The 1883 Tramcar Tragedy – Part 1: The Accident

This otherwise unassuming stretch of Railway Street will be familiar to anyone who lives in Huddersfield but it was the scene of the town’s worst tramcar accident, just over 130 years ago…

Tramcars in Huddersfield

On Thursday 11 January 1883, Huddersfield became the first local authority in England to own and operate its own tramcar service. According to Discovering Old Huddersfield, the first service left “Fartown Bar for the terminus at Lockwood Bar travelling via Bradford Road, Northumberland Street, John William Street, Buxton Road and Chapel Hill.”

According to one newspaper report, the initial service ran from 9am with services from Fartown leaving on the hour, and setting off back from Lockwood on the half hour. The only accident reported on the very first day of operation was when a horse was spooked by tramcar and backed its cart into a lamppost, knocking it over.1

The tramcar network would eventually expand to reach out to many of the outlying districts, including routes to Crosland Moor, Honley, Longwood, Marsden, and even Brighouse and Elland.

In those early days, the services were nearly all steam-powered tramcars, with a small number of horse-driven trams used in the busy town centre, where it was felt the faster steam ones might be more dangerous to pedestrians.

The steam-powered tramcars comprised a single passenger carriage (referred to as the “car”) pulled along the rails by a small steam engine, as evidenced by this photograph a Berry Brow tramcar.

steamtram1

Very occasionally, a single engine would pull two cars, but this tended not to happen on the hilly streets of Huddersfield.

Some of the early cars were open-topped, which can hardly have been pleasant with the soot and smoke blowing into the passenger’s faces! For this reason, the upper-deck fare was initially 1 old pence, compared to the 2 old pence charged for travelling in the enclosed lower-deck.

At the start of the 1900s, steps were made to begin electrifying some of the routes and, by the 1930s, the rails were pulled up and electric trolleybuses started to replace the tramcars.

electricmarsden2

During the era of the steam tramcars, there were only two fatal accidents and we’ll look in-depth at the first — and most serious — in a three-part blog post.

However, before we look into the full details of the accident itself, it’s probably worth explaining a little more about how the steam tramcars of that era operated:

  • The engine could be put into forward or reverse and the driver could control the speed.
  • The braking system for the engine was steam-powered, with two valves that controlled the amount of steam passing through to the brakes. If these values were partially closed, the braking effect would be lessened, and if the valves were fully closed, the brakes would not operate at all.
  • As well as using the steam-powered brakes, a driver could slow the tramcar by either throwing the engine into reverse or by getting the conductor to apply the brake at the rear of the car. Although there was, at that time, no apparent consensus on the correct way to bring a tramcar to a halt to allow passengers to board and disembark, reportedly the most common method was a combination of putting the engine into reverse and applying the car brake, which required a degree of coordination between the driver and conductor, usually achieved via the ringing of a bell by the driver.
  • To limit the risk of an engine running out of control, they were fitted with an automatic braking system, approved by the Board of Trade. Should the speed exceed a set limit (about 9 miles per hour), this system would kick in, applying the steam-powered brakes and throwing the engine into reverse. The purpose of this system wasn’t necessarily to bring the tramcar to an immediate halt, but to slow the speed down to well below the limit. However, as noted above, the effect of the steam-powered brakes could be lessened by the closing of the relevant valves, thus making it possible for a driver to effectively disable the automatic braking system.
  • The conductor’s brake in the car wouldn’t be enough in itself to stop a tramcar going downhill if the engine was pulling forward — the car’s wheels would just skid along the metal rails — but it would likely help to slow the tramcar down.
  • Some engines were fitted with a separate independent braking system, which didn’t require steam. Unfortunately the engines initially purchased by the Huddersfield Corporation didn’t have this safety feature.

The Tramcar Tragedy of July 1883

The tramcar route from Lindley descended down an incline towards Huddersfield along Trinity Street, passing by the eastern edge of Greenhead Park, then along West Parade and West Gate (where it merged with the line to Edgerton), before turning sharp-left into Railway Street to enter the terminus loop in St. George’s Square, in front of the railway station.

The section running down West Gate and West Parade can be seen in this 1905 postcard and a photograph from the mid-1930s, from the trolleybus era:

westgate1905

westgate1932

The latter section of the route is shown in green on this 1890 map, with the corner into Railway Street shown in red.

LindleyTram1890

Normally on a tight bend, the track would be laid so that the outer rail was raised much higher than the inner rail, to make the tramcar to lean into the corner. This difference in height was known then as the “superelevation” but these days tends to be called the “cant” of the track. In the case of the bend into Railway Street, the outer track was raised slightly, but not very much as there were concerns that a more elevated outer rail would impede other users of the road. According to the testimony of the Borough Surveyor, the cant of the track was calculated to allow for a loaded tramcar to take this particular corner safely at a speed of 4 miles per hour.

