More about ... at


Explore the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter



A horse bus on the Bristol Road in the 1860s

Half cross section of a knifeboard bus. The 'inside' passengers sat on longitudinal seats with their backs to the windows. The roof was low, and one could stand up only in the centre aisle, where the roof was raised. 'On top' the passengers sat back to back in the middle, above the raised roof over the aisle. There was a handrail, though there was not always a toeboard to prevent passengers from slipping under the rail.

A steam tram on the Moseley Road

At each terminus of the Handsworth cable car line there was a pulley pit buried beneath the road. The drawing shows one of the pits with its top taken off, so that we can see the pulley. Below the pit are the two tracks. The pulley would turn clockwise, so that cars would be hauled up the left-hand track and down the right-hand one (as they appear in the diagram).


This diagram shows a cross section of the cable duct. The two girder rails on which the cars ran can be seen either side at the top, with stone setts laid between them and, in the centre, the slot in the roadway through which the grip passed. Lower down, a little to the right of centre, one of the pulley wheels on which the cable was carried can be seen end-on, with the cable, which appears as a dot, running on top of it. Higher up is another dot, which shows the position of the cable when clasped by the grip.

An early Birmingham Corporation open-topped electric tram








Early steam carriages

George Shillibeer had begun operating horse buses in London in 1829, but at that time Birmingham entrepreneurs were more interested in the possibilities of steam powered road transport. In 1832 Heatons, the family that would later take on the famous Birmingham Mint, conducted a number of trial runs of a 'steam carriage' they had built, which consisted of a steam tractor to which was hitched a stage coach. On one such run to Bromsgrove in August 1833, the carriage travelled from Birmingham to Northfield  in 56 minutes at an average speed of 7.5mph, before successfully ascending the 1 in 8 Lickey incline in nine minutes at 2.5mph, with 20 passengers on board. Later that year a company was formed with the intention of operating services on turnpike roads using Heaton carriages. The issue of  £10 shares was heavily over-subscribed, but the steam tractors met with fierce opposition from turnpike trusts, fearful that they would damage the roads. Although Heaton's worked on four engines, it is not clear that they ever ran, and in November 1834 the company was wound up, the shareholders receiving just £1 per share.

Again in 1832, another company, the London & Birmingham Steam Carriage Company, was formed in Birmingham under the chairmanship of Mr Henry Van Wart with the object of providing a service of steam road carriages between the two towns. Although the carriages made several successful trial runs, this company also failed, in 1835. That seems to have marked the end, for the time being, of interest in steam road transport, although 50 years later Birmingham would become the main centre of steam tram services in the UK.

Early horse bus services

The first horse bus service in Birmingham began on 5th May 1834. Operated by a Mr John Smith, who ran the Malt Shovel Inn in Smallbrook Street and had previously worked on mail coaches, it ran from Snow Hill to the tollgate at Priory Road on the Bristol Road in Edgbaston. The bus, which did five return trips per day (four on Sundays), taking 15 minutes for the single journey, could carry 12 passengers inside (none on top), and was drawn by two horses. There was a flat fare of 6d (2.5p), which indicates that the service was firmly aimed at the prosperous middle class of Edgbaston - if a workman on the then average wage had travelled to and from work on the bus, the fares would have gobbled up three quarters of his wages.

The service proving a success, imitators followed. Within months there were services to the Plough & Harrow on the Hagley Road and to the Beehive in Handsworth, but after that the network of local services grew only gradually, the following being the dates of introduction of the first recorded services. Sutton 1837; Curzon Street Station 1838; Harborne, Moseley, Smethwick 1846; Small Heath 1850; Perry Barr, Yardley 1851; Nechells 1852; Balsall Heath 1853; Bournbrook, Washwood Heath 1858; Alcester Lanes End, Birchfield, Sparkbrook  1859; Norfolk Road (Hagley Road), Selly Oak, Shirley 1861; Griffin's Hill (Bristol Road) 1862;  Acocks Green, Hamstead 1882, Sheldon 1887; Bordesley Green 1888. The services were provided by a multiplicity of small operators and many of them were short lived. At one time there might be several operators competing on a route, at another time there might be no service at all. What does seem to have been pretty constant is the pattern of high fares and relatively infrequent services that was established by the earliest operators. The result of this was that in 1869, by which time the population of Birmingham was around 300,000, there were still only some 20 buses operating on the town's streets.

