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Significant Events in the History of the Line
with brief notes on its construction, equipment and operation

Compiled by Noel Walley

PART 1 – 1894-1934

September 1894 – Henry Enfield Taylor, a mining engineer of 15 Newgate Street Chester, submitted a scheme to the Works Committee of Llandudno U.D.C. for a tramway (under the Tramways Act of 1870) from the Pier Head to a point in the north-east below the summit. The proposed route would have required the tramcars to reverse direction at a point about one quarter of the total distance. A second proposal submitted by Taylor in 1895 avoided the need to reverse but the proposed line ended in The Bishop of Bangor’s quarry well below the summit.

November 1895 – Messrs Kincaid, Weller and Manville of London submitted a scheme for an electric tramway using the Marine Drive round the Great Orme from the Pier Head to the West Shore with the circuit completed via the southern carriageway of Gloddaeth Avenue. The scheme envisaged branches to both Deganwy and Llandudno Railway Stations. Nothing came of these proposals.

1896 – An organising committee led by Richard Conway (a Llandudno U.D.C. Councillor and later chairman of the tramway company) and including John Jones, Stephen Dunphy, James Lanham Mayger, and George Alfred Humphries, all leaders of the Llandudno business community, was formed to promote a scheme for a tramway to the summit of the Great Orme. They commissioned Messrs Wood and Fowler, Consulting Engineers of Liverpool, to prepare detailed plans and engaged Messrs Chamberlain & Johnson of Llandudno as solicitors to promote a Parliamentary Bill.

May 23rd 1898 – ‘The Great Orme Tramways Company’ was incorporated by Act of Parliament (61 Vic.Cap.XXVII) with an issued share capital of £25,000 and borrowing powers of £6,250. Two years were allowed for land purchase and three years for construction. The Act empowered the building of tramways from a yard at the Victoria Hotel, in Old Road to a midway point and from there to a point 110 yards from the ‘Telegraph’ beer house on the Great Ormeshead.

The Act distinguished between the bottom section, which it called a tramway since it was to run on or alongside the public highway, and the upper section, which was to run on a reserved track on private land and this it called a tramroad. This unusual distinction between tramway and tramroad was not maintained and in practice both sections have always been called tramway (or railway). The track gauge was to be 3ft.6ins. and cable traction operated by stationary steam engines was always envisaged but the adoption of other forms of traction including electric traction (but not steam traction) would be permitted under the Act subject to conditions.

Progress of the Bill through Parliament was delayed owing to opposition voiced by Douglas H. Coghill (member for Stoke-on-Trent) who moved that the second reading be delayed by six months with the claim that the tramway was not needed by the people of Llandudno and that it would prevent a horse drawn hearse from reaching Saint Tudno’s Cemetery. In the event a delay of just one week was approved.

Clauses for the protection of Lord Mostyn and the Llandudno U.D.C. were inserted by negotiation.  Significantly, to protect the Llandudno residential environment from pollution, the Act made it necessary to locate the powerhouse at the halfway station and thus the boiler coke had to be carried, 450 feet up the hill. It was also necessary to negotiate the purchase of water supplies from Llandudno U.D.C. (to be pumped from the newly constructed reservoir near St. Tudno’s Church), as no springs existed at that height or above. It is, however, difficult to see how the tramways could have been constructed and efficiently operated with a single power house in any other location.

Even more significantly, the Act permitted the compulsory purchase of the tramway by Llandudno U.D.C. (on six months notice) at the end of 28 years from the passing of the act, and following that, at the end of every seventh year.

Also authorised by the Act were fixed fares at six pence single and nine pence return for the whole journey with permission to charge lower fares for part journeys. The company was also required, at a reasonable fixed charge, and in a decent and seemly manner, to undertake the conveyance of corpses for interment at St Tudno’s cemetery.

Recognising the seasonable nature of the passenger traffic, the railway had latitude in the type and duration of the service it offered. However, depending on the size of dividend paid to shareholders, the Llandudno U.D.C. could insist on an extended season or year round operation. Sunday working was to be at the discretion of the local authority.

