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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Beamish Beginnings

The now established Beamish Museum in Co. Durham was the brainchild of one man who very early on in the 1960s saw the importance of conserving threatened structures and industrial artifacts which reflected a passing age in the northeast. By good fortune he secured a 'buy in' to the eventual purchase of the large estate of Beamish Hall by the County Council and other contributors. This allowed the transfer of dismantled buildings, engineering equipment and all manner of materials which propelled the region into the industrial age and turn of the 20th century.

As the mapping out of the initial displays was being formulated on what was to become a very extensive open air site - the potential for creating an electric tramway to allow visitors an easier way of traversing open fields and pathways was realised through the involvement of a small group of enthusiasts. At the time the British Transport Commission was relinquishing ownership of an extensive mixed collection housed at the former Clapham Bus Depot. Railway locomotives, carriages, buses, trolleybuses and trams needed to be disposed of and quickly. In this way Glasgow's recently created Transport Museum at Coplawhill Works acquired a Mark II Coronation car to add to the original collection retained on closure of that system in 1962. Crich would acquire Blackpool's important former Conduit Car 4 and the DHMD cross bench double deck tram, as well as a former LCC two axle car which had served as a snow plough in its later life (106). The to be created London Transport Museum took on three officially preserved trams from their Clapham home.

One 'outcast' was a former Sheffield 'Preston' double deck tram which had found its way to Clapham in an as withdrawn condition. With no 'takers' the tram was offered to a specially formed group - the 342 Group whose aims focussed on setting up a working tramway within the Beamish Museum. On its way north to storage at Consett the tram sustained damage to its top deck - the details and circumstances being unclear at the time. Consequently when the Beamish tram ride was opened it featured an open top 342 in definitely un-Sheffield colours and renumbered '1'. As it happened I was visiting the UK from the States at the time and took the opportunity to venture to unfamiliar landscape in the north east. On a somewhat soggy day with my wife I managed a ride along with a tramload of visiting schoolchildren, on what was then a relatively short single track across what seemed to be farmland. Of course all this has changed dramatically, as indeed has 342, now returned to its original open balcony appearance and resplendent in prussian blue and cream of Sheffield's tramway system.

Whilst the visitor numbers seem to inexorably climb higher and higher, the Beamish fleet is still very compact with only four or five trams being used even at the busiest times. Blackpool trams were in evidence on a subsequent visit with both the 'Sunderland 101' Balloon car and an open boat car all being kept very busy at the time. Number 31 has been a favourite being both large capacity and open top resplendent in pre 1933 Blackpool Corporation Tramways fleet livery. In fact this tram too could acquire a top cover with open balcony ends if the operators were so inclined, given that these ex-Marton box cars would seem to have operated in that form during the 1920s. The 'Sunderland' Balloon car has of course since returned to Blackpool, becoming somewhat worn with bowed ends and requiring a major overhaul; whilst the popular boat car went off to join two cousins on the US Pacific coast in an unexpected transaction involving the Lancastrian Transport Trust.

Beamish continues to go from strength to strength with a new 'housing estate' being built to replicate the 1950s era, complete it is rumoured, with trolleybus operation for which the museum has at least one north east example, from Newcastle waiting to go under the wires. Its success reflects the wide heritage offer on display - attracting all ages to a venue where a tramride is just one facet of a much bigger leisure offer.

Somewhat overeager school trip fills out Number '1' as it was known in the early years of the Beamish Museum tramway. Bleak surroundings and a special protective guard rail on the top deck is clearly seen - to avoid unexpected problems with the trolleymast and pole. A very youthful conductor (presumably a volunteer) turns the trolleypole whilst my wife is wondering what she is doing in this off the beaten path location.

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