The Age of the Electric Tram in Heywood

A Manchester Corporation tramcar.
Electric trams were a familiar sight and sound on the streets of Heywood from the 1900s to the 1930s. These were not the first trams in the town, as steam-powered vehicles had run in Heywood during 1881-1905. Those trams had been operated by the 'Manchester. Bury. Rochdale & Oldham Steam Tramways Co.' More about the later years of that service can be read here.

In this article, written especially for 'Monkey Town', Michael Baron recalls the years when electric trams competed with other forms of public transport to get Heywoodites from A to B:

Over the years, a lot of people have asked ‘Why trams?’ and the answer is not obvious at first. Simply put, railed transport has several advantages over road transport. Firstly, a steel wheel running on a steel rail makes little resistance. Such transport runs freely downhill and on a level surface, a tram can be pushed with one hand. In contrast to this, a wheel on a settled surface (cobbles, granite setts) or nowadays a rubber tyre on an asphalt road surface makes a resistance with that surface, and physics dictates that - even on the level - the wheel behaves as though it is permanently travelling uphill, requiring more and more power to overcome the inertia. Also, at the time of the electric time, road transport was not really safe on setts and cobbles and had a tendency to skid and slide in all conditions.

Manchester trams of all types from about 1914 to 1932.

Trams enabled large loads to be moved with small motive power. This is very effective over short distances and this was to prove the worth of the tram, particularly in the electric era from about 1895 to the 1950s.

Trams and tramways were expensive to build but cheap to run. Fares were very fair and often extremely low. Vehicles and infrastructure (rails, wires and electricity feeder cables) lasted a very long time. The Heywood tramways exemplified this very well. It was only when they were directly connected to Manchester that the flaws in an otherwise very good system for travelling began to show.

Bury tram number 30 on its way to Manchester (High Street) from Heywood (Market Place). The Middleton Town Clerk wrote about this type: '…the Bury car with vacuum brakes is a shining example of how a car should be…’ It is photographed at the bottom of Charlestown Road, once known as Blackley (Tram) Office.

The Heywood tramway extension from Middleton was ahead of its time. It was a very fine tramway but was hampered by lack of parallel development in tramcar motor design and vehicle streamlining. It was also built just as the speed limits for buses and other road transport were changing. Bus design too was leaving tramways behind and the powerful Diesel engine with its (then) untaxed fuel (4d or 1 1/2 p per gallon) was such a practical and superior financial alternative.

Tramways helped people to get to work; running services for workmen at very cheap rates, though a penny and even a halfpenny per journey represented a sizeable fraction of a weekly wage. Passengers used the trams for short journeys and this was where tramways made their money.[1] Travelling longer distances by tram developed later as people moved further from their families and work. Also when public holidays were declared and there was an opportunity for ‘a ride on the car’ (very few people referred to trams as anything other than ‘cars’).[2] In most towns, ribbon development (building new residences along transport routes) followed the tramway too, with the expensive housing at the extreme ends of later routes.

After the steam trams ended in 1905, Heywood's original electric tram lines ended at Hopwood (Middleton Road). This service went from Hopwood to Heywood with some journeys onward to Bury and was provided by Bury Corporation Tramways. Tramways. Rochdale Corporation also ran to Heywood from Sudden and eventually, ran a joint service with Bury Corporation to Bury, via Heywood. The line was laid as a single track with loops.[3]

Bury Corporation tram sheds, just off Rochdale Road, Bury in the 1930s. If you look carefully, you can see that the car on the right is set for Heywood!

Heywoodites had wanted a tramway to join Heywood with Middleton as far back as 1903, but the subject was not seriously discussed until 1925, when the Middleton Electric Traction Company (a private undertaking)[4] was sold to the Middleton, Chadderton and Rochdale corporations. Manchester Corporation acted as a supervisory manager on Middleton's behalf.[5]

From a transport point of view, Heywood, appeared isolated from Manchester, and it has to be remembered that train fares historically were always a lot higher than tram fares. The train service - although quick - was not always satisfactory anyway as most train journeys through to Manchester included a change at Castleton, or travelling to Bury and changing there.

Market Place, Heywood, 1908. In the centre of this photo is what appears to be a Bury tram making its way to Hopwood.