April 1901 – Construction began in the Old Road, and proceeded quickly. R. White & Sons of Widnes were the main contractors and supplied the trackwork and mechanical equipment. The Tramway Company employed Alfred G. Pugh as their Secretary, based in an office in Llewelyn Avenue and they employed H. E. Taylor M.I.C.E. of Chester as their engineer. The said Henry Enfield Taylor, had in 1894 and 1895 made unsuccessful proposals to Llandudno U.D.C. for a tramway from the pier to a point some distance below the summit, and so would have had prior knowledge of the route.   Building work was sub-contracted to Thomas and John Owen of Llandudno; the latter was a local Councillor, and an associate of Company Chairman Richard Conway.  Messrs Wood and Fowler continued as consulting engineers and appointed Arthur Reginald Ellison to supervise the construction. Relationships between R. White & Sons and H.E. Taylor acting for the Proprietors through Alfred Pugh were at times anything but cordial and led to vitriolic correspondence between the parties concerning shoddy workmanship.

Matters indeed reached such a pitch that Mr Cotterill of the Liverpool Overhead Railway was engaged to mediate the situation. Consequently Henry Enfield Taylor resigned and Gowrie Colquhon Aitchison, A.M.I.C.E., F.C.I.S., the Secretary and General Manager of the Snowdon Mountain Tramway and also the Manager, Secretary, Engineer and Locomotive Superintendent of the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways was appointed as Consulting Engineer to oversee the construction of the Upper Section.

The four double-bogie passenger tramcars are each 37 feet long and seat 48 on wooden seats. They were built in 1902-03 by Hurst Nelson & Co. of Motherwell. They are numbered 4, 5, 6 & 7 and each was fitted with mechanical wheel and track brakes. Nos. 4 and 5 are fitted with water tanks and pipework for water to be used by the driver as lubricant on the steep and curved lower section. They were also fitted as built with a very powerful spring-loaded and cam operated emergency brake that automatically engaged with the rails within the cable conduit and operated whenever a lack of tension (even momentarily) occurred in the haulage cable. The passenger cars carried the name ‘Great Orme Tramways’ in full on both sides. Three earlier vehicles, from the same builder and numbered 1, 2 & 3, were smart four-wheeled end-balcony covered vans (called ‘jockey cars’) used during construction and afterwards possibly for coke and freight traffic until eventually scrapped sometime before 1930. All these vehicles were supplied under a type of hire-purchase agreement with R White and Sons. That company of course supplied the mechanical equipment, engines and boilers under their original contract.

The steel haulage cables have a hemp core and are made out of ‘Langlay’ pattern plough steel. They were made by the St. Helens Cable Co. and the first cables were hauled up the hill to the engine house by a team of twelve horses. The St. Helens Cable Co. and its successor Bridon Ropes have supplied replacement cables for each section every two or three years throughout most of the tramways life. ‘Langlay’ pattern plough steel haulage ropes were in common use in mines and similar locations worldwide throughout the 20th century.

The engine room and winding house had a locomotive type coke fired boiler built by Robey & Co. Ltd. of Lincoln and a smaller boiler was also installed as a reserve. These boilers, and possibly other heavy equipment, were hauled up the very steep Old Road and Ty Gwyn Road by a steam traction engine which advanced in stages, locked and chocked its wheels and then winched a laden wagon up the incline to join the engine. The installed boilers supplied steam at a little over 100 p.s.i. to two twin cylinder colliery-type winding engines supplied by C. & A. Musker of Liverpool. An 80 h.p. engine drove the lower section and a 60 h.p. engine drove the upper section. During the winter of 1913/14 a larger 120 h.p. engine from Sandicroft Foundry Chester was installed to drive the lower section and the 80 h.p. engine switched to the upper section. In the late 1920’s the main boiler was replaced with a more powerful second-hand boiler that was installed in a newly-built boilerhouse.

