System History

Like many others, Sunderland Corporation Tramways were built on a wave of civic pride, replacing an earlier horse tram system which had been operated by a private company. The first electric tram service began on 15th August 1900 and, in the years that followed, passengers enjoyed the benefits of a well run system. Trams were frequent, reliable and cheap and the public took them for granted. They gave great service during both world wars but it was the second one which sounded their death knell. Starved of investment, maintenance and manpower, the fleet was a sorry sight in 1945. In those days of austerity after the war it was impossible to modernize and expand, so the trams had to go and the last one ran on 1st October 1954.

The spine of the tramways lay between the Wheat Sheaf Junction at the top of North Bridge Street and the Gas Office Corner at the south end of Fawcett Street. Three routes radiated from top of the spine and five from the bottom. The northern routes went west to Southwick and east to the sea front via either Fulwell or Roker. The southern routes went west to the Circle and to Durham Road, or east to the docks and to Villette Road or south to Grangetown. There were just under 14 route miles altogether and it doesn’t look much on a modern map of the city but it was just a town in those days and very much smaller than now.

 Route Map

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Sunderland Corporation administered its tramways through a Tramways Committee which, over the years, was fortunate in having the services of competent and dedicated men who between them designed, built, operated, expanded, modernized and finally closed down one of the most interesting tramways in the country. In this brief history we will focus on the work of six men.

They were the Borough Tramways Engineer John Francis Snell and five successive General Managers, Harry England, Archibald Dayson, Charles Albert Hopkins, Harry Snowball and Norman Morton.

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                            ©Malcolm Fraser 2016

 John Francis Snell

John Francis Snell

During the 1890’s the newly developing electricity supplies were provided by local authorities. Sunderland built an ‘Electric Works’ in 1896 and appointed a Borough Electrical Engineer, John Francis Snell. Born in Cornwall in 1869, Mr. Snell was to become one of the most influential electrical engineers in the country. Once Sunderland had decided to have electric trams he also became Tramways Engineer and was one of the delegation which went to Hamburg in 1898 to see these ‘wonders of the age’ in operation.

John Snell was the technical driving force in designing and setting up the Sunderland tramways, overseeing everything including the power supply network, the laying of the rails and the purchase of rolling stock. It was due to his work that the first part of the system opened successfully in a remarkably short time and then expanded rapidly. His last work was on the Docks route, for which he prepared the plans and estimates and had the route completed well under budget.

By the end of 1906 the tramways were well established and Mr. Snell tendered his resignation, becoming a consulting engineer at Westminster. He was later instrumental in the commencement of the national Post Office telephone system and the creation of the National Grid. Knighted by King George V, he had an illustrious career until his health failed and he died in London in 1938.

 Harry England

Harry England

Harry England was General Manager of Bolton Corporation Tramways when he was offered and accepted the same position at Sunderland. He was responsible for the efficient day-to-day operation of the new system in the months that followed. Under his stewardship, services expanded from an initial fleet of eight trams on one route to a total of sixty-five trams and seven routes.

Electric trams were a considerable novelty in those days and the entire staff of the Tramways Department were on a steep learning curve in the full glare of public scrutiny driven by civic pride. Harry England successfully oversaw the running and development of the system at this most crucial time and his talents were recognized beyond the Borough. With the Sunderland system up and running, he was head-hunted for the new Wakefield and District Light Railways, resigning his post at Sunderland at the end of 1903.

As the tram systems of Yorkshire expanded, he eventually rose to eminence as Managing Director of Yorkshire West Riding Electric Tramways. One of Britain’s best known tramway managers, he also played a leading role in the formation of the Tramways and Light Railways Association. His two sons, Ben and Robert, followed in his footsteps and also rose to senior positions in the industry.

 Archibald Dayson

Archibald Dayson

When Mr. England moved to Yorkshire the post of General Manager at Sunderland went to Archibald Dayson, the Assistant Tramways Engineer, whose experience as deputy to John Snell was to stand him in good stead. He devoted the rest of his life to the Sunderland tramways, serving the town faithfully until his sudden death in service on Monday 19th November 1928.

In his twenty-four years as General Manager, Mr. Dayson made his mark as an innovator, improving the rolling stock from his very first year in post. He implemented the program of fitting covered top decks to the trams, creating the balcony cars seen on so many postcards of the period and producing increased revenue for the system.

When the peace was suddenly shattered Mr. Dayson headed operations throughout the First World War. This was a time of tremendous difficulties as the men of the department were shipped off to France and staff still at home were killed and maimed right outside his office at the Wheat Sheaf.

Mr. Dayson was the first Sunderland General Manager to build new trams from the bodies of older cars. He produced the first totally enclosed cars from 1920 onwards and they ran until the closing years of the system. In the absence of new rolling stock, he ‘rebuilt’ three single-deckers into fine totally enclosed double-deck cars and did the same with an old body from the District Tramways. In doing so, he set a standard which was to be maintained throughout the years that followed.