Middleton Electric Traction Co. had run a bus service to Heywood but it connected only to Rhodes via Birch and Bowlee, where passengers had to change to a Middleton tram, going to Middleton (then changing tram for one to Manchester) or a Salford tram, going to Salford (or changing at Wilton Polygon for a tram to Manchester). As you can see, apart from the railway, there was no direct public transport link to Manchester from Heywood.

So, in 1925, the Ministry of Transport offered Heywood and Middleton a 50% grant towards the cost of widening the road between Middleton Road (Hopwood) and Langley Lane, Middleton, with Colonel Hopwood gifting some of the land to both Heywood and Middleton.[6] During this time, the bus was re-routed to go from Rhodes to Hopwood and then down the proposed new road and Hollin Lane to Middleton Market Place and making the return journey in the opposite direction. The buses were primitive, expensive, bouncy and uncomfortable (solid tyres and the road full of holes). A tramway would be very attractive.

In March 1927 the Ministry of Transport granted (after a public enquiry) the Heywood and Middleton Light Railways Order which authorised the construction of new lines from the Hollin Lane/Rochdale Road junction in Middleton, along an intended new road to Coronation Avenue, turning right into Manchester Road and joining the existing line at Magdala Street.

This was to be a double track tramway. It was laid on concrete in asphalt to the most modern standards then prevailing - no setts (cobbles) and completed and opened on 19 May 1928 with a direct tramway service from Manchester (High Street) to Heywood (Market Place), under the route number 18. The service was managed by Manchester Corporation with running powers in Middleton and Heywood (which meant that the fares taken in Heywood were paid to Heywood Corporation; those in Middleton to Middleton Corporation).

The service ran every 15 minutes to Manchester from 7.55am to 10.40am; and from Manchester (High Street) to Heywood from 7.40am to 10.40am. Bury Corporation joined in too and ran through from Heywood to Manchester and I expect this would include the first tram to Manchester in the morning and the last tram from Manchester at night.[7]

The through fare from Heywood to Manchester was 5½ d (just a fraction over 2p); from Hurst Villa, it was 5d (2p). The journey to Middleton took 20 minutes from Heywood and the journey to Manchester from Heywood took 49 minutes.[8]

There were also ‘Post Trams’ on the route from September 1928, designed to catch the last post of the evening at Manchester.[9] There trams carried a post box attached to the dash plate and you could post a letter on it either at a tram stop or by signalling the tram to stop. If you signalled the tram to stop, you had to pay 1d and the guard (conductor) would give you a ticket in return. This tram left Heywood Market Place every night at 9.00pm.

Manchester Corporation, acting for Heywood Corporation also rebuilt the line from Hopwood to Heywood in 1929.

Bury town centre in the mid 1930s. Bury’s trams were smart and well-maintained.

At the same time as the tramway was being built, Manchester Corporation Tramways Department was experimenting with express buses and so started buses running along the same routes as the trams but stopping less frequently and charging substantially higher fares than the trams. Heywood was included in this experiment. These buses were very successful and persistent lobbying by Henry Mattinson, the general manager of Manchester Corporation Tramways, succeeded in getting the national speed limit raised from 12 mph to 30 mph.

Unfortunately, the trams were underpowered for the 18 route (carrying 62-78 passengers to the buses 20+ or so) and speeds were restricted (supposed maximum 25-29mph) by lack of development in the brakes and motors on Manchester trams.[10] Bury Corporation did develop one tram to a very high degree for this service and proved that a tram could easily pace a bus (by adding high powered motors, a new truck and air brakes).

According to one of my relatives who regularly rode on the line, the Manchester trams used to fly at high speed - ‘jazzing’ - from the top of Langley Lane right down to Coronation Avenue as this part of the route was so lightly loaded and no stops were encountered.[11] To people used only to walking and maybe a bicycle, this must have seemed like supersonic travel at that time.

Exactly this view but displaying number 18 would be a Heywood tram on its way to Manchester. This is 1931 and this is one of the trams that ‘jazzed’ very freely (see text). The four wheel truck is clearly seen under the bodywork. Photo taken at Blackley (Tram) Office (The 17 route still runs from Manchester to Rochdale).

Coronation Avenue was built at this time specifically to accommodate the trams.

Certain other roads developed in the 1920s around the Manchester suburbs bear mute testimony to the fact that Manchester wanted to redevelop its tramways in the suburbs and surrounding towns. Mainway in Alkrington, Victoria Avenue East in Blackley and Broadway in New Moston are but three wide roads built for trams but which never carried them.

