Retro: Doncaster’s pioneering electric trams

Becket Road crosstown  in St Sep'Tram
Becket Road crosstown in St Sep'Tram
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Doncaster had undergone its first major change from a small market town into a centre of industrial importance when trams appeared in 1902.

This was due to the establishment by the Great Northern Railway Company of a large engine repair works in the town in 1852-53.

An early form of transport had been provided by John G Steadman, who commenced running local horse bus services in 1887. Among the services he operated was a regular daily cross-town service between Hyde Park and Avenue Road. Later, as Station Road became recognised as the centre of town traffic, Steadman introduced a service from Station Road to Avenue Road.

Then, around 1898, Doncaster Corporation received a proposal from the British Electrical Company Ltd to establish a tramway system between Balby and Wheatley. At a subsequent corporation meeting, elected members firmly decided that the town should operate its own electric-powered tramway system.

Tram routes to Balby, Hexthorpe, Hyde Park, the Racecourse and Bentley opened in 1902. This was a time of great rejoicing, not only because of the dawn of a new era in street transport but because of the ending of the Boer War at that time.

The Becket Road and Oxford Street routes opened in 1903. A short service, prior to the construction of the North Bridge, from Frenchgate to Marshgate also started in 1902 to link the town centre with the Bentley route which at the time finished at a point north of the Great Northern Railway company’s level crossing.

An electricity station in Greyfriars Road supplied power to the street lights of Doncaster from the end of 1899. The Corporation’s charge for electricity in 1901 was 5d (21/2p) per unit but following the commencement of tramway services the extra demand for electricity was so high that the Corporation was able to spread the overhead charges and reduce the price per unit to 3d (11/2p).

The corporation began tram services in 1902 with 15 cars obtained from Dick Kerr & Co of Preston. They were open-top 56-seaters with reversed staircases. A further 10 cars were purchased in 1903 together with a water car/snow broom and a ‘salt and sand’ trailer, the latter having been built from a York horse-car.

The corporation’s original tramway plans specified the system would be operated with single-deck trams but instead, standard-designed, two-axle ‘open-top’ trams were acquired. Many other cities and towns the length and breadth of the country had similar vehicles.

The open top and open front end trams provided no protection for the driver or conductor against the weather. On extremely cold winter mornings, if no passengers were being carried some drivers and conductors jogged alongside the tram in an effort to keep warm, leaving the vehicle to operate independently.

The trams operating on the Bentley route were housed in a large shed built by the corporation in Marshgate whilst all the other vehicles used the tram shed in Greyfriars Road.

Originally, there were five roads in the latter shed with pits on roads 1-4 and enough space to accommodate five cars on each road.

The corporation, in planning its tramway routes, did not include any proposals for a service to Oxford Street. This decision was altered, however, when a petition was presented to the corporation by the inhabitants of the West Ward requesting the introduction of a tram service.

Unfortunately the service did not prove to be a successful financial venture and was closed in April 1905.

During the years preceding the First World War, the Bentley tram terminus was moved to Frenchgate following the completion of the North Bridge, which allowed trams to travel through to the town centre.

Cross-town services were also introduced, linking Balby to Beckett Road and Hexthorpe to Avenue Road.

The appearance of the trams changed in 1913 as some of the cars were provided with covers over the top decks. This followed the purchase earlier in the year of six vehicles already incorporating covered top decks.

Due to the shortage of manpower following the outbreak of the First World War, the trams were staffed almost entirely by women.

Every car was ‘blacked out’ during the evenings in anticipation of Zeppelin attacks and warnings of imminent raids were given by the electricity station dimming the tram lights three times.

Additions to the tram network during the war years included the extension of the Balby route to Warmsworth and the introduction of a Brodsworth route (to the Woodlands Model Village) in 1916 that ran for much of the way on the grass margin alongside the Great North Road.

One of the intentions behind the establishment of the Brodsworth route and extending the Balby system to Warmsworth was to provide transport for miners travelling to Brodsworth colliery and Yorkshire Main pit.

The corporation acquired four new cars from Dick Kerr & Co to commence the Brodsworth service and these seated 66 passengers.

In the early 1920s 10 more cars were purchased, these being the only trams in Doncaster to have enclosed platforms.

Gradually, the trams suffered increasing competition from the motorbuses and even converted vans and covered lorries operating unscheduled services along the tram routes.

A serious fall in receipts coupled with an increasing problem of track deterioration led the corporation to make several far-reaching decisions.

They not only decided to abolish plans to extend the network to Hatfield, Rossington and Armthorpe but to gradually eliminate all tram services.

They intended instead to obtain the necessary powers to operate motorbuses and trolley buses.

The Avenue Road route was the first to close in 1925, being replaced by motorbuses on an experimental basis. The Bentley route closed in 1928, with the Hexthorpe and Becket Road routes in 1911.

The last tram to run in Doncaster was on the Brodsworth route on June 8, 1935.

Eventually all these routes, with the exception of Brodsworth, were replaced by trolleybus services, whilst the Brodsworth and all new routes were served by motorbuses.