From the start, construction and operation of the Great Orme Tramways has differed greatly from the famous San Francisco cable car system. The design of the haulage system for the Great Orme tramway relied heavily on existing cable haulage systems for colliery inclines but with additional safeguards. The lower tramway from the Victoria Hotel to the First Station (or Halfway Station as it later came to be called) is a street funicular with the traction cables in conduit below the public highway and the upper tramway (from Halfway to the Summit) is closer in design to a conventional funicular with exposed cables. On both sections, the cars are stopped and started by stopping and starting the cable (a separate cable unit for each section), which is in turn driven by a winding engine located at the Halfway Station. The Great Orme tram driver needs instant communication with the winding engineer and this was provided from the start by a telegraph and telephone link through a trolley pole and an overhead copper wire.

In the now unique San Francisco system, which was at one time used in numerous places throughout the world, the cables run continuously in the conduits and cars start and stop by the use of a gripper mechanism (fixed to the car and within the conduit) that attaches and detaches the cable and is under the direct control of the driver. The Great Orme cars are permanently attached to the cable and the system has sometimes been called a ‘double reversible funicular tramway’ whereas the famous San Francisco system works on different principles and is not a funicular tramway.

July 30th 1902 – Colonel Von Donop inspected the lower tramway and expressed himself very satisfied with the automatic emergency brake, very necessary on a 1 in 4 line (maximum gradient 1 in 3.7), and gave the company full approval to operate the public passenger service. [Ivor Wynne Jones in his excellent history “Llandudno, Queen of the Welsh Resorts” Landmark Collector’s Library 2002 page 28, records that Arthur Reginald Ellison, resident engineer during construction of the line had, by his own admission made in retirement in 1963 aged 87, conspired with the winding engineman to deceive the inspector concerning the effectiveness of the emergency brake on that occasion.]

July 31st 1902 – As the holiday season was already in full swing, the public service on the lower section started without ceremony, excepting that the town band assembled and played “God save the King” as the first tram left Victoria Station on the last afternoon of July.  The year ended with over 75,000 passengers carried and receipts from fares in excess of £900.

October 8th 1902 – The emergency brake, which had received Col. Von Donop’s commendation, caused problems in day-to-day operation on numerous occasions, but notably on October 8th, which was Harvest Thanksgiving Day and a popular local holiday. A slight mishandling of the control gear caused a jerk and a momentary slackening of the lower haulage cable, resulting in the immediate application of the brake. Excellent proof that the brake worked. However, releasing and re-setting the brake equipment took four hours during which time the line was out of action and in consequence caused much disappointment and significant loss of revenue. Similar minor mishaps and consequent long delays occurred several times during the years 1903-5 and eventually the emergency brake was disconnected whilst a solution was sought.

The tramway operated throughout the autumn and winter until Saturday January 3rd 1903 (when it closed for maintenance) but generally not at all in subsequent winters. The jockey cars may have been used to operate this autumn and early winter service.  The jockey cars may also have been used at this time when required as funeral hearses in connection with interments at St Tudno’s cemetery for which the company charged two shillings and six pence plus normal fares for the mourners. After this time the tramway did not operate in winter and consequently winter funerals (more common than summer funerals) could not have used the tramway and it is unlikely that the tramway was much used ‘just for summer funerals’. The coffin would in any case have had to be carried by bearers from the halfway station down the rough road to the cemetery (about half-a-mile). Jockey cars, when used, were, it is said, normally propelled ahead of the passenger car and pushed by hand between the upper and lower sections at the halfway station. Some of the connecting track remained in place for many years – into the 1950’s. The jockey cars were all withdrawn and scrapped sometime between 1911 and 1930. The only known photograph taken in May 1902 for the ‘Light railway and Tramway Journal’ shows car No. 3 at the Victoria Station. There is almost no evidence of their actual use and it is suspected that they proved impracticable. Also, on a line with a shortage of storage accommodation, it is thought that they were used more for the storage of tools and equipment than for transport.

May 8th 1903 – Col. Von Donop examined the upper section but hopes of opening for Whitsuntide were dashed when he identified significant work that needed to be done before the opening to passenger traffic.