The 18 route to Heywood was probably not really profitable - although it is now thought that accountancy methods and practices of the time were flawed in several respects - and marked the last major expansion of the Manchester Corporation Tramways, as Henry Mattinson died unexpectedly in 1928.[12]

His replacement was a shrewd businessman (R. Stuart Pilcher) who knew the benefits of both trams and buses but could see that the bus had the advantage over the tram for speed and did not require the additional infrastructure for successful running. Streamlined higher powered trams capable of 30+mph were on their way in 1930 and although Pilcher did design a new tram for Manchester, it was not built to his original specification and pared down to a price rather than up to his standards.[13] It is interesting to note that just as the Heywood tramways were about to close, Blackpool was busy modernising its tramway and cities like Liverpool, Sheffield, Glasgow had yet to embark on vast tramway development and vehicle updating and modernisation.

A view of one of R S Pilcher’s tramcars, when new. These were used on the 18 Heywood route. This is by Manchester University. A good side view of an eight wheel bogie tram too!

The tram route between Bury and Rochdale via Sudden and Heywood was changed over to bus operation on 3 July 1932. However, Bury Corporation Tramways still ran to Heywood at peak periods but this too ended on 18 February 1933. Bury Corporation Tramways final journey over the 18 route took place on 19 February 1933, Manchester Corporation being sole operator until closure in May 1934. The bus route to Manchester was renumbered as 16. Ironically, the change came about because the tram lines in Rochdale Road, Manchester needed renewal and in terms of capital investment, the purchase of new buses was more cost effective.

The tram lines from Middleton (Hollin Lane) to Heywood were lifted in 1935 and sold to Stockport Corporation where they were re-used to re-fit the Edgeley route. The tram poles that held up the wires remained in place and were used for the distinctive street lighting from Coronation Avenue to the Middleton boundary until sometime in the 1980s.

Very few photos have ever come to light of trams on this route, but there was one of a tram that was turning out of Coronation Avenue on to Manchester Road. Does anybody have that one? Please look carefully among your own collections, as photographs of trams in Heywood are rare and few have come to light.

Nowadays, the bus journey to Manchester takes 40 minutes according to the published timetable.


[1] Tramways nearly all carried parcels at very competitive rates too.
[2] Even the stop signs for trams said ‘Cars Stop Here’. At that time and even up to the mid-1960s, motor cars were referred to as ‘motors’. Motor coaches were called ‘Sharras’ well into the 1960s after the name by which they were first known - ‘Char-a-bancs’ (a carriage with benches).
[3] A loop or loop line was short section of double track where two trams could pass each other.
[4] Also a subsidiary company of the British Electric Traction Company.
[5] Middleton Tramways (AK Kirby, 1976).
[6] ibid.
[7] Middleton Corporation were very impressed by this tram and wrote and told Manchester Corporation so, stating that some of the Manchester trams sounded like ‘a load of scrap iron travelling down the road’.
[8] The fastest direct train to Manchester Victoria from Heywood took 23 minutes but most journeys which included the change at Castleton were around 30 minutes. The fastest train from Heywood to Manchester Victoria (direct) took 19 minutes.
[9] Until the 1960s there were several collections and deliveries per day including Sundays. Few people had a telephone and quick messages could be sent by postcards and delivered on the same day locally and within 12 hours to a neighbouring town.
[10] Long tram routes which travel through sparsely populated areas need more powerful motors, at least 2x57hp. Manchester trams at this time had commonly 2x40hp or at best, 2x50hp.
[11] Jazzing is a peculiar tramcar phenomenon, in which an eight-wheel tram, when travelling at speed, undulates left to right from front to back. Four wheel trams also exhibit this motion but in their case, it is coupled with a simultaneous nose to tail bounce, which could be most disconcerting to the passenger.
[12] Middleton Guardian for November 1932 made this surmise, although the actual profitability of the route was never stated publicly.
[13] The Manchester Bus (Eyre, Heaps et al., 1989).

  • M Eyre, Heaps et al, The Manchester Bus, Senior Publications, 1989.
  • AK Kirkby, Middleton Tramways, Manchester Transport Museum Society, 1976.
  • JH Price (editor), The Tramways of South East Lancashire, Light Railway Transport League, 1976.