2023 marks the 150th anniversary of the first public demonstration of Britain’s earliest commercially operated steam tram, which took place in London on the night of 25th/ 26th November 1873. The tram was designed by John Grantham (1808-1874), an English engineer who was involved in marine, railway and tramway engineering. Grantham was convinced that steam traction offered the best solution to the well-known limitations associated with contemporary horse tram operation.

(1) An illustration of Grantham’s steam tramcar that was published in Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History.

In 1871 he designed a double-ended four-wheel open-top steam tramcar with two vertical boilers in the centre, which he successfully patented. In contrast with some later designs, which featured a separate locomotive and trailer for passengers, this one integrated the passenger accommodation with the motive power unit and is sometimes referred to as a ‘combined steam car’. The engine was located under the floor of the vehicle, which was capable of being driven from either platform. A tramcar was built to this design by the Oldbury Railway Carriage and Wagon Co., not far from Birmingham. The original steam machinery was supplied by London-based Merryweather and Sons.

(2) John Grantham’s steam tram in original condition, Science Museum, Whitcombe Collection.

The completed tramcar first appeared in public in Salamanca Street, Lambeth, in March 1873. This was followed by a fuller demonstration on the night of 25th/ 26th November 1873 using tracks belonging to the London Street Tramways Company in Vauxhall Bridge Road. A report published in “Traffic Times” on 30th May 1874 recorded that the ‘self-contained steam tramcar’ equipped with Merryweather boiler was demonstrated before Board of Trade Inspectors, but these trials were marred by problems with the boilers, which were unable to generate enough steam. This issue was resolved after the original Merryweather boilers were replaced by a single Shand Mason version of the type used for horse-drawn steam fire engines.

(3) Grantham’s steam car, 1872, photographed at West Brompton in 1874.

Subsequently, the tramcar was moved to the 2½ mile long Wantage steam tramway where, on 1st August 1876, it became the first steam tram in Britain to enter regular public service. Sadly, John Grantham did not live long enough to witness this event, having died in 1874. He was posthumously awarded the Howard Medal for designing a locomotive to replace horse traction for tramways. The steam tram continued to operate on the Wantage line until 1890, though it only ran as a trailer in its final season after the removal of its steam mechanism. The tramcar is then reported to have resurfaced for experimental use at the Portsdown and Horndean light railway around 1903, though this was operated by electric traction from 2nd March of that year. By this stage, however, the Grantham tramcar was said to have already lost its steam apparatus.

(4) Postcard featuring Wantage steam tramway (National Tramway Museum collection)

Following in John Grantham’s footsteps, other manufacturers also produced combined steam tram prototypes. They included one that was designed by Edward Perrett and built in 1880 by Manlove, Alliott & Co. Ltd., a versatile manufacturer based in Nottingham. This double deck tramcar was propelled by vertical boilers on each platform and a two-cylinder engine located beneath the lower saloon floor. The upper deck had a top canopy, through which the boiler chimneys protruded, with open sides and ends. It was capable of carrying 50 passengers. This particular vehicle was first demonstrated for a one-week trial in January 1881 on the local tramway operated by the Nottingham and District Tramways Company Limited. It was then sold for £950 to the Dublin and Lucan Steam Tramway and shipped over to Ireland to inaugurate the company’s first section of track – from Conyngham Road in Kingsbridge to Chapelizod – which opened on 1st June 1881. Shortly afterwards, however, the tramcar needed major modifications to its crank axles and bearings in order to withstand heavy passenger loadings, causing the service to be suspended. It wasn’t able to resume until the arrival to two Kitson steam tram locomotives in 1882, to be followed by similar vehicles in subsequent years.

Another combined steam tramcar was built by the Sheffield-based Savile Street Foundry in or around 1881. This was an open-topped double deck vehicle with knifeboard seating on the upper deck. Unlike its predecessors, however, this was a single-ended tramcar, with a small engine compartment housed at the driver’s end of the lower deck and a single stairway at the other end. Unlike the somewhat similar looking Eades reversible horse tramcar, however, its body was not reversible, meaning that it needed to be turned with the aid of either a turning circle or a triangle reverser.

(5) Savile Street Foundry steam tramcar, around 1881.

Little is known about this vehicle apart from the fact that it was reported to have been trialled on tracks operated by the local Sheffield Tramways Company. There is some doubt as to the date of these trials, but they are likely to have taken place around 1882. Whatever the outcome, it would not have been possible for a single-ended tramcar to have run in service on the tracks that existed at the time. When single-ended electric tramcars were later introduced between Rotherham and Sheffield, the line incorporated loop termini which enabled the vehicles to be turned round.

The National Tramway Museum has two steam trams in its collection – unfortunately neither are currently operational, but you can read about them on our website as below:

1) New South Wales Government Steam Tram No. 47: https://www.tramway.co.uk/trams/new-south-wales-47/

2) Manchester, Bury, Rochdale, Oldham steam tram No. 84 (parts of!): https://www.tramway.co.uk/trams/mbro-84/


With thanks to Museum volunteer Jim Dignan for producing this article.


Image References:

(1) Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History.
(2) Science Museum, Whitcombe Collection.
(3) History of the steam tram: paper read before the Institution of Locomotive Engineers by Dr. H.A. Whitcombe, on 6th January 1937, p.336.
(4) National Tramway Museum collection
(5) Edgar Allen Engineering Ltd.


Crich Tramway Village is a brand name for the National Tramway Museum (Accredited with Arts Council England), solely owned and operated by The Tramway Museum Society, incorporated in England with liability by guarantee (no. 744229). Registered charity number 313615. Our ICO number is Z6700136.

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