The Super Tram

Even by 1871 Roundhay had only 583 inhabitants. Many of the wealthy residents owned carriages, so demand for public transport was limited. For over twenty years John Machan had run a regular bus to Leeds and Scarcroft, which more than satisfied demand, but the opening of the park to the public radically changed the situation. Machan supplemented his meagre service at weekends with innumerable wagonettes and cabs, but this was grossly inadequate.109

John Barran was in favour of constructing a railway to Roundhay and in 1874 helped to found the 'Leeds, Roundhay and Osmondthorpe Railway Company'. Unfortunately the scheme failed to gain public support and on 6th February 1877, Barran finally acknowledged defeat, noting that many had held back because of the seasonal nature of demand and the feeling that the railway should have connected Moortown and Headingley.110

In the meantime wagonettes, omnibuses and a myriad of other vehicles provided a chaotic service to Roundhay. Many were unsafe. On 10th August 1875 one lucky survivor of a wagonette crash wrote to the Yorkshire Post warning fellow readers of the hidden hazards of travelling to and from the park on such vehicles. He related in lurid detail the series of events that led to the accident but concluded that it was the condition of one of the brakes that was to blame, for it ' seemed almost worn through, while an old slipper or shoe tied with a piece of string was used as a substitute'.111

Road improvements were made. In 1878 unemployed men were put to work on constructing a new section of road from Oakwood to the Canal Gardens. This became known as Prince's Avenue, named after Prince Arthur who had opened the park six years earlier. It allowed visitors far easier access to the Mansion and the western end of the park. Park Avenue was constructed around the same time.112

At holiday periods almost all buses in Leeds were withdrawn from their regular routes to cope with the demand. Street arabs and urchins lined the route, badgering passengers for a penny in return for performing somersaults and other tricks. The situation was farcical. Even more irritating for many working class people of the town was the fact that middle class families from outside the borough regularly visited the park. The fares still made it prohibitively expensive for 'ordinary folk' even to get to the park they owned. Something radical had to be done.

Arguably the most ambitious scheme was submitted to the Council in 1887. This was an elevated railway, a system recently patented by two Leeds engineers, J. Clark Jefferson and J.T.Pullon. This monorail was very similar to the one in Chicago and was nick-named ' The Tight Rope Railway'. The line was to consist of a single rail on lattice girder. The nine ton engine would draw eight to ten carriages at a top speed of 25 miles per hour. Each carriage would be capable of holding up to thirty two people.113 Supporters argued that it would be safer, quicker and have cheaper operating costs than other proposed solutions. Unfortunately this visionary scheme received little support from Council members, who were concerned about high initial costs, the unsightly nature of the girders and the potential noise problems . Despite the offer to build banks and plant tall trees the scheme was rejected.

elevated railway
Plan and section of J. Clark Jefferson and J.T Pullan's designs for an elevated single rail railway.

Eventually, on 29th September 1887, after much heated discussion, the Council voted for a provisional order to construct a tramway. Since 1871 The Tramways Company had had a monopoly to run such services in Leeds, yet the Highways Committee foolishly failed to reach agreement with them before embarking on the necessary road widening, which took place between December1888 and February 1889. The first tram ran successfully from Sheepscar to Roundhay Park on 3rd August 1889 but the shortcomings of the new system were quickly highlighted two days later, when the rain hardly stopped and the trams failed to grip on the slippery rails. At each rise in the ground the conductor had to throw sand in front of the steam tram in order to make the wheels bite!114

Further complications arose when the Council, who owned the line failed to reach an agreement with The Tramway Company and, as a result of the stalemate, no trams ran for nearly two years. Salvation came on 10th September 1890 when the Highways Committee received a letter from C.H.Wilkinson of the Thomson-Houston International Company expressing interest in running an electric tramcar route to Roundhay Park.115

A Thomson-Houston car at Roundhay terminus c. 1892.

Negotiations went well and on 13th May 1891 an agreement was signed between the two parties and The Tramway Company agreed to run a temporary service. Once again civic pride rose to the fore when it was pointed out that this would be the first electric tramway operating on the overhead wire system in Europe. So, at one o'clock on 29th October 1891, senior members of Leeds Council, along with dignitaries from all the nearby towns, gathered at the Sheepscar terminus to witness the formal opening of the line. Local journalists, who had for years reported on the constant wrangling over the Roundhay line, were there to pass judgment.

Nearly an hour and a half passed before the tramcars appeared, by which time several councillors and other ' worthy' visitors had left in disgust. There had been a problem raising enough power. The invited guests embarked on the six tramcars and at long last the mayor, Alf Cooke, released the lever of the first vehicle. The procession finally began to move towards the park. Unfortunately, just before the Harehills junction, the power failed and the trams stopped. Councillor Atha remarked that nothing would please him better than to have the 'buses come and pick them up to convey them back to town! Seventeen minutes later the cars moved again but after only a couple of hundred yards the vehicles ground to a halt once more. This time there was a half hour delay, by which time many irate guests had walked back to town. Eventually the trams reached the park entrance. The journey had taken one hour ten minutes! The special luncheon prepared for the guests had gone cold and the day ended with cutting remarks in the press.116

Despite these teething troubles the line proved immensely popular with the general public and in the next five years over four million passengers travelled by electric tram to Roundhay. On 31st July 1896 the Council took over the line directly and work began on the extension of the line to the Canal Gardens. Thomson-Houston withdrew their electric cars and the Council introduced steam cars as a temporary measure. On 29th July 1897 Sir James Kitson, Lord Mayor of Leeds officially opened the new Kirkstall - Roundhay Electric Tramway.117 The problem of getting the people of Leeds to Roundhay Park had been solved.

opening Kirkstall & Roundhay tramway
The official opening of the Kirkstall and Roundhay tramway, 29 July 1897.


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109. J.Soper, Leeds Transport Vol.1. 1830 -1902 (Leeds, 1985) p.78.
110. Yorkshire Post, 10 Aug. 1875; Leeds Acts of Parliament Vol. 4 8 June 1874 and 17 May 1877.
111. Soper p.80.
112. Derek Linstrum, West Yorkshire Architects and Architecture (1978) pp.121-3.
113. J. Clark Jefferson and J.T. Pullan, A Description of the Proposed Elevated Single Rail Railway to Roundhay Park (Leeds, 1887).
114. Soper pp.87-8.
115. Ibid p.90.
116. Yorkshire Post, 30 Oct. 1891.
117. Soper pp.127-8.