July 8th 1903 – Passenger services started, again without ceremony, on the upper section following the completion of remedial works. The 1903 year ended with 77,410 passengers and the profit earned was again used to complete outstanding works. These included the demolition of the Victoria Hotel and the realignment of the tramway into the present Victoria Station building fronting on Church Walks (No. 62).  Sheds for overnight and winter storage of trams at halfway and at the summit were also built at this time. Earlier, consideration had been given to the construction of tram storage sheds at the mid-section pass-bys rather than at the termini, as a cheaper option (only two sheds needed) entirely owing to the shortage of funds and the need to protect the cars overnight and through the winter rather than the passengers during the summer. All the original building work was utilitarian and reflected the original company’s inability to raise even the full authorised capital. Passengers, throughout the 20th century, boarded and alighted in the open at the halfway station.

<>Summit Hotel and Golf Course The Act of Incorporation empowered the company to build a hotel on the summit, but in 1903, lacking funds, they persuaded Griffith B. Morgan, the catering manager of the Great Northern Railway of Ireland and owner of the Clarence Hotel in Gloddaeth Street, Llandudno to undertake the project. He consequently obtained financial backing from a brewery company, bought the former Telegraph Inn at the summit for £1,500 (very expensive) and placed a contract with Thomas McDonald of Dundalk to build a new hotel and an 18-hole golf course on 175 acres of leased adjoining land.  Morgan also became a director of the Great Orme Tramways Company.
<>This new enterprise was quickly bankrupted, even during construction, and the hotel was later completed to a less ambitious plan.  <>A local club was formed to complete and operate the golf course and members could buy a tramway season ticket for 15 shillings. However, owing to the frequent high winds, the golf course was not popular and during the 1939 war the land reverted to sheep farming, never to return to use as a golf course. <>In 1939, the R.A.F. requisitioned the hotel for use as a radar station.

June 19th 1906 – Col. Von Donop inspected the alignment of the tramway track at Black Gate, where the tramway (on a gradient of 1 in 4) passes from Old Road into Ty Gwyn Road at the junction of five roadways, and where, from the start, the alignment had been the cause of problems for road traffic (presumably horse drawn). A scheme had been prepared in consultation with representatives of the users and this received the inspector’s approval. The cost of this work was regarded as capital expenditure and brought the total cost of construction to £19,464. At about this time, with a view to encouraging housing development on the Orme, the company, at Lord Mostyn’s request, agreed to introduce residents’ fares of one penny each way between Victoria Station and Black Gate and two pence each way to or from the Halfway Station.

The first Manager of the tramway was George White who came from the Liverpool Overhead Railway, he was dismissed in 1904 for expressing doubts concerning the safety of certain aspects of the operation. White apparently complained to the Board of Trade that safety was being compromised but the Company wriggled out of it! Presumably the tramway ran itself for over twelve months, since White was not succeeded by Henry Sutcliffe until 1906!  Sutcliffe, it is said immediately disconnected the remaining governors and emergency cut out devices. Quite remarkably, Sutcliffe remained in charge until October 1945 despite the bankruptcy of the Company (through Sutcliffe’s own culpable negligence) in 1933 and the formation of a successor company in 1934.

In 1909 the Llandudno Urban District Council offered to buy the tramway undertaking from the Company and made a bid of £7,000. The directors recommended acceptance but the shareholders declared the offer to be too low.

Two minor collisions occurred, the first in 1909 and the second in 1911 but without injury or serious damage.

Strong winds are well known on the Great Orme and in October 1917 a tramcar standing outside the summit station was blown off the tracks by an exceptionally strong gust of wind. A similar accident occurred in September 1922. [Ivor Wynn Jones, ibid, page 31.]

The tramway continued to operate its seasonal service throughout the 1914-18 war, until it was forced to close in 1918, after only 22 days operation that year, owing to the lack of replacement haulage cables.

From 1918 onwards, the tramway was allowed its first fair incerease to eight pence single and one shilling return for the full journey.  This increse was authorised by the Statutory Undertakings (Temporary Increase of Charges) Act 1918 and the Tramways (Temporary Increase of Charges) Act 1920 and continued by Expiring Laws Legistlation until 1936.

Llandudno U.D.C. commenced operating motor coach tours in March 1928 and these continued until 1999. Although other tours were offered from time to time, the principal tour was always the very successful one-hour Great Orme Circular Tour starting from Prince Edward Square, driving anti-clockwise round the Marine Drive to the West Shore and returning via Gloddaeth Avenue. This tour is now operated daily in the season by Alpine Tours using vintage touring coaches.

