Retro: South Yorkshire early tram experiment a disaster

Parkgate, Mexborough and Swinton tram no 2
Parkgate, Mexborough and Swinton tram no 2
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Controversy dogged the earliest attempts at running a tram network to serve Mexborough and Swinton with complaints about public safety and horses being electrocuted.

Initially, the Mexborough and Swinton Company’s trams did not collect power from overhead wires as in most systems but from electrified studs embedded at regular intervals in the ground.

Mexborough & Swinton tram at Swinton Common

Mexborough & Swinton tram at Swinton Common

A ‘skate’ fixed beneath the vehicle made contact with the studs and propelled it along the track.

In practice this Dolter contact system turned out to be a farce and a complete failure with the more orthodox method of current collection being quickly adopted.

In the late 19th century, several companies made proposals to construct a tramway which would serve Mexborough and Swinton on a route to Rotherham and Parliamentary powers were subsequently obtained.

But it was not until around 1903 that the National Electric Company (NEC) proposed constructing tramways in a number of British towns and cities.

Because some of them were strongly against the unsightly arrangement of overhead wires, the NEC looked for other alternatives.

In time they found the French Dolter surface contact system which was successfully operating on one of the Parisian tramways.

Consequently, the NEC negotiated with the Dolter Electric Traction Company for the Dolta system to be employed on the Mexborough and Swinton Tramway which they were promoting.

Charles Hall in Tramway Review (Spring 1967) states the real reason for the NEC introducing the Dolter system on the Mexborough and Swinton Tramway is a complete mystery as none of the councils in these areas or any other in the South Yorkshire area had expressed any strong objection to overhead wiring. The Dolter system was adopted in Torquay and Hastings – areas which had made protests.

Of course the success of the Dolter system lay in a complex ability to ensure that a ‘live’ stud was not left exposed to the road once a tram had passed over it – otherwise there could be quite dramatic results.

Securing the contract for the Mexborough and Swinton tramway in May 1905, NEC’s work on the system, a standard gauge 4ft 8½in (143.5cm) began at the Rotherham end of the route but progress was slow.

Employing the Dolter system meant that the Mexborough and Swinton tramway was said to have taken longer to construct than any other street tramway in the country.

The original stud design was not satisfactory and had to be considerably modified before it was installed.

Sixteen tramcars were ordered from the Brush Company in December 1905 and 60ft length rails were supplied by Middlesbrough’s North Eastern Steel Company. Edgar Allen & co Ltd of Sheffield provided all the special trackwork.

Then, spaced at a distance of every 9ft on the straight and as near as 6ft on curves, were the stud boxes. The skate, which was under the tram, was always in contact with at least one stud.

Towards the end of summer 1906, part of the line between the Rawmarsh depot and Rotherham bridge was completed.

A foretaste of what was to happen a little later on came when several horses received electric shocks from standing on live studs whilst the system was undergoing trials.

On February 1, 1907 there was a Board of Trade inspection of the stretch between the Rotherham boundary and a point just beyond the Rawmarsh depot.

Passenger services began on Wednesday February 6 but there was no official opening. Five trams operated a service between College Square, Rotherham and Holly Bush Street, Parkgate.

The trams were open top, seating 22 inside and 32 on top. For working in the Rotherham section – not worked with Dolter studs – overhead current collection equipment was fitted.

The vehicles were painted in dark maroon and white and lined out.

Whilst carrying out work on a further section of the route in Parkgate, another horse trod on a live stud and was killed.

Finally, a Board of Trade inspection of the whole route length from Rotherham to Denaby Toll Bar took place on Friday August 1, 1907 amidst crowds of thousands.

Public services began the following day and over three days 40,000 passengers were carried with more than £300 taken in fares.

Sadly, the joy of the new transport system was short lived. From the outset the studs frequently remained ‘live’ and a leather patch was placed over them until they could be serviced.

By October 1907, the NEC was receiving irate correspondence from Mexborough Council about the constant flashes and sparks emanating from beneath the trams.

They claimed this was putting to public unnecessarily at serious risk from an electric shock.

During the first few months of 1908, the situation with the Dolter studs got completely out of hand.

Horses were being electrocuted, flames from studs were reaching as high as the eaves of a house and on some comical occasions trams were being pushed forwards and backwards in order to find a faulty stud.

So enough was enough for the councils along the route, resulting in the entire stretch being converted to overhead current collection by August 1908.

There was an accident on the morning of Thursday, July 30, 1908, shortly after one of the steepest gradients on the tramway system at Warren Hill, Swinton was converted to overhead working.

Tram 14, filled with colliers on their way to work, went out of control due to a brake failure, on the 1 in 10 gradient hill and gathered speed.

On entering a loop the points were safely negotiated but on leaving it the car left the metals, swerved to the right and then to the left, demolishing a wall, and dropped in to a garden 10 ft below the road.

The driver and inspector both stuck to their posts and escaped with a shaking. Although alarmed, the passengers escaped without serious injury, with the exception of one man who jumped from the car and sustained a broken collar bone. Others were bruised and cut by broken glass.

The manager and a staff of men were speedily at the scene and those who required medical aid were sent to the parish doctors. In every case the men could walk home.

The Mexborough and Swinton Tramway was closed on March 9, 1929. Thereafter trolleybuses worked on the route which underwent some extensions and additions.