Derbyshire's First Non-Horse Tramway - Matlock

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper on 26th March 1990, reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.


A large neglected-looking house on Smedley Street in Matlock is almost worthy of a plaque to show that ‘Here lived Job Smith’. A hundred years ago the building was, in fact, Malvern House Hydropathic Establishment, of which the redoubtable Job Smith was proprietor. He was also a church warden of nearby All Saints' church, Director of the Gas Works, Manager of All Saints' schools, Chairman of the Matlock Waterworks, Chairman of the Social Institute and of the High Tor Recreation Grounds.

More to the point, Job Smith was to become Manager of the Matlock Cable Tramway Company, having for some years worked to bring a tramway to the town after seeing the San Francisco Cable trams. In 1890 he achieved assurance of financial backing from a wealthy publisher and native of Matlock, George (later Sir George) Newnes, M.P. Work on Europe's first single-line cable tramway began at Matlock in March 1892.

The route was formidably steep; with an average gradient of one in five-and-a-half over its fiveeighths of a mile length, the tramway was then the steepest in the world. Motive power for the system was a continuously moving underground cable, powered by two massive steam boilers housed in an engine room at the depot on Rutland Street. Driver operated ‘gripper’ devices linked the car to the moving cable, its speed fixed at 5½ mph.

The trams were open topped, seating thirteen passengers on the lower deck and eighteen on the upper. Two vehicles were kept in use each counter balancing the other. Together with a standby vehicle they were garaged on short level sections of track at the depot.

This upper terminus had awaiting room and ‘passenger conveniences’.

THE TOWN'S LIFE-BLOOD That there would be passengers for the new transport system was beyond doubt, for close to its base lay the railway station, and around its summit on Matlock Bank stood not only Malvern House, but over twenty other hydros, the town's life-blood.

The trams' passing loop, half-way up the hillside, was virtually outside the doors of John Smedley's great hydro (now the County Offices). A major competitor, Rockside Hydro, whilst advertising its loftier position, was quick to add ‘but any inconvenience from this is entirely obviated by the new cable trams which run right up to the main entrance’.

Smedley Street's already thriving shops were to benefit too, in addition to which on the site of the present Patons and Baldwins factory stood Victoria Hall, a leisure complex for seven hundred people. It offered dancing, swimming, roller-skating and tennis, and presented plays and concerts, fencing and boxing matches.

And so the undertaking seemed born to a profitable future, being opened on 28th March 1893 with due ceremony, attended by reporters from the London press. Company officials and local dignitaries took the first rides along a route decorated with flags, banners and floral arches, with a band and the yeomanry cavalry to add to the festivities.

THE COUNCIL TAKES OVER Over a quarter of a million passengers had used the trams by the end of 1893. The shareholders' first dividend, though, was also to be their last. Initial profits turned to losses, but since the system had come to be appreciated as an important amenity, the council was happy to take it over as a gift from the tramway company in 1898, to which end Newnes had generously bought out his fellow share-holders.

Staff were issued with smart new uniforms and the trams were repainted in white and royal blue. Since the uphill journey, fare two pence, was naturally the better supported, the fare down the hill was fixed at a nominal one penny. The year 1910 actually saw a £17 profit but by the end of the war the tramway was losing £1,000 p.a., continuing to mount even after a gas plant replaced the expensive-to-run steam engines in 1920. Within a few years motorbuses arrived in Matlock. They could not cope with the direct route up the Bank, but did operate other services close to the termini of the tramway, and the line's fate was sealed.

The last tram ran on 30th September 1927. Its handsome depot and engine room serve a different use now at the junction of Rutland Street and Wellington Street. The late Victorian tram shelter with its ornate clock tower was moved from the crossroads in Crown Square but is still in public service in Hall Leys Park. Preserved at Crich Transport Museum are its panes of coloured glass, decorated ‘Tram 1899 Shelter’.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 26th March 1990.

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