In other words, the traffic had not been developed to the extent that it might have been, and spotting an opportunity, in May 1869 two brothers from Liverpool, William and Daniel Busby, formed the Birmingham Omnibus Company, with a view to introducing into Birmingham 'the Liverpool system of quick and frequent journeys at low fares'. Introducing a fleet of new, more comfortable buses which accommodated 15 passengers inside and 16 on top, in June 1869 the company began its first five services, which ran to Bristol Road (Pebble Mill Lane), Moseley, Hagley Road  (Norfolk Road), Handsworth and Aston Park. Buses ran half hourly from 8.45am until 7.45pm from the outer termini, and half an hour later from the city. Fares were 3d (1.25p) inside and 2d (0.8p) on top, with some lower fares for short journeys. In each case the city terminus was in the High Street, making it easy for cross-town passengers to change, and through journeys could be booked. 

The existing operators responded with more frequent and cheaper services. As the Omnibus Company extended its services, sometimes buying out existing operators, sometimes going into competition, things turned nasty on occasion. There were complaints of racing and furious driving; when the Company started running to Saltley its buses were stoned by its rival's supporters and the police were called out. But the worst fighting erupted between one William Mayner and his son, who ran rival services to Handsworth and whose mutual loathing seems to have far exceeded any animosity they felt towards the Company.  In the end, the Omnibus Company took over a number of routes, withdrew from some, and reached accommodations with its rivals on others. At the same time, Birmingham was blessed with more frequent, and cheaper, services than it had previously enjoyed. Then, on 12th October 1871 the Birmingham Omnibus Company's business was sold to the Birmingham & District Tramways Co Ltd.

Early horse tramways

The world's first 'street railway' opened in New York in 1832, but the service proved unpopular and was soon abandoned. From the 1850s tramways began to appear in a number of American cities, including New York, Boston and Philadelphia, this time with more lasting success. The first tramway in England seems to have been built by the American promoter George Francis Train. It opened in Birkenhead in 1860, employing horse drawn trams. Train visited Birmingham in the same year, and proposed to build a tramway from New Street to Five Ways. Birmingham Corporation supported this proposal, on  condition that the line were extended to run to Monument Road, but despite the Corporation's backing Train did not proceed with his scheme and instead returned to the United States. Under the Birmingham Improvement Act of 1861 the Corporation acquired powers to lay down, but not to operate, tramways. This power was never exercised because, due to a bizarre oversight, the Corporation omitted to obtain the power to levy tolls for the use of any tramways it constructed. 

November 1869 saw three tramway proposals launched in the space of a few days. On the 11th the Birmingham Street Tramways Co proposed tramways to Handsworth, Witton, Bristol Road and King's Heath. On the 15th, the Birmingham & Staffordshire Tramways Co proposed a line from Birmingham to Dudley Port via Handsworth and West Bromwich. Two days later, William and Daniel Busby, the owners of the Birmingham Omnibus Co, announced their intention to form a Birmingham Tramways Co, with proposed lines to Handsworth, Aston, Bristol Road and King's Heath. Despite the fact that in several cases these proposals entailed building tramways in streets where their rivals proposed to do likewise, all three applied to Parliament for exclusive powers. Birmingham Corporation which, with its responsibility for the upkeep of the streets, was not happy with the notion of private companies laying tramlines in those streets, considered the proposals 'objectionable' and  petitioned Parliament for legislation to regulate the construction and working of tramways.

The result of this petitioning by Birmingham and other towns was the Tramways Act 1870, which empowered local authorities to construct tramways on the authority of orders granted by the Board of Trade. Once built, the tramways had to be leased to private operators; local authorities were not normally allowed to run services themselves. Meanwhile the promoters of the Birmingham & Staffordshire Tramways Co obtained a private Act enabling them to proceed with their scheme, with the proviso that they must not lay any tramways within the Borough of Birmingham. The Busbys also obtained royal assent to the Birmingham Suburban Tramways Act, which authorised the construction of tramways from the Birmingham boundary (as it then was) to Aston, Bristol Road (Bournbrook), and King's Heath. In 1871 the Birmingham & Staffordshire and Birmingham Tramways Co were amalgamated as the Birmingham & District Tramways Co. 

In 1872 Birmingham Corporation obtained power under the Tramways Act to construct tramways to Hockley, Moseley Road, Bristol Road, Aston Road, Hagley Road, Nechells, Saltley and Coventry Road, at an estimated total cost of £140,000. There were no proposals in regard to the Dudley, Pershore or Stratford roads, where it was considered that there would be insufficient traffic to justify the expense of construction. 

