An early photo of open car horse drawn service on the Swansea and Mumbles Railway. Probably a vary pleasant hour or so on a lovely spring day, but undoubtedly miserable in Wales's snowy winters.
Over the years this blog has covered many firsts relating to railway history. That’s because I am fascinated with transportation history in general and rail history in particular. Maybe it comes from growing up in a railroad town like Cheyenne, Wyoming, playing with electric trains, or listening all of my life to all of those songs about lonesome whistles, getting’ on down the line, and hobos. But somehow I missed the very first rail passenger service in the world, which was inaugurated way back on March 25, 1807 on the Swansea and Mumbles Railway in Wales. I know, it sounds like a line made up by J.K. Rowling for some fantastic adventure.
It started out, as most railroads did, as freight service. Specifically it was charted in 1804 by Parliament as the Committee of the Company of Proprietors of the Oystermouth Railway or Tramroad Company for the purpose of hauling limestone from quarries by the Swansea Canal a little more than 7 miles to a fishing village called Oystermouth, a harbor at the mouth of the River Tawe. Mumbles was the end station in Oysterouth and the line was thus called the Swansea and Mumbles Railway, or just called the Mumbles Train by the suitably rustic locals.
Construction on the roadbed and the laying of rude iron-strap rails was completed in 1806. Freight operations commenced with no dedication or ceremony. None-the-less it quickly boosted the economy of both of its terminals. With the addition of a mile-long spur from Blackpill up the Clyne Valley to Ynys Gate it also facilitated the development of coal pits at Blackpill. Limestone, coal, and other freight was all carried in single open carts and horse drawn over the rugged course. Speed was not a priority.
There being no road between the termini other than a rude foot path, the Proprietors decided quickly that since the damn railway was just sitting there anyway, they might as well add passenger service. One of the original proprietors, Benjamin French, offered to pay the company the 20£ for the right to haul paying customers for a year. Suitably uncomfortable open coaches thus began making regular trips on this date in 1807 without need of much further investment. The Mount at Swansea became the world first railway station. Actually anyone could do what Mr. French did. By the arcane terms of the original charter the railroad was just that—the roadbed—and operated like a turnpike or canal. Anyone could use the rails for a fee or toll as long as they provided their own compatible equipment. It is unclear who or how many exercised that option.
Eventually seven stations including the termini were built which became the center of small hamlets and served the narrow valley running through the Welsh hills.
In the 1820’s a turnpike was built parallel to the rail line that so cut into passenger traffic that the only operator of cars at that time, Simon Llewelyn, suspended operations in 1827.
The re-introduction of passenger service in 1866 brought these more comfortable cars.
Over the next couple of decades the roadbed was re-laid and standard gauge flanged rails were used. George Byng Morris, the son of one of the original proprietors and a local developer of coal pits, took control of the line, made more improvements, and re-introduced horse-drawn passenger service in 1866, when most British rail had already converted to steam.
The first steam service on the line began in 1877 when Henry Hughes’s patent tramway locomotives owned by the Swansea Improvements & Tramways Company began to use part of the line. But because of the archaic charter and various disputes, the owner of the rail line, then a John Dickinson had to continue to use horse cars for some services. There was a complicated web of companies owning all or parts of the line over time and/or operating on it.
It wasn’t until 1896 that the last horse car left service. About that time a new company, the Mumbles Railway & Pier Company extended the line in Oystermouth to a new pier they built in the harbor and established and new terminal station, Mumbles Head. Trains operated over both lines and occasionally during business disputes passengers were forced to change trains at the old Mumbles station.
A tank steam locomotive drawing double-deck cars arrives in Oystermouth Station in the early 20th Century.
By the turn of the 20th Century the tram engines had gone the way of the horse cars and a motley assemblage of small conventional tank locomotives were in use. One early experiment with battery powered electric engines had already failed.
In 1904 to celebrate the centennial of the railway charter, the line finally got the ceremonial attention it never got in the beginning. King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra visited Swansea for the ceremonial cutting of the first sod of the new King’s Dock in July. They rode in a gutted and re-fitted battery electric car suitably fancied up and drawn by a steam engine. The line received a second Royal visit in 1920 when King George V officiated at the opening of the new Queen’s Dock.
In 1928 the line was electrified and converted to an overhead wire tram style for the passenger service making it one of the few services in the world to have employed horse drawn, steam, and electric service. Several double-decker cars built by the Brush Electrical Company of Loughborough, in Leicestershire—the largest ever built for service in Britain were used. Each could seat 106 passengers and were frequently operated in pairs with a seating capacity of 212 per train. That is a hint of the surprisingly heavy usage of the short run line.
These handsome and striking red double-deck overhead tram cars serviced the line for decades. This one is approaching the Mumbles Pier in the last days of the line.
Freight service, which diminished with the closing of several coal pit and the short branch lines built to serve them, was handled for a while with gasoline powered engines which proved under-powered and finally with diesel locomotives.
The railroad got national attention in Britain once again when it celebrated its 150th Anniversary in 1954. A replica of an early horse drawn passenger coach was constructed and ceremonially run on the line with newsreel and BBC coverage.
But it was almost a swan song. In 1958 the railroad’s greatest competitor, The South Wales Transport Company which was the principal operator of bus services in the Swansea area, bought out the two operating companies and the underlying but dormant road bed company. Since the railroad had never been integrated into the nationalized rail system and still operated under the arcane 1804 charter, the bus company petitioned Parliament for permission to abandon the line. The Conservative government of Prime Minister Harold McMillan was glad to oblige.
Under the South Wales Transport Act 1959 despite the voracious protests and objection of local residents the Swansea and Mumbles Railway was closed down in two stages. The last ceremonial run was driven by Frank Duncan, who had worked on the railway since 1907, on January 5, 1960. Work began immediately to tear down some stations to make way for bus terminals, tear up the track for scrap, and dismantle most of the rolling stock.
The last intact car sat for years awaiting restoration but deteriorating on a Leeds siding. Seen in 1966, it was destroyed by fire soon after.
What was then the oldest railway in the world with continuous service was no more.
One car was saved for preservation by members of Leeds University in Yorkshire and was stored awaiting work at the Middleton Railway in Lees but it was heavily vandalized and eventually destroyed by fire. The front end of car no. 7 was also saved for preservation at Swansea Museum and was initially restored in the early 1970s by members of the Railway Club of Wales. It is now on display in the Tram Shed aby the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea’s Maritime Quarter.
But there is dim hope of a restoration of service. In 2009 the City and County of Swansea began a long process of looking at the feasibility of tram service for the Swansea bay area again perhaps using the old roadbed. The Environment, Regeneration and Culture Overview Board created by the Council to conduct the survey is in the process of setting up a private charitable corporation. But there are many obstacles to overcome before any cars yet run again.