Since the line had opened in June 1883, concerns were raised that the tramcars were “in the habit of travelling at a high rate of speed”. It was reported that “the conductor had been spoken to about the danger attending such recklessness”.

On Tuesday 3 July 1883, the 2:30pm tramcar from Lindley departed around 5 minutes late for Huddersfield. The car was an open-top and it was being pulled by the Huddersfield Corporation’s Engine No.2, built by Wilkinson and Sons of Wigan.

The conductor was Henry Sawyer. Sawyer had previously worked for a local omnibus company, but had only recently begun his current job on the Lindley tramcar route in mid-June. He would later state that he had only received basic verbal training for his new job, and was left to figure out for himself when he should be collecting fares and when he should be manning the tramcar brake on the route. As the inquest would later hear, the formal book of rules and regulations for the Huddersfield tramcar operators was still at a draft stage, awaiting further discussion by the relevant Huddersfield Corporation committee.

The driver of the engine was Thomas Roscoe. According to Sawyer, Roscoe had been in the Fleece Inn, Lindley, prior to the start of the journey, although there was no evidence presented that Roscoe was intoxicated or incapable of operating the engine. However, the tramway superintendent, Thomas Frederick Laxton, had been keeping a close eye on the Roscoe as he was strongly of the opinion that some of the drivers were bypassing the automatic brake system by closing the connecting steam valves and Laxton hoped to catch one of them red-handed.

Before the tramcar set off, Roscoe had very likely nearly closed both values to disable the automatic braking system so that he could drive faster than 9 mph without the automatic braking system slowing him down. Perhaps he was concious that the tramcar was setting off late and wished to make up time, but his decision would ultimately cost the lives of seven people.

Tuesday was Market Day in Huddersfield and a large number of people were making their way to and from the town centre. Within a few stops, the tramcar was so full — it was later reported around 40 people were on the tramcar — that some passengers elected to sit on the steps between the upper and lower-decks, whilst others stood on the rear platform and on the upper-deck. The conductor reportedly shouted to the driver, “don’t stop again”, meaning not to pick up any more people until they reached Huddersfield, which drew a remark of “If we don’t [ever] stop again, I wonder where we’ll get to?!” from one passengers.

At the inquest, Sawyer would state that he’d usual applied the tramcar brake once they started descending Trinity Street, knowing that the remainder route was steeper. At least one witness (Lindley butcher George North) would corroborate this, stating that as the tramcar past him on the stretch of road next to Greenhead Park, he could see the wheels locked and skidding — “I thought that if it had been night there would have been a lot of sparks.” Prior to passing this witness, the tramcar had slowed to let off Margaret Miller, although most witnesses stated it did not come to a full stop.

The driver soon picked up speed again. One of the passengers, Lindley surgeon Dr. W.R. Erson, grew concerned that they were going too fast and voiced his fears to fellow passengers that one day there’d be an accident.

As the tramcar approached the bottom of Trinity Street, at least one passenger rang the bell to request the tram to stop. Witnesses differed on whether or not the tramcar actually slowed down but the passengers who wanted to alight apparently chose to jump off whilst the vehicle was still in motion. What everyone agreed on was that the tramcar certainly didn’t stop.

At the junction of Trinity Street and West Parade, the line curved to the left and, according to some witnesses, one side of the speeding tramcar lifted clear of the rails by several inches on the curve before righting itself again. West Parade and West Gate were the steepest part of the line with a gradient of 1 in 17 and it was now imperative that the driver now slowed the engine, especially given the sharp curve ahead onto Railway Street.

Dr. Erson had been keeping a close eye on the driver and noticed that he’d raised a lever and had apparently expected it to slow the engine — at the inquest, this was described as the means by which the driver could throw the engine into reverse. Unbeknown to Roscoe, a crucial piston had failed at some point in their journey and the lever now effectively did nothing. He frantically rang his bell to alert Sawyer to apply the brakes in the car, but the conductor was apparently unable to get to the brake.

At the inquest, it would be contentious as to what state the car brake was in as the tramcar ran down West Parade into West Gate, with Sawyer telling the press that he was of the opinion a passenger must have tampered with it. However, later tests showed that the car brakes alone would not be sufficient to slow the tramcar down, even if fully applied.

On the lower-deck, people were now standing up in alarm at the speed they were going. Dr. Erson, apparently calmly as so not to panic his fellow passengers, had made his way to the rear of the tramcar, as he was convinced the driver had no control whatsoever over the engine.

By now, most of the passengers had realised that their speed was continuing to increase unabated and some took the opportunity to jump off from the rear of the tramcar, including Dr. Erson.