Meanwhile the Birmingham & District company was proceeding with the construction of its line from the Birmingham boundary at Hockley to Dudley Port. This line, which was laid to the standard gauge of 4ft 8½in, was opened on 20th May 1872. Great crowds attended the opening and the police had to be called to restrain people from attempting to board overcrowded trams. Extra journeys were run and from 4th July the service was increased from hourly to half hourly. Buses were provided to convey passengers from Birmingham to the start of the tramway at the borough boundary at Hockley Brook. But all was not well. Birmingham Corporation's fears for the consequences of allowing private contractors to build tramways in the public roads were to prove well founded; the Company was frequently in dispute with the Handsworth Highways Board. The poorly constructed track quickly deteriorated, leading to safety concerns and causing damage to the adjacent roadway. Even the shareholders had been badly served by a board that had let contracts for the shoddy work at grossly inflated prices. Both the tramway operation and the Company's bus services, which had been expensively purchased from Busby's, were losing money. An epidemic in the company's stables led to the loss of many horses and partly because of that and partly for financial reasons the company discontinued the services to Hagley Road, Pershore Road, Aston, Saltley and Nechells. It attempted to increase fares, but was thwarted on several routes by a renewed outbreak of competition with Mayner.

On 18th February 1873 Birmingham Corporation accepted the company's tender of £910 per annum for a seven year lease of the Corporation's first tramway, which was laid to the standard gauge and ran from the town centre to the terminus of the company's line at Hockley Brook. This line, which was laid to a better standard than the company's line had been, cost £15,000 to construct and was completed by late August. But the start of services was delayed until 11th September as the company was again in dispute with the Handsworth Highways Board. When it did open cars ran every 7½ minutes to Villa Road, every 15 minutes to the New Inns, Handsworth, and half hourly beyond. Fares from Birmingham were 2d to Hunter's Lane, 3d to Villa Road and one penny per mile beyond that. The horse drawn trams, which were painted in crimson and cream, seated 18 inside and 18 out. But the company remained in financial difficulties and in May 1874 the tramway between West Bromwich and Dudley Port was abandoned, as were all the company's bus routes - at one day's notice! For a while this left much of Birmingham without public transport, but by 1875 many of the services had resumed under the auspices of private operators.

In order to exercise certain powers in its Act before they expired, the Company had constructed an isolated section of track on the Bristol Road from the borough boundary, which was then near the Gun Barrels Inn, to the Malt Shovel at Bournbrook (see right hand column).  In order to enable it to use this track the company urged Birmingham Corporation to proceed with construction of the proposed standard gauge line along the Bristol Road to the borough boundary, although it was not interested in the remaining lines that the Corporation was empowered to build. After receiving financial sureties the Corporation proceeded, completing the line in late 1875. By then the company was in such dire straits that it could not honour its obligation to pay the agreed annual rental of around £1700, offering instead a much lower figure. No better offer being forthcoming, the Corporation accepted the company's reduced offer, but by the following March a liquidator had been appointed and the company's assets were acquired by a new company, the Birmingham Tramways & Omnibus Co.

This new company purchased the tramways company's assets, which had cost £115,000, and William Mayner's bus business, for less than £30,000. Mayner was appointed manager. By abandoning the unremunerative section of line between West Bromwich and the New Inns, Handsworth, the company freed up sufficient trams to run the new Bristol Road service, which became Birmingham's second tram line when it opened on 17th June 1876. Cars ran every 15 minutes from roughly 8am until 10.30pm, with a flat fare of 3d inside, 2d outside. In May 1878 the Bristol Road line, which had been laid as single track with passing loops, was doubled and cars then ran every ten minutes. The new company prospered, paying a dividend of 7.5% in 1876, 10% in 1877, and thereafter for several years 15%, the highest of any tramway in the country. This profitability seems to have been achieved not so much by dint of good management as by charging high fares and skimping on maintenance. The company became embroiled in a long running dispute with the Corporation regarding the level of its fares and the terms of its lease. This dispute remained unresolved when the lease finally expired on 1st May 1885. Upon the loss of its lease the company was sold to the Birmingham Central Tramways Company, which had been founded in 1881 and was already running steam trams to Nechells, Perry Barr, Lozells, Moseley and Sparkbrook. 

