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George Francis Train (pointing) on a Birkenhead tram.

Trams in Chester ran from 1878 to 1930. Originally they were horse-drawn, but electric trams were introduced in 1903.

The horse-drawn tram (horsecar) was an early form of public rail transport that developed out of industrial haulage routes that had long been in existence, and from the omnibus routes that first ran on public streets in the 1820s. The story usually told is that the name "Omnibus" may have arisen through the efforts of a milliner named Omnès, in Nantes. There was a "coach service" in the that city which was originally intended to take people to a bath-house run by a Stanislas Baudry (a steam-mill owner). Omnès had a shop en route and installed an "omnibus" stop outside his shop. The word "omnibus" being derived from either "for everybody" (dative) or "by Omnès" (ablative). In fact, the phrase may have nothing to do with the miller and the milliner at all, but could be derived from a student revolutionary who used the alias "Omnès Omnibus" around 1790, and the evidence suggests that Omnès was a grocer, not a miller. Poor Stanislas Baudry went bankrupt in an attempt to secure land to feed and house his stud of horses, and was driven to despair and suicide.

By 1829, the idea had arrived in London, but there was probably a slightly earlier system operating in Manchester. Somewhat surprisingly, the "golden age" of the horse-tram was preceeded by a short period in which steam-powered buses were successful, but this was brought to an end by the heavy road tolls imposed by the turnpike trusts and from 1861 onwards, harsh legislation virtually eliminated mechanically propelled vehicles from the roads of Great Britain for 30 years. One of the stipulations of the relevant Act was that no visible steam or smoke was to be emitted. Horse-buses were known in Chester from about 1870 when a service existed between Chester Station and the Town Hall. This did not run on tracks. Later horse-drawn services ran from the Town Hall to Hoole Parish Church and on a longer route from Bache to Christleton.

The electric tram routes and stops in Chester shown in a map as created by John Murray.

Trams were those using the newly improved iron or steel rail or "tramway". Horsecars on tramlines were an improvement over the omnibus, as the low rolling resistance of metal wheels on iron or steel rails (usually grooved from 1852 on) allowed the animals to haul a greater load for a given effort than the omnibus and gave a smoother ride. Britain's first street tramline opened on 30th August 1860 between the Woodside Ferry terminal and Birkenhead Park, a distance of 1½ miles. The man who established the trams was George Francis Train ("Citizen Train"), a larger than life character whose world wide travel inspired Jules Verne and who ran (unsuccessfully) for the presidency of the USA. The horse drawn tramway was operated by the Birkenhead Street Railway Company Limited, and the initial rolling stock consisted of two open-top double-deck cars (Nos. 1-2), and two single-deck saloon cars (Nos. 3-4), imported from America and assembled by a local coachbuilder. A serious drawback of the horse tram was the need to maintain a large stable of horses for only a few tramcars. Horse tram operators calculated that an average of 10 horses was required for each tramcar in service, which meant that a small fleet of only ten tramcars would have required 100 horses to operate it. Needless to say, that the feeding, grooming and stabling of these animals ate into the profits of the tramway company to such an extent that at first hardly any of them, except those on very busy routes, made a significant profit.

Barry M. Marsden wrote this history.

Chester Tramways Company

A horse-drawn tram service from the Chester Station to the town centre was promoted in 1877 by T. Lloyd, manager of the Liverpool Tramways Company. The initial route was to be from Chester Station to the Racecourse. Lloyd was to become the first manager of the private limited company which built and ran the tram system in Chester.

Chester's standard-gauge (4’8½” or 1.435m) horse tramway, opened for business on the 10th June 1878, and was built and operated by the Chester Tramways Company. A popular legend that has been around since at least 1937 traces the size of the standard gauge back to ancient Rome, and the rutted tracks worn by Roman chariots. There is possibly some truth in the theory that once Roman, or even prehistoric, roads became rutted there was a definite advantage in building any further carts or chariots with wheels that would fit into the ruts. Further standardisation occured during the development of railways which used wagons based on the unit known as a Chaldron.

Compressed-air tram as tested at Chester.