Alfred Crosland of Oakes had got on when the tramcar was nearly full and had stood at the rear by the car brake for most of the journey — he would state that he saw no-one go near the brake. The sight of passengers jumping off behind him, coupled with the frantic ringing of the bell and the lack of a conductor, prompted him to seize the brake himself and he turned it, expecting to hear and feel the application of the brakes. However, he felt nothing. He later claimed that if he had felt anything, he would have valiantly remained at the brake — instead he took his chances and was named as the last person to jump off the rear of the car.

Of those who did jump off, some managed to stay upright, but most lost their footing and tumbled down the road, sustaining minor cuts, grazes and bruises. Dr. Erson had quickly regained his feet and, after checking that some of the others who’d jumped off weren’t badly injured, he ran down West Gate after the tramcar, perhaps fearing his medical skills would be much needed in a few moments.2

In the lower-deck, Emily Liversidge was cradling her nine-week-old baby and cried out, “My child! My child! How must I save my child?”. Mrs. Drayton, who was sat near to her, told her to “wrap it in your shawl”, which Emily did. Mrs. Drayton then took a tight hold of her own son, who was accompanying her.

On the upper deck, the passengers included Sarah Clegg, Mary Shaw, retired mill-owner Roland Hall, farmer William Herbert Sykes, 60-year-old Isabella Woodhouse and a young couple with their five-month-old daughter.

With the left-hand curve onto Railway Street now in sight, panic was gripping the remaining passengers and eyewitnesses claimed that some of those on the upper-deck were stood up. Other stated that the women (and some of the men) on both decks were screaming.

The engine took the corner onto Railway Street at a speed which was estimated to have been somewhere between 10 to 16 miles per hour3 and stayed on the rails due to its weight and low centre of gravity, but the more top-heavy car behind again tipped over to its right at an alarming angle, with the left-hand wheels well clear of the track.

According to witnesses, the car remained at this angle for a few seconds before finally toppling over and snapping the chain between the engine and car.

melodramatic front cover of the Illustrated Police News (14/Jul/1883)
melodramatic front cover of the Illustrated Police News (14/Jul/1883)

With the car on its side, the engine finally stopped abruptly after a few feet, coming to rest next to the Estate Building, some 20 or so yards down Railway Street.

Those on the upper-deck were thrown forwards and sideways onto the pavement — in a neat line, according to one bystander. Rowland Hall, a retired manufacturer and mill owner, was flung bodily into an iron lamppost, sustaining injuries that would prove fatal. Young Annie Moore lay dying or dead on the pavement.

Those on the lower-deck were hurled around inside the car and Emily Liversedge’s baby lay buried until a pile of passengers. As the car had hit the ground, the left-hand side windows shattered above the passengers, showering them with shards of glass.

One witness described the crash site as resembling at miniature battlefield, strewn with casualties. Many of the passengers had suffered head injuries, whilst some were lucky to walk away with bruises and cuts.

Within moments of the crash, numerous bystanders had rushed to give their aid. Some helped move the injured away from the crash site and into the Estate Building. Others went to the fallen car, where they saw one woman on the road with her legs trapped underneath, and another woman’s legs sticking out of one of the broken windows. Fearing that there might be others trapped underneath who needed help, a crowd quickly heaved the car upright.

One of the first to reach the scene was Duke Fox, a highly successful shoddy manufacturer of Dewsbury. As a trained member of the St. John’s Ambulance Society, he proved invaluable in assisting Dr. Erson to provide aid to the injured and dying. Word quickly spread and others with medical training arrived on the scene. Local chemists grabbed armfuls of bandages and rushed to give help. The most seriously injured were soon placed in cabs and conveyed to the Huddersfield Infirmary.

Among the others who helped were Aldermen Walker and Denham, Councillor Hanson, and Mr. Harrison of the Temperance Hotel4, who took some of the less badly injured there to await transport to the Infirmary.

Once the car had been cleared of those inside, the driver Roscoe slowly advanced the engine and smashed car into St. George’s Square. Both were then taken down the Corporation’s tramcar shed where orders were eventually given to the police to guard the engine.

A reporter from the Huddersfield Chronicle was soon at the Infirmary and reported:

The scene was, indeed, one of the saddest possible to conceive. The groans of the injured, the ghastly appearance of many of them, and the sight of so much human suffering was enough to unnerve the stoutest hearts.

In the next blog post, we’ll look in more depth at those involved with the accident, including the seven passengers who died. A final post will recount the details of the inquest and the jury’s decision as to whether or not any one individual was criminally responsible for the deaths of the seven passengers.


Sources and Further Reading

Footnotes

  1. Leeds Mercury (12/Jan/1883)
  2. Later, at the inquest, an attempt was made to ascertain how quickly the tramcar had been going by the fact that Dr. Erson said it was going faster than he could run. Asked how fast he ran, he replied “I ran as fast as I could with decorum!”
  3. One newspaper even claimed it might have been 30 miles per hour!
  4. This occupied the site where Marks & Spencer’s is now on New Street.

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