In the changing times of the twenties, Mr. Dayson was to see the first signs of his tramway being under threat from motor buses and he was obliged to recommend that they should not be used on the unprofitable docks line. Nevertheless, he was working on a further extension of the new Durham Road tram route when his life was cut short.

 Charles Albert Hopkins

Charles Albert Hopkins

Charles Hopkins began his transport career with Swindon Corporation Tramways in 1905. He moved to the Chatham and District Light Railway five years later and stayed until he joined Wigan Corporation Transport in 1919, where he rose to Manager in 1925. After the sudden death of Mr. Dayson, he became the General Manager at Sunderland on 1st May 1929.

Mr. Hopkins was a remarkable man and one of the finest tramway managers in the country. He came to Sunderland at a time when tram systems were being abandoned because they were largely life-expired and would have needed heavy investment to renew them. With rising numbers of motor vehicles, trams were being seen as old fashioned obstructions to the flow of traffic.

Sunderland was no exception and it was widely believed that the new General Manager would sweep them away. The critics were in for a surprise, for Mr. Hopkins single-handedly took them on and beat them down, proving that a modernized tramway was the way forward for the densely populated areas of the town, whilst buses would deal with the outlying suburbs.

There then followed ten remarkable years in which the whole tramway system was re-laid and state-of-the art equipment installed. New trams were bought or built and many of the original fleet were modernized to the highest standards. Mr. Hopkins, always the man to know a bargain, also bought in second-hand rolling stock from systems at Accrington, Bury, Huddersfield, Ilford, London, Manchester, Mansfield, Portsmouth and South Shields. The outbreak of the Second World War brought it all to a sudden stop but by then the town had a system which was widely admired as one of the most modern in the country.

Charlie Hopkins, as he was known at Sunderland, became ill during June 1948 and he died in hospital on 16th October at the age of 62. As a mark of respect all the Corporation trams and buses stopped for one minute at 11 o’clock on the day of his funeral, Tuesday 19th October 1948.

 Harry Snowball

Harry Snowball

Harry Snowball was born in Sunderland. He served an engineering apprenticeship with George Clark Ltd at Southwick then became a draughtsman with another firm. He served with the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers during the first World War and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

After gaining further experience in shipbuilding, Mr. Snowball became Rolling Stock Engineer for the Sunderland Tramways Department in 1926. He applied for the post of General Manager in 1929 but narrowly lost out to Charles Hopkins, with whom he then worked for the next nineteen years. He was appointed as Deputy General Manager in 1945. Following the death of Mr. Hopkins, he became General Manager on 8th December 1948.

When he finally took over the department, Mr. Snowball had already given his best years in the service of the town and the Corporation had decided that the tramways would be abandoned as soon as sufficient new buses could be obtained. Economic conditions in the aftermath of the war meant that this was something of a long-term project but, in the meantime, only limited resources were available to keep the tram fleet on the road.

Harry Snowball did wonders in those circumstances, reviving the war-torn tram fleet to something like its former glory whilst building up the bus fleet and representing Sunderland on the national committees of the industry. But he was a sick man, fighting his failing health as he brought the Transport Department through this difficult and challenging period. He died on New Years Day 1952 at the age of 63, having served the town for twenty-five years. Once again, all the Corporation vehicles stopped to mark his funeral on Friday 4th January 1952 and six hundred mourners attended the ceremony.

 Norman Morton

Norman Morton

Norman Morton was appointed as General Manager on 1st July 1952. He was 42 years old and born in Manchester, where he worked in the Transport Department from 1930 until the outbreak of World War Two. He then joined the Royal Engineers, where he rose to the rank of Major. He later became Engineer and Deputy Manager of Southport Corporation Transport and subsequently a District Engineer for British Road Services.

Mr. Morton arrived in Sunderland to inherit a doomed tramway system and a bus fleet in need of modernization and expansion to be adequate for the growing town where new estates had been built on the outskirts to replace war damaged housing. Like Archibald Dayson, Harry Snowball and Charles Hopkins, he was an innovator but times were different and he rose to a different challenge.

The Morton regime saw the smoothly organized abandonment of the tramways and the introduction of big double-deck buses and one-man single deck buses of startling new types. Just as radical was the flat fare system which he introduced but which was abandoned by the Council. He resigned in 1969 to become a lecturer at Newcastle University but died at the age of 62 in 1972.

Mr. Morton was the last of a series of hard working managers who served the town during the tramway era. In these days when publicly-owned transport departments are almost a thing of the past, the public service ethos that went with them is typified by the work of the men who served at Sunderland.

© Malcolm Fraser 2016