The initial route was from Chester Station to Chester Castle, via City Road, Foregate Street, Eastgate Street, Bridge Street and Grosvenor Street. Some of the cars on the sysem used the "latest technology" in the form of the Eades Patent Reversible Car which could be worked by a stud of only eight horses. Its biggest advantage was that its body, held in position by a locking pin, was able to swivel on its underframe, enabling it to be turned round at the end of a journey with horses still in harness and with the driver remaining in his seat. It was said that such a car could reverse in four seconds. The tram-shed and stables were located near Chester Station, on what became "Car Street". There was a paddock for the horses off City Road on the site of what later became the NWS "tower block" and is now part of the Queen Hotel. One consequence of the introduction of trams was the end of the horse fair in Foregate Street which was the last street fair to survive. A combination of trader pressure and the new trams expelled it c. 1880

There was an interesting experiment at Chester with trams powered with compressed air as an alternative to being drawn by horses. One of Chester's small double deck Starbuck horse cars was purchased by Hughes and Lancaster of Ruabon in 1886 and was fitted with low pressure air equipment for tests along Hough Green. Hughes and Lancaster had actually started business in City Road in Chester. The tram had had four underfloor wrought iron driving cylinders with 5 in. bore and 3 in. stroke which used 30.5 pounds of air per car mile on the level. The test car was briefly operated over the Chester system, but leakage accounted for more air use than traction, and the car could only manage one slow two mile trip on the level for each charge. It ran on the route from Saltney to Grosvenor Bridge. Around 1890 the car was cut down to single deck to save weight. In 1888 John Hughes filed a patent for this type of tram which stored the air in a tubular structure which would also form the framework of the car. It mentions the option of laying a cast iron pipe beside the tracks so that the car could be recharged at stops (taking 15 to 40 seconds) as tried in Chester, but specifically includes a method where the car could pick up air while actually in motion from automatic valves beside the rails.

1899 saw a major fire in the hayloft at the tram-shed and from newspaper reports we learn that there were "about 60" horses stabled there. The cause of the fire was apparently sparks from the smithy which also occupied a part of the premises.

Chester Corporation Tramways

One of Chester's Trams outside the Town Crier when it was The Albion. The frontage of Chester Station can be seen in the background.

The original Tramways Act of 1870 included a provision for the privately-run Tramway to be acquired by the Corporation after 21 years. The city made plans to do so after it opened an electricity generating plant in 1896. Part of the motivation for this was the creation of a daytime load for the generating plant. Other possible reasons included social pressure by left-leaning authors who argued that municipalization of trams could generate social as well as economic profit, increasing the well-being of both tramway workers and workers more generally. These writers also argued that Municipal capital, underwritten by ratepayers and thus generally available at lower interest rates, could lower operating costs meaning that fares could be reduced almost to cost price while staff pay and working conditions improved.

Under the Chester Corporation Act of 1901, the council took up its option to purchase the assets of the Chester Tramways Company for a cost of £18,000. Chester Corporation immediately set to work reconstructing the system to 3ft 6ins gauge and the horse trams finally ceased running on the night of the 27th December 1902. In the following few months, public services were provided by a number of private entrepreneurs using horse buses. The system was rebuilt to the narrow gauge of 3'6", and 12 new tramcars were ordered from G.F. Milnes & Co a tramcar manufacturer based in Birkenhead (1886-1902) and Hadley, Shropshire (1900-1905). The power was supplied at 550 volts. The trams were liveried in green and ivory. The electric trams could not use the Eades rotation system to reverse the tram, so the back of the seats were pivoted so that they could be tilted to either "face" backwards or forwards. The horse tram depot off Station Road (Car Street) was rebuilt by the Corporation to accommodate the new electric tramcars, which were unusual in that they were only 24 feet long and seated 43.

The were in fact proposals that the electric tram system in Chester would be a much grander system. In 1900, the Corporation applied to Parliament for leave to construct tramways: from the tram-shed to the Town Hall via Brook Street, George Street and Upper Northgate Street; from Brook Street to the end of Hoole Road at Hare Lane; from Northgate to Upton; from Foregate Street to Boughton; and extending out past Saltney. Very little of this was ever built (much was struck out by the House of Lords) and it provoked a flurry of letters to the local press ranging from complaints that there would be an interruption of the service during the changeover to fears that the overhead wires would not only be unsightly, but would also cause deaths by electric shock, gout, rheumatism and "some heart complaints". One correspondent of the Chester Courant wrote of:

The Chester newspapers frequently contained letters about the trams from residents and visitors alike.
  • "It is absurd to compare Chester with Liverpool, or Southport or Blackpool. Chester is a quaint, old-time show-city, in which a system of electric tram cars, with their jangling bells and the hideous accompaniment of posts and network of overhead wires, is an anachronism to which I fervently hope those ratepayers who have some regard for the old city will never assent."

There were also efforts to gain support for a tram-line which would connect Birkenhead and Chester, but this failed due to the difficulty of negotiations with the various local authorities along the proposed route, and the objections of house-holders in Liverpool Road. Similar problems occurred with the proposed extensions to Saltney and into Hoole where the Courant reported that the separate local authorities sought to impose conditions which the corporation could not accept.