The first 29 years of tramway operation have been described as accident free, at least in terms of passenger injuries, and during that time over 3,700,000 passengers were carried in complete safety. But were they? The automatic brake on the lower section cars was prone to operate accidentally and had done so several times at great inconvenience and with long delays to all involved and of course significant loss of revenue. In consequence it had been disconnected in 1906. But an alternative had not been found and the cars had remained without an automatic brake or indeed any effective brake on a 25% gradient from then onwards.

The original carriage livery is a matter of speculation, by the first world war the livery was an unlined royal blue with the title ‘GREAT ORME TRAMWAYS’ on the sides.

August 23rd 1932 – The Great Orme Tramways Company was shaken by its first major accident, an accident waiting to happen, Car No. 4 was descending the steep 1 in 3.7 stretch at Tabor Hill at the upper end of Old Road when the drawbar suddenly broke and the car became detached from the cable. The car left the rails on the reverse curves at that point and crashed into a wall resulting in the deaths of the driver and a 12 year old girl passenger. The driver was Ted Harris and the girl was Margaret Worthington whose father worked for the tramway at halfway station and continued to work there until he retired many years later. Ten passengers received serious injuries and others received cuts and bruises. Lt. Col. Anderson held an inquiry on August 29th and ordered the line to remain closed.

It appeared that the fracture in the drawbar had resulted from it having been made by Craven Bros Ltd of Manchester, specifically at Henry Sutcliffe’s request (he was looking for maintenance economies), from ‘Vibrac’, a particular steel alloy quite unsuited for this purpose and that this arose because the manufacturers had not been told of the use to which the drawbar was to be put. A similar drawbar fitted to Car No. 5 had fractured only two days earlier, happily without tragic consequences, but the significance of that occurrence had not been recognised. The drawbar that had failed on Car No. 4 was produced by the police. It was made to a uniform thickness of ¾ inch in order to give clearance when running in the 1¼ inch conduit slot. It was found to have worn down by ⅛ inch through rubbing on the sides of the slot since being fitted new just one week earlier on August 15th 1932.

The inspector’s report, published on February 2nd 1933, drew attention to the serious breaches of the statutory regulations (not least that the emergency brakes had been disconnected in 1906 and never re-connected) which had continued over many years, and for which the management were responsible. Claims lodged by injured passengers totalled £14,000 and in consequence of the report, the insurance company repudiated liability.

July 24th 1933 – Following a judgement for £1,000, obtained by a London claimant, a Sheriff’s Officer took possession and posted notices of sale. The Directors immediately applied to wind up the Company and a compulsory winding up order was granted on July 24th. The Creditors decided to continue the work, already well advanced, on the development of a new automatic brake, in order to reopen the line and sell the undertaking as a going concern.

May 11th 1934 – Col. Tench of the Ministry of Transport fully tested the new automatic brake, which was controlled by a governor, and depended on the speed exceeding 6½ m.p.h. before activation. It comprised four cast iron skids with annealed teeth that bore down on the concrete roadbed and brought the car to a ‘smooth’ halt in about half its own length. The device was built by Walker Brothers of Wigan who fitted it to both cars and it was demonstrated before cameras and reporters. The existing track brakes on the lower section cars were removed, as their operation would have reduced the effectiveness of the new automatic brake, which can also be activated manually. Re-opening was permitted subject to an annual brake test each year in the spring.

The annual brake test requires the control equipment and speed governors at the half-way station to be disconnected and specially re-configured to enable the descent to be speeded up and the car ‘cut loose’ at a given point and recent tests, all satisfactory, suggest that cars will always stop in about two car lengths. During the tests the cars carry sand bags to simulate a full complement of passengers. In earlier years, concrete blocks were used but this damaged the seating, which then had to be revarnished.

The tramway ran a successful 1934 season and was sold in December 1934 to a syndicate of former shareholders for £5,600. The six new owners formed a private limited company called Great Orme Railway Ltd to which they transferred their holdings, and under which name the tramway was in future operated.



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