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Normanton, Castleford and Pontefract Tramway

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NORMANTON, CASTLEFORD and PONTEFRACT TRAMWAY

by PETER COOKSON

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On 29th October 1906 the Normanton, Castleford and Pontefract Tramway opened to public service. Although operating for only nineteen years, it made an important contribution to transport in the Five Towns area and, along with the railways, enabled people to travel around the local district with relative ease.

During the second half of the nineteenth century many of our cities and large industrial towns were experiencing severe congestion due to population growth. On routes not served by local railways, the normal mode of transport was by horsepower but this was slow and cumbersome.

In order to solve this problem of congestion, two important pieces of legislation were enacted by Parliament. In 1870 the Tramways Act was passed with the purpose of simplifying procedures for the construction of street tramways which would otherwise require many separate Acts. Large municipal schemes were encouraged for the bigger cities, but for smaller towns, grouping of separate authorities to form a joint authority could be the solution; otherwise, private companies could apply to construct a tramway network for a particular district. Under the 1870 Act, in earlier days, trams were usually horse-drawn or steam-hauled by tram-engines.

In 1896 the Light Railways Act was passed which further eased the conditions under which railways and tramways could be constructed, but it was under the former Act that the Normanton, Castleford and Pontefract line was proposed.

By this time, advances in the technology of electric motors had made it more or less obligatory to design systems using electric traction where the lines ran along urban streets.

In the more populous parts of the West Riding to the west of Pontefract, the construction of tramways got underway late in the nineteenth century but it was at the turn of the twentieth century that proposals emerged to construct a tramway system for the Pontefract area.

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In November 1900 notice was given in the local press of a proposal by the United Kingdom Tramway, Light Railway and Electrical Syndicate to seek a provisional order under the 1870 Act to construct and maintain a tramway between Normanton, Castleford, Pontefract and Featherstone. By April of the following year under the West Riding Tramways Order of 1901, the Board of Trade published its Order authorising the construction of these lines and confirmed it in August of that year.

At this stage of development the eastern terminus of the proposed line was not the one eventually built, but was situated at the junction of Monkhill Station Road and North Baileygate. To accomplish this, the line would have taken a sinuous course from Market Place, through Woolmarket, Bridge Street, Finkle Street, Northgate and North Baileygate.

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By 1902 the suggestion had been made to extend the line to Knottingley and this was supported by the Town Council in January. In August of that year, powers were obtained by the West Riding Tramways and Electricity Supply Company to construct the line to Knottingley which would have terminated at the Town Hall, having traversed the main Weeland Road from Pontefract. As might have been expected, the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company objected to the tramway schemes, as they carried much of the local traffic in the area and the tramway was seen as a threat.

Although not strictly relevant to this article, it was pointed out in evidence given to the House of Lords Committee in June, that the L & Y Company had not in fact provided a very good railway service between Pontefract and Knottingley, nor did they provide adequate accommodation at Monkhill Station. The L & Y Company’s response indicated that they were planning to commit considerable expenditure to a scheme to provide a large new station at Monkhill with much improved facilities. In the event, the plan was not implemented.

At this stage (1902) the gauge envisaged for the tracks was 3ft 6ins but, by September, this had been changed to the standard railway gauge of 4ft 8 ½ ins. At the same time as matters were proceeding in the Pontefract area, the Wakefield and District Light Railway Company was developing lines in Wakefield and it made a successful take-over bid for the company developing the Pontefract and Castleford Lines.

Further consolidation of these various ventures took place between 1902 and 1903 in stages. A company named the Ito Syndicate Ltd came briefly into existence with the intention of buying up the tramway powers so far existing in the Wakefield and Pontefract areas, amalgamating them and then selling them at a profit.

By April 1903 a new company named the Yorkshire Electric Tramways Construction Syndicate was incorporated to take over these amalgamated powers. The West Riding Tramway Act of 1904 authorised the Wakefield and District Light Railway Company to construct the Wakefield lines together with various extensions which would have connected the Five Towns area with Wakefield and Leeds.

The company formed to operate all the lines envisaged for the Wakefield area was the Yorkshire (West Riding) Electric Tramways Company and came into being in April 1905. It was this company that eventually became the West Riding Automobile Company Ltd whose buses served the local area for many years.

Work began on the construction of the local line at Castleford in April 1904 when the work on the Wakefield lines had almost been completed, only to come to a stop shortly after because of a dispute over payments for earlier work. Work was resumed early in 1905.

Castleford was selected as the location of the tram depot and power station which were situated in Wheldon Lane. Rather unusually for this period the generators were powered by diesel engines instead of the more usual steam engines.

After the construction of lines in Castleford town centre (much of which was never used because of the rejection of the branch to Leeds via Methley), work proceeded outwards from there to Normanton and Pontefract. Most of the track was laid as single-line with passing loops, but there were sections of double track in the towns with the longest section in Pontefract, and this ran from near Victoria Street (adjacent to the Alexandra Theatre) to the terminus outside the Market Hall.