The new service started to run in 1903, with the first tramcar to enter public service was being number 4, driven by the Mayor, Mr Frank Brown. Almost at once there were outbursts in the press about the way in which the Corporation was managing the system, and especially their proposal to hike fares from 1d to 6d during race week, something which the private owners of the tram service had previously done, but to a lesser extent. The system was extended eastwards in 1906 as far as the City boundary in the Christleton and Tarvin roads, with the first tram running on the 6th December 1906. There were plans to link the two ends of this "Y-shaped" extension, but these were never put into practice.

An interesting technical innovation employed on the Chester trams was "regenerative braking" (which was used after 1906 on Raworth car 13) where as the tram was slowed its motion was used to generate electricity which was fed back into the overhead system. Other trams merely wasted the energy. Similar regenerative braking systems are used in modern electric vehicles, where electricity generated by braking can return some charge to the batteries. Chester only ever had one of these regeneratve trams as its small size made it unsuitable for normal usage. However, despite attempts to sell it, it remained in service throughout the lifetime of the system.

During WW1 a discussion was held as to the desirability of using female conductors to release men for the forces. Other discussions included the proposals to reduce the service from a five minute to a seven-and-a-half minute frequency.

By the early 1920s the tracks needed replacing and although the trams ran at a profit, carrying 2 million passengers a year at the start of the decade and 4 million by the end, they were not recouping any of the capital outlay. Any proposal to renew the tracks usually provoked an outcry in the local newspapers from other road-users who feared disruption and delay to traffic. The council replaced the tracks between Chester Castle and Saltney in 1921 but accepted a report of 1928 that the cost of overhauling the whole system was too great and that it ought to abandon trams in favour of motor buses. A ballot of ratepayers supported the change and the Chester tram system closed, with the last tram (number 10) running on 15 February 1930. As with the introduction of trams this was in line with developments in other cities. In 1927, there were 14,000 trams in use across the UK. A decade on that halved, and by 1950, there were just 4,700.


There have been several proposals to revive the trams in Chester. However they face objections from drivers due to the road space they take up, and they require a large up-front capital investment. Many of these arguments are similar to those brought forward in the Cheshire Observer when the extension of the Chester tramway to Boughton was being considered. On the other hand, they can use "green" sources of electricity and this was not an argument that any advanced back in the early 1900's. Modern concerns and new technology, especially progress in battery technology mean that some of the arguments for and against trams, and the hybrid trolleybus are quite different than they were in 1900. Rome, for example, chose trolleybuses after examining all options for cleaner urban air and benefits from reduced healthcare costs, and the first route opened in 2005. A 3km (2 mile) unwired city centre section is covered on batteries which recharge while running under the wires in the outskirts of the city. Proposals to extend the Manchester tram system to Chester have been made, with the trams using the existing "heavy rail" track between Altringham and Chester Station.

Survivals along the route

The gallery below shows some of relics of the tram system which still exist

A number of relics of the tramline survive along the route. Mostly these are in the form of the "roses" which supported the overhead cables, although there are also a few stretches of track still visible, and, near "Tramways" student accomodation a set of points (not publicly accessible) manufactured by Hadfields. In nearby Car Street there are some partly exposed lines set in the ground. Other sections of track are often exposed during roadworks. A pair of cable supports can be seen on the 1880 former Sunday School building in City Road, which also has a dummy owl on the roof to scare pidgeons. One rose in Foregate Street has been lowered and a plaque added, although several nearby are in their original locations. Another, at the Grosvenor Hotel in Eastgate Street, has been re-purposed to prevent the signage swinging in the wind. On the underside of the bridge forming the Eastgate there are two holes which once supported the overhead cables.

Some Chester Tram Token survive. Very little is known about them although it is believed that they were concessionary fare tokens issued to certain groups of people under their jurisdiction, such as schoolchildren, the elderly or blind and military veterans. Some of these tokens were made in "early plastics" such as celluloid. As celluloid can be made to explode by heat, pressure or shock placing a token on the tram tracks would have resulted in a detonation as a tram passed, but this fact seems to have escaped the notice of the people of Chester.

One Chester tram (Number 4) survives. It's remains were discovered in 2004 and it is being restored.

Related pages

Said to be some of the last trams in Chester. The advert for "Bovril" on electric trams is somewhat ironic. The "Vril", from which the Trademark is derived, were a "master race" from the fictional work of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who used an electrical force called "Vril-ya". This is a still from the Glengary Cinema Archive.

Sources and Links