Steam trams

The life of a tram horse was extremely arduous, especially in a hilly town like Birmingham and in a very short time the horses became totally worn out and unfit for further work. This led to a severe shortage of horses, to the extent that the Birmingham Tramways & Omnibus Co had barely two thirds of the horses it needed. As a consequence, workings that required three horses were run with only two, and that in turn meant that passengers had to get out and walk up the hills (with no reduction in fares!). From every point of view the situation was unsatisfactory and some other means of traction had to be found.

A House of Commons committee recommended in 1873 that self-contained steam locomotives 'not exceeding six tons in weight, making no sound from their blast and consuming their own smoke ... be permitted to travel at the ordinary speed of vehicles drawn by horses, and be only subject to the same restrictions.' In January of that year John Downes of Handsworth had taken out a patent on just such a locomotive, which was said to cure 'the waste steam and smoke nuisance and obviate all noise from the engine'. He had a loco built to his design, which was considered to have performed very successfully in trials. The puffing noise of an ordinary railway engine was suppressed by passing the exhaust steam from the cylinders into a sound-insulated receiving tank, where its was condensed. Water for the boiler was preheated by passing it through this tank. The boiler draught was increased by spraying steam through the furnace fire bars and into the funnel of the engine. These measures effectively suppressed smoke and puffing noises, so that only the sound of the wheels on the rails could be heard, and the only criticism was that in cold weather steam could be seen escaping from the funnel.

Downes claimed that despite the fact that one of his engines would cost the best part of £1000 they would still prove cheaper than horse traction. He based this on the fact that it required fourteen horses, working in shifts, to operate a single tram, at a cost of £650, and whereas the horses would need to be replaced at frequent intervals an engine would last fifty years. In 1879 an Act of Parliament was passed permitting the use of steam or other power for the propulsion of trams, subject to noise and smoke being suppressed, speed being governed to a maximum of 10mph, and all moving parts more than 4 inches above rail level being enclosed. 

The way was now open for the introduction of steam trams, but despite the shortage of horses and the economic benefits of steam the Tramways & Omnibus Co stuck resolutely to horse traction. Nevertheless, Birmingham became the main centre for steam tram operation in the UK, thanks to the more progressive Birmingham Central Tramways Co (which later became the City of Birmingham Tramways Co) and the South Staffordshire & Birmingham District Steam Tramways Co, which, from 1882, ran steam trams from the New Inns, Handsworth to West Bromwich, Wednesbury, Darlaston and Dudley.

The steam tram age 

Whilst horse trams remained the norm in London and many other British cities, in Birmingham steam tram routes proliferated from the early 1880s onwards, and the shift to steam was accompanied by another break with previous practice: whereas the horse tramways had been laid to the standard gauge of 4ft 8½in, the steam tramways used the narrow gauge of 3ft 6in, which became universal throughout Birmingham and the Black Country. Even the two early horse tram routes, to Handsworth and Bournbrook, were relaid to the narrow gauge. In 1882 a steam tram service began between the Old Square and Witton. 1884 saw steam trams running to Perry Barr and Moseley; the Stratford  and Dudley Roads were served from 1885 and the Coventry Road from 1886. In fact, with 67 route miles, 200 engines and 180 trams, at its height the integrated Birmingham and Black Country steam tram system was far and away the biggest in Britain, and probably the largest the world has ever seen.

A narrow gauge horse tram service to Nechells, started in 1885, provided an exception to the rule of steam, as did the conversions of the two early horse tram routes, which followed the collapse of the Birmingham Tramways & Omnibus Co in 1885. In 1888 the Handsworth service became a cable car line, whilst in 1890 battery cars were introduced on the Bristol Road. These proved very unsatisfactory and in 1901 (two years before electric trams started in London, but a decade after the first British electric trams ran in Leeds) the route became the first electrified line in Birmingham when trolley cars were introduced between the city centre and Selly Oak, half a mile beyond the original Bournbrook terminus. 

The Handsworth cable cars

The Handsworth cable cars ran from Colmore Row to a point close to the present city boundary in Handsworth. There were two cables, each of which formed a continuous loop from the power station at Hockley to the relevant terminus (Colmore Row in one case, Handsworth in the other) and back to the power station. The cables ran continuously at a constant speed in a duct beneath the centre of the tracks which had a slot in the top of it (see diagram in left-had column), power being provided by two steam engines located in the power station. When a car was ready to move off, the driver would close the grip, which was in effect a large pair of pliers that passed through the slot in the top of the duct in which the cable ran, thus causing the cable to be gripped and imparting motion to the car. To achieve a smooth start, the driver would tighten the grip gradually, which had the disadvantage of causing rubbing and wear on the cable. If the cables were not replaced frequently - an expensive business - cable wear could ultimately be dangerous, as the grip had to be opened and the cable released in order to stop the car. If the cable became badly frayed, however, it could jam in the grip, preventing the car from being stopped, or even causing it to start up unintentionally. 

