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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Holroyd Smith - British Entrepreneur Of the 1880s

John Woodman


Blackpool's place in the pantheon of electric tramway firsts was brought about by a combination of a Halifax inventor, Holroyd Smith, and an astute Blackpool Council in the mid 1880s. Halifax was to later play a role in the inauguration of 'cats eyes' as a nightime aid to motorists during the 1920s when an local man studied the reflection of light on the town's winding and hilly tramroutes to create metal studs containing glass reflectors which were embedded in the centre of main roads.


The emergence of electricity as a power source with diverse application quickly led to diverse patents and demonstrations from 1879 onward starting in Germany with a short narrow gauge track and electric locomotive pulling three trailers each seating six people. This was designed by Werner von Siemens. Thereafter new prototype lines would appear in diverse locations including Bessbrook and Portrush and the Volks line on Brighton's seafront (which is still operating).

Below : Holroyd Smith's garden demonstrator in 1883 - with the inventor at the front. JW Archive

Below : Just three years later the seafront electric conduit service in action in Blackpool. Things tended to be expedited somewhat more speedily in the Victorian era. Photo : John Woodman Archive


Holroyd Smith produced his first electric powered invention in a demonstration short garden line at his home and thereafter further demonstration of the same units in Manchester and at the new Blackpool leisure park (Raikes Gardens) built on land to the east of the town centre. The latter caught the attention of the town's then visionary business and political leaders wanting Blackpool to be ahead of its coastal rivals by embracing this exciting new technology. The need for public transport along the promenade from just north of the seafront hotel - then Baileys, to central promenade and pier merited private investment able to fund what would be revolutionary electric powered trams, albeit modest in size and using an underground power supply, overhead electric wires not yet being a proven resource. Thus in 1885 Blackpool entered the electric era by allowing operation of trams along its public seafront promenade freed from seperate track or barriers. It became a marvel of its time in the late 1880s propelling the town into the forefront of electricity usage and leading to construction of a power generation department alongside the Tramways Department. with both being managed by a single executive officer of the Council.


Blackpool's achievements, albeit with technical difficulties, translated into an overwhelming move away from steam and horse powered tramways across the UK (and indeed elsewhere in the world). Even more so following the even more successful launch of the Blackpool & Fleetwood interurban line using overhead wire power supply and newly proven trolleypole current collectors in 1898. This popular 'breezy' coastal ride with open sided cars prompted a rapid expansion of Blackpool's single seafront service. inland routes being opened to Layton Cemetery; around the town's eastern most suburbs in a semi circular route taking in Marton, and along Central Drive from Hounds Hill. The new (1901) Marton tram service also provided public ease of travel to Victoria Hospital, and Glenroyd Maternity Hospital then sited along what became Whitegate Drive. Similarly the new Layton line served the town's 'Isolation Hospital' which provided seperate treatment facilities for infectious diseases. This was set off the 'New Road' as Talbot Road was initially called.


With intense fixation on the 1930's streamline trams by today's followers of Blackpool transport history, the far more pivotal developments occurring in the late Victorian era have been somewhat overwhelmed and diluted in terms of attention. Blackpool Council's decision to waive its ownership of examples from this formative era and allow them to be subsumed into the national collection at Crich has done nothing to aid recognition of the town's pioneering role in electric powered transport in Britain. In fact quite the reverse. Emergence (finally) of an authoratitive permanent display of the town's diverse and unique tramway (and bus) assets at Rigby Road should correct this imbalance so that future generations can fully understand and appreciate just how electric powered transport was aided by the likes of Holroyd Smith and a farsighted public leadership in this town well over a century ago. Returning the 'Dreadnought' car, Conduit Car 4 and Open 'Rack' 2 of the Blackpool & Fleetwood line would do much to enhance the importance of Blackpool's first embrace of electric powered vehicles for public benefit.

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