News that there is a serious threat to the Tram Shed Museum in Swansea highlights an increasing problem in Britain’s heritage industry.
A number of council-owned museums have either been closed or face the prospect of closure as councils battle to deal with ever-increasing demands to make savings. Already one transport-related museum — the Snibston Discovery Museum in Leicestershire — has closed but a wide range of other museums face an uncertain future.
It could be argued that the country has experienced a massive increase in the number of museums — both council and private — over the past 30 years as traditional industries have declined and supporters have sought to preserve historic structures. However, the buildings and their contents are important and the threat of break-up real. Whilst the council in Swansea has told the local media that there is no plan to disperse the Tram Shed’s important collection of local transport items should the museum close, there is a risk that the collection will be simply remove from public display and allowed to fade from the public’s memory.
The museum at Swansea is important; it highlights the history of one of Britain’s most historically important railways and one that could be ignored as knowledge of its existence gradually disappears.
Amongst the items held by the Tram Shed is part of Swansea & Mumbles tram No 7, the sole surviving part of a fleet of 13 double-deck cars that operated over the route for more than 30 years. But the history of the line is more important than that as the Swansea & Mumbles represented the final incarnation of the world’s first passenger-carrying railway — the Oystermouth Railway.
Dating back to the early 19th century, the Oystermouth Railway was authorised by an Act of 29 June 1804 to construct a six-mile line between Swansea and Oystermouth. Constructed to a gauge of around 4ft 0in, the line opened to freight traffic in April 1806 and the world’s first passenger service was introduced on 25 March 1807. The passenger services were operated by horse-drawn coaches and were to survive for 20 years; the construction of a turnpike road in 1826 parallel to the railway saw passenger services cease in 1827.
By the mid-1850s the line was effectively moribund but a revival in its fortunes started in 1855 when work started on the conversion of the line to standard gauge; this work was completed in 1860 and horse-drawn passenger services reintroduced.
In 1874 the Swansea Improvements & Tramways Co was authorised by an Act; amongst the powers the new company had was to lease and improve the Oystermouth Railway. On 17 August 1877 the new operators introduced steam trams to the line; these were the first steam trams to operate anywhere in Britain. In 1889 powers were granted for the extension of the line to Mumbles, where a new pier was to be constructed, and for the realignment of the original line between Oystermouth and Black Pill; the extension formally opened on 10 May 1898. By this date ownership of the line, authorised by an Act of 26 July 1893, had passed to the Swansea & Mumbles Railway. Operation was still undertaken by the Swansea Improvements & Tramways Co, itself taken over by British Electric Traction in 1898, with a further lease, approved by an Act of 9 August 1899.
Significant change to the operation of the line came in the 1920s; although electric trams had operated in Swansea itself, courtesy of the Swansea Improvements & Tramways Co, since 1900, it was not until 1925 that powers were obtained to convert the Swansea & Mumbles. In January 1927 the operational lease was transferred from the Swansea Improvements & Tramways Co to its associated company South Wales Transport. Initial trials of electric operation were held in July 1928 and the full electric service was introduced on 2 March 1929. As such, the Swansea & Mumbles became the last wholly new first-generation electric tramway to operate in the British Isles.
In order to operate the new tramway, 13 double-deck trams, Nos 1-13, were built by Brush of Loughborough. With seating for 106, the trams were the largest supplied for operation on any first-generation tramway in Britain. They were also unusual in being fitted with doors on only one side; this was because all stops were only accessible from the landward side of the cars. Although cars could operate singly, in peal periods it was more usual for two trams to operate in multiple. The entire fleet was maintained at the company’s depot at Rutland Street close to Swansea Victoria railway station.
Immediately after the war, the line was carrying some 5 million passengers per year but, as car ownership increased, this had declined to 3 million by 1953. The following year witnessed the celebrations that marked the 150th anniversary of the Oystermouth Railway but the line’s financial position has deteriorated. Loss of traffic was compounded by the closure, until 1956, of the pier at Mumbles and the line’s leaseholders, South Wales Transport, was faced by having to spend £350,000 to upgrade the line, which was by this stage losing money.
South Wales Transport, primarily a bus operator, looked at the possibility of replacing the trams with buses, but the company would still be faced by a rent of more than £14,000 per annum even if no trams were operated. As a result, in September 1958, South Wales Transport made a formal offer to acquire the shares of both the Swansea & Mumbles Railway Ltd and the Mumbles Railway & Pier Co. The shareholders of both companies accepted the offer; the bus company was now in a position to move towards abandoning the tramway.
As the line had been established by an Act of Parliament, South Wales Transport had to obtain powers formally to close the route; these were gained, despite considerable opposition, through the South Wales Transport Act of 29 July 1959. The first section of line to close was that between Southend and Mumbles Pier, which closed on 11 October 1959 in order to permit a new road for the replacement buses to be constructed over the tramway’s trackbed.
Final closure of the remaining section, from Swansea to Southend, occurred on 5 January 1960 when cars No 6 and 7 made the final journey over the world’s pioneering passenger railway. Of the trams, all were scraped with the exception of Nos 2 and a cab section from No 7. No 2 was transferred for safekeeping to the pioneering preserved standard-gauge line, the Middleton Railway in Leeds, where it was preserved with a number of cars secured from the then recently-closed tramway in Leeds.
However, the Middleton Railway suffered severely from vandalism, with the preserved trams suffering severe damage. Although efforts were made to try and find alternative accommodation for the trams, nothing could be secured with the result that No 2, along with the Leeds trams, was scrapped. This meant that the cab section of No 7 was now the most significant survival of the passenger cars that had operated over the Swansea & Mumbles. This, and a reconstruction of an original Oystermouth Railway passenger carriage (and an original Swansea electric tram) are the key exhibits in the Tram Shed museum; it will be a shame if these key parts of Britain’s transport history are locked away from public gaze.
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