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The Board of Trade insisted on this length of double track because part of Front Street had the steepest gradient on the whole line (1 in 16) and was considered to be potentially dangerous. In fact, the narrowness of Front Street was a bone of contention for about two years, as wrangling took place over who should bear the cost of the work that had to be done, to improve clearance at the top of the hill to satisfy the requirements of the Board of Trade inspector. Briefly, the problem concerned the fact that the original plans provided for the demolition of a row of buildings at the south-west corner to widen the road to accommodate the double track. When it came to construction, the Tramway Company, in order to keep within budget, tried to avoid doing this and wanted to move the tracks 1ft towards the opposite causeway. This involved shaving 5 ½ ins off this causeway for safe clearance. The causeway would then be too narrow for safety and the Town Council refused to agree to it.

The Front Street problem had still not been solved by the time of the first inspection run over the whole system on 12th October 1906. The official Board of Trade inspection was made by Major J.W. Pringle RE on 20th October and he indicated that permission to operate the system would be granted. The usual celebratory official opening with invited guests and decorated cars took place on the following Thursday (25th), with full public service beginning on Monday 29th October. The running powers were conditional upon the solving of the Front Street problem, but this proved troublesome and even led to the suspension of service for several months, from late 1907 until well into 1908 when cars were required to terminate at Tanshelf.

The Pontefract and Castleford Advertiser contains many references to the wrangling over Front Street and the matter was eventually debated in Parliament in mid 1909.

The journey time from Normanton to Pontefract was approximately 50 minutes, with trams running every 8 minutes, although timetables varied over the years. The fare-stages were Market Place, Atkinson Street in Normanton; Wood Lane in Whitwood; Aketon Road, Bank Street, Smawthorne Lane in Castleford; Maltshovel Inn in Glasshoughton; Woodman Inn, Parkside Farm, Park Gates and Market Place in Pontefract. The fare was 1d for the first stage and ½ d for each additional stage, which equated to 6d for the full 7-mile journey.

In order to run this level of service, sixteen cars were based at the Castleford depot, which were supplied by Dick, Kerr and Co. Ltd. of Preston. Eight open-top cars, no’s 23-30, together with eight of a modified design incorporating upper balcony tops (no’s 31-38) made up the complement. The earlier open-top cars received tops between 1911 and 1914. A serious fire at the Depot in 1917 destroyed a number of cars which had to be replaced by others.

The original livery selected for the trams was crimson and cream, but the First World War brought an end to this and a two-tone green replaced it, although, as the war progressed, shortages of paint saw the use of drab browns and greys used. From 1924 a new livery of green and cream was devised and this continued into the ‘bus era and will be remembered by many readers.

By the time of the opening of the line, the section from Market Place to North Baileygate had not been built, nor had the extension to Knottingley or the branch to Featherstone Station. It is interesting to speculate what problems might have arisen in Ropergate had the Featherstone branch been built, because double track was proposed for this section and the road here is very narrow.

Although intentions to build these lines remained for a while, they were eventually abandoned along with other proposed routes to the west so that, as a result, the Normanton – Pontefract line remained an isolated section of the Yorkshire (West Riding) tramway system.

Although the tramway was not conspicuously successful (it made a profit in only two of its 19 years of existence), it played an important part in local transport of the period. There were occasions when the tramway carried very large numbers of passengers, especially at the times of Pontefract Races and the Statutes Fair. In those days the Fair was very extensive and occupied much space in the town centre, with the result that trams could not penetrate Market Place, and had to turn round at a temporary terminus near the Court House; even so, there were reports of occasional over-running and damage caused to side-shows by an errant tram.

The period of the First World War witnessed a decline in standards on the tramways; the ravages of subsidence, especially on the Glasshoughton – Pontefract section, together with shortages of materials and labour led to a marked reduction in the quality of the tracks and an increasingly rough and bumpy ride. The attempt to get permission to move the track to a roadside alignment on wooden sleepers (as for a conventional railway) was not supported by the local authorities and attempts to get compensation for subsidence damage were equally unsuccessful. In general, the local authorities involved did not appear to be at all supportive of the tramway company, even though it was a substantial rate-payer.

By the early 1920’s, a further problem arose in the form of competition from newly emerging bus operators. In the eyes of the general public, the new buses were seen as faster and more comfortable than the trams, and the situation arose in which the company itself had to institute its own bus services to prevent a substantial loss of patronage to the other bus operators. The West Riding buses, as a result, were competing against their own trams.

The situation could not continue and the end was in sight for the Normanton – Pontefract tramway. Last-ditch appeals to the various local authorities to prevent unrestricted competition by the bus operators were refused, and the end came on 1st November 1925. At 11pm on that Sunday evening, tram number 13 with thirteen passengers on board, left Pontefract market Place for Castleford and the trams in Pontefract passed into history, probably unloved and unlamented by most. I wonder if it was a gloomy, foggy or rainy night? Perhaps it should have been, to mark appropriately a rather sad occasion.

In writing this short sketch of the Normanton – Pontefract tramway, I have not aimed for balance or detail; for those who wish to read a scholarly account, I would refer them to "The Tramways of Dewsbury and Wakefield" by W. Pickles. My aim has been to give an outline slanted towards those who are interested in the local history of Pontefract. In addition to my indebtedness to this book, I record my gratitude to H. Pickard who provided me with his index to articles in the Pontefract and Castleford Advertiser on tramway subjects, thus saving me a great deal of effort and time. Last, but not least, I record my thanks to Richard Van Riel who helped me with the illustrations.

PETER COOKSON

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