you are using your time wisely. If you are at Bowling it is there that you must study the true composition of iron from the mineral to the finished product. How much coal, how much lime, mineral, how much coke, in a word, every process.

They will refuse you no opportunity there, and when you know your facts, you will be able to speak with manufacturers whom you will see later.”

Bowling was served by a network of tramways from the 1790’s to move coal and ironstone around the vast site to blast furnaces and workshops as well as link with the Bradford and Leeds and Liverpool canal to collect lime from boats coming from Skipton. The nearby Low Moor Company also had extensive tramways in the area.

industry had come close to the old manor house by the ‘white gate’ in 1825, so the resident family, the Lindley Woods moved out of Bolling Hall for good
Bolling Hall Map – Industry had come close to the old manor house, so the resident family, the Lindley-Woods moved out of Bolling Hall for good


Map of Bowling iron works - shows the site after 1846 of massive metal and coal industry south of the city with tramlines on both sides
Map of Bowling iron works – shows the site after 1846 of massive metal and coal industry south of the city with tramlines on both sides

By the mid 1900’s, Bradford had become urbanised and was drawing thousands of workers from all over the country as well as from Europe to work in new, purpose built factories and foundries as the centre of the Worsted trade. Despite hard times during industrial slumps, the population had continued to grow beyond the boundaries of the original city centre. Former rural villages were being turned into suburbs, and people needed to find a reliable way to get around.

Following a successful installation of a tramway in Birkenhead in 1860 (ironically by a man named Mr Train), other cities started to experiment with tram services. The confused timetables offered by private persons and the congestion of the already crowded streets meant that authorities were forced to step in to regulate the way public transport could be operated. The Tramways Act of 1870 demanded that a company laying track must also pave and maintain a certain amount of roadway, to keep things running smoothly, but it didn’t force cities to work together to stick to using the same gauge track, or to join up their operations. As a result, even neighbouring places kept up rivalries, and made it difficult for people to use two different services. As a result of these problems, both Bradford and neighbouring Keighley never came to an agreement to work together, and Keighley only became commutable from Bradford by rail via the Queensbury lines or by motor bus in the 20th century.

Bradford Corporation began to lease the rights for tram services in 1880, but began to experiment with setting up overhead electric power almost straight away. The city was the first to provide an electric power supply in 1889, having opened its own tram route at Bolton Road. The corporation went on to take over the private leases and phase out the commercial trams to become Bradford Corporation Tramways but ran their last tram on May 6th 1950, having gradually replaced them with trolley and motor buses.

The reign of the tram was fairly short, but in their time they provided a clean, reliable and cheap form of transport to the masses.

The same year the trams stopped running, Frank Hartley exhibited his collection of tram models at Cartwright Hall in Lister Park, which was then a museum as well as an Art Gallery and gave talks to the public about tram construction. He said at the time

“The exhibit has now been on display several weeks and is a great source of interest to visitors. No doubt as time passes, it will become a historical exhibit of some importance.”

In 2017, a small selection of images from Frank’s archive was chosen to illustrate the story of tram travel in Bradford, and digitised to make them more accessible to the public. This is one way we can make better use of unique images and Frank’s knowledge about the city’s transport network in addition to our permanent displays.

the tramcar makes its way through what will become the gates of Bradford Industrial Museum, Eccleshill. 1975
Tramcar 104 makes its way through what will become the gates of Bradford Industrial Museum, Eccleshill. 1975

Tramcar 104 (which originally ran on the Manchester Road to Horton route) is on display in the Industrial Museum’s tramshed, having been ‘rescued’ in 1975, after being used as a football scoreboard in a field. Once the tramcar had been fully restored, it was moved on a truck to Eccleshill where staff had built a track where it could be displayed in the former Mill Engine house. One of the Restorers of the time, who was already an elderly man, wrote about the process of acquiring and moving the tram to set up the display, noting ..

“My first shock was when I was introduced to the Architect, a young girl.* My first impression was, disaster! But I was soon able to see that I might be better off in the long run. A visit by her and myself to the old engine house and a few figures produced the plan. All our requirements were met and any troubles soon resolved.”

 *The Architect or ‘Young Girl’ was Mrs Judith Boyes.

Tramcar 104 may remain a relic of a time gone by, but it also represents a response to the desire of Bradford people for a safe, comfortable and affordable method of travel in a busy environment. It might be best to leave the reader with the word of the tramways themselves from their guide to rules and regulations for employees, 1925.

“In all matters, whether governed by these rules or not, employees are expected to use good judgement. In cases of doubt, always take the safest course.”

Special at tram hospital.jpg – ‘The hospital’ was Thornbury body repair shop where care was provided by ‘nurses in overalls’ according to the Bradford Argus 11th November 1926
Tram Hospital Thornbury body repair shop where care was provided by ‘nurses in overalls’ according to the Bradford Argus 11th November 1926

Passenger, Parcel and Penny return (travelling by tram in Bradford) is open until November 12th at Bradford Industrial Museum


2 thoughts on “Trams”

    1. Dear John,

      Thanks for your comment.
      The majority of what is has been currently digitised can be explored via our Photographic Archive.

      If you are after something specific you can contact them directly via the ‘contact us’ link on the page.

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