Cable cars were popular in the late nineteenth century on lines where there was a high traffic density where, at the time, they provided the most economical form of traction. They were quite widely adopted in the USA and Australia, and in the UK Edinburgh, London and Matlock had them as well as Birmingham. But they were essentially an intermediate technology which in time gave way everywhere to the electric tram, except in San Francisco where they are kept as a tourist attraction as much as anything.

Early electric tram services 

The Birmingham Corporation Act of 1903 empowered Birmingham Corporation to operate its own tramways, instead of just building the lines and leasing them out, which had been the pattern hitherto. The Corporation lost no time in ordering trams and when the first of the tramway company's leases expired, on the Aston Road in January 1904, the first Birmingham Corporation trams entered service. This marked the beginning of a policy on the part of the Corporation of taking over the operation of all the lines as the Company's leases fell in, and of running only electric trams. Most of the leases expired at the end of 1905, the company's steam trams making their final appearance on new year's eve, to be replaced by the Corporation's electric trams on new year's day 1906. The main exceptions to this pattern were the two oldest routes - the Handsworth cable car service and the Bristol Road electric service, which were not taken over until 1911, the former being electrified in the process. From then on until the short-lived local government reorganisation of the 1960s and subsequent privatisation, Birmingham Corporation provided virtually all of the city's road passenger transport needs.




The walk

More about ...

Sources of information

Get in touch



It is interesting to note how times were given in the early timetables. They tended to be written very much as they would be spoken of in ordinary conversation. So there was no twenty-four hour clock; times were shown in twelve-hour format and labelled as either am or pm (or sometimes you were left to work that out; in most cases it was pretty obvious).

Rather than writing times such as quarter past seven as 7.15, they were often written  as 7¼, whist 7.45 (quarter to eight) would be written as ¼8.


George Shillibeer, who ran the first bus services in London, lost a lot of money due to conductors cheating on him by pocketing passengers' fares. Eventually his business failed, largely because of this problem. At the time there was no reliable method of establishing how much money a conductor should have handed in. The Busbys' Birmingham Omnibus Company's vehicles were fitted with tell-tales which recorded the number of passengers boarding the buses and in 1869 the first use of tickets is recorded. By issuing tickets and employing inspectors to check that every passenger had a ticket, the operators stamped out cheating by conductors.


In the days when buses had conductors, they were often to be heard urging passengers to 'pass right down inside', and even today drivers often say to boarding passengers 'seats on top'. These expressions, inside and on top, are survivals from the earliest days of buses, when although the vehicles were single deckers, passengers were allowed to travel quite literally on top, ie on the roof. Access to the roof was gained by a precarious ladder, and having climbed up passengers sat on the edge with their legs dangling over. The roads of the day being none too smooth, this often resulted in the bus's windows being accidentally kicked out. The situation improved a little in 1849, when so-called 'knifeboard' buses were introduced (see left-hand column).


The Malt Shovel was an old pub on the Bristol Road in Bournbrook. It was rebuilt in 1877 as the Bournbrook Hotel, which still stands but is now rather ridiculously known as 'Goose at the OVT'. It's hard to believe now, but until the late nineteenth century this was a popular picnic spot. There were pleasure grounds at the back of the pub, and Kirby's Pool, a picturesque millpond on the Bourn Brook.


It is not entirely clear why steam trams gave way to electric. They were economically competitive with other forms of transport at the time; they were clean (being prohibited, by law, from emitting smoke); they were very quiet in operation (being prohibited from puffing), and much quieter than  the electric trams that replaced them; and they gave their passengers a much smoother ride than electric trams. In part, it is likely that electric was considered more 'modern'. The fact that the local authorities who were taking over the tramways at the time were seeking markets for the electricity undertakings they owned may also have had something to do with it. It certainly didn't happen everywhere - on the Continent, steam trams continued to run until after the Second World War when, in most cases, they were immediately replaced by buses.


World's first steam tram service: Philadelphia, 1859

Britain's first successful steam tram service: Leeds, 1880

World's first cable car service: San Francisco, 1873

Britain's first cable car service: London, 1884.

World's first electric tram service: Lichterfeld, Germany, 1881

Britain's first electric tram service: Leeds, 1891


© 2002, 2004, 2005 Bob Miles