Off their trolleys in Walsall and Bloxwich

Walsall Corporation Transport Trolleybus No. 353, a Sunbeam F4, passes Leamore Wesley Church on Bloxwich Road, 1964 (Photo by and courtesy of Jack Haddock, from his collection at Walsall Local History Centre)

There’s a sad anniversary coming up, and not just for bus spotters: this Sunday 3 October 2011 marks forty years since Walsall finally lost its last connection with what, amongst other things, made the old town council a much bigger, and more effective, organisation than it is today.

What is it that we should be missing, you ask?  Well, ‘back in the day’ the borough ran its own, very effective, public transport system.  A system that provided a service to the people rather than being a profit machine that leaves users at the mercy of commercial whim.

Our younger readers probably have no idea that Walsall Council (at one time also described as Walsall Corporation) once ran the majority of bus services across the borough, but it’s true – and some say they did a better job back then than the privatised bus companies and “quango’s” of today.  That may not be entirely fair, but there is considerable truth in it.

Walsall Corporation Omnibus, a Tilling Stevens registered in Walsall as DH904, Bloxwich High Street, 1915 (Courtesy Walsall Local History Centre)

In 1904, Walsall Corporation took over running all electric tramway routes in the borough from the South Staffordshire Tramways (Lessee) Company Limited.  The Corporation operated its first motor omnibus (bus) service in 1915.  The initial route ran from Walsall to Hednesford via Cannock, and was just the beginning of an extensive network which eventually linked the towns and villages of Walsall borough into a very effective public transport system.

After the Great War of 1914-18, all municipal transport operations increasingly changed over to more flexible and economic buses. In 1928 the first replacement of a Walsall tramway by bus took place, and in 1933, Walsall Corporation ceased operating tramcars entirely, replacing them with the now-legendary “trolleybuses” on the Bloxwich route and the joint Walsall to Wolverhampton service.

29 September 1933, The Bridge, Walsall: The first Walsall Corporation trolleybuses on show (right) as Tramcar No. 46 begins the last day of tram operation to Bloxwich (Courtesy Walsall Local History Centre)

Fast, clean and quiet, electric-powered trolleybuses, their overhead power system inherited from the trams, have a special place in the hearts of those who remember them, though perhaps bus drivers might think otherwise, as some six-wheel designs were heavier to drive than modern power-assisted diesel buses.

But they were ahead of their time, and supremely eco-friendly, something which modern transport operators should reflect on today.  In the 1930s these ‘whispering giants’ must have looked like a space-ship out of ‘Flash Gordon’ when they arrived on The Bridge ready for their first ‘voyage’ to Bloxwich. No wonder there was a massive queue to see them being shown off on The Bridge on the last day of tram operation, 29 September 1933.

Walsall Corporation Trolleybus No. 868 on a private tour in Bloxwich High Street, late 1960s (Photo by and courtesy of David Hillas)

Walsall Corporation Trolleybus No. 850 stops at The Red Lion pub, Leamore, on a private tour, late 1960s.  (Photo by and courtesy of David Hillas)

By the 1950s, several new council housing estates had been built across the borough, leading to new and extended bus routes. The Passenger Transport Services of the Corporation aimed to provide adequate travelling facilities within the borough, and also to the numerous towns and villages situated within a radius of 10 to 12 miles from the centre of Walsall.

Walsall Corporation Trolleybus No. 850 takes a private party along Stephenson Avenue, Beechdale Estate, Bloxwich, late 1960s (Photo by and courtesy of David Hillas)

Walsall Corporation Transport Trolleybus No. 345 at the Mossley Estate Terminus, late 1960s (Photo by and courtesy of Alan Murray-Rust)

A special feature of Corporation services was the centrally located Municipal Bus Station (opened 1937) from which the majority of the services operated, thus avoiding the loading of vehicles in the streets, and allowing easy interchange from one service to another.

Walsall Municipal Bus Station, St. Paul’s Street, late 1940s

Among the numerous places served by the Corporation’s services in the 1950s were Wolverhampton, West Bromwich, Wednesbury, Darlaston, Willenhall, Sutton Coldfield, Lichfield, Aldridge, Cannock, Hednesford, Dudley, Stafford, Rugeley, Bloxwich, Pelsall, Brownhills, Chasetown, Rawnsley etc.  In all the Corporation operated some 348 route miles in 1951, and at this time their fleet of vehicles consisted of 188 Double Deck Omnibuses, 31 Single Deck Omnibuses, and 33 Double Deck Trolleybuses.

In the days before most workers could afford a car, an enormous amount of works bus traffic was handled.  Special services were provided for the majority of the collieries in the Cannock Chase coalfield (long gone now) and also for the busy engineering industries in the Darlaston and Wednesbury areas (remember those?).  Workers were only charged half fare, and every effort was made to provide services to works in the district.

In addition to catering for taking people to work and to shop, services were available to the many beauty spots around the district including Sutton Park, Barr Beacon, Shoal Hill and Cannock Chase.

New Walsall Corporation AEC Regent Buses at Birchills Bus Depot, about 1931 (Walsall Local History Centre)The 1,120 Corporation Transport workers based at the Birchills Bus (formerly Tram) Depot off Carl Street were better provided for in the 1950s as well – the Council’s Transport Committee provided them with a Recreation Ground including two football pitches, a cricket pitch, tennis courts and a bowling green, together with comfortable dressing rooms.  Something which would amaze present-day bus drivers.

Walsall Corporation Trolleybuses in Carl Street returning to the Birchills Bus Depot, late 1960s (Photo by and courtesy of David Hillas)

The Municipal Bus Station and cheerful light blue Walsall Corporation buses continued to serve the town for many years, with occasional new vehicles and modifications to the layout and construction of the bus shelters.

Walsall’s trolleybus experts, most notably Walsall Corporation’s maverick General Manager, Mr Ronald Edgley-Cox, became known for modifying and experimenting with designs, and they came up with a number of innovations over the decades, including a design with double rear axles.  They also bought in used trolleybuses from across England, so their fleet was something of a bus enthusiast’s deilght.

In 1963 the Bloxwich trolleybus route was extended as far as Lower Farm, Little Bloxwich.This marked the final phase of development in Walsall’s justly famous trolleybus network.

Walsall Corporation Transport Trolleybus No. 853 at the Lower Farm Terminus, ready to return to Walsall on the 32 service. Late 1960s. Wiggin House (now demolished) being built in the background. (Photo by and courtesy of Alan Murray-Rust)

But sadly, in 1969 the Walsall Corporation Transport System was transferred to the ownership of the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive.  They replaced the trolley buses with motor buses in 1970, and on 3 October 1970 a golden era of Walsall and Bloxwich public transport   came to an end with the final trolleybus journey.  Worse was to come during the wave of 1980s privatisation, but that is another story.

Last day of Walsall trolleybus operation, No.874 – stripped of its proud Walsall Corporation coat of arms by WMPTE.  Mossley Estate, Bloxwich, 3 October 1970 (Photo by and courtesy of David Hillas)

Today, the once magnificent 1930s Corporation Transport Offices building lies silent, awaiting a new use as retail units.  The Municipal Bus Station itself was swept away in 2000 by the futuristic but controversial and rather less functional new St. Paul’s Bus Station, opened in 2001 under the auspices of CENTRO, which today manages much of the West Midlands public transport infrastructure.

Walsall Corporation Transport Trolleybus No. 862 frozen in time, still running on the way to Bloxwich on the 30 service.  Black Country Living Museum, 2008 (Photo by and courtesy of Gary S. Crutchley)

It is possible to see a few Walsall Corporation Trolleybuses in preservation, however.  The last ever Walsall Corporation Trolleybus, No. 872, still exists, although not in running order. It is currently exhibited in the Aston Manor Road Transport Museum, Birmingham  The nearest running example, No. 862, is at the Black Country Living Museum near Dudley.

A new photographic exhibition ‘Jack Haddock’s Trolleybus Memories‘ opens this Friday 1 October 2010 at Walsall Local History Centre, and runs for three months.  It marks the 40th anniversary of the end of trolleybus transport in the Borough of Walsall, and admission is free.

Sadly, we will probably never see the like of these ‘whispering giants’ on Walsall’s roads again. And yet… This Sunday 3 October 2010, the sad demise of this once-important part of local life will also be commemorated by the West Midlands Transport Circle, who will be touring the Wolverhampton-Walsall-Bloxwich Trolleybus route on a preserved, privately-owned Walsall Corporation Daimler Fleetline diesel-powered double-decker bus which will arrive in Walsall around 10.45am.

Be sure to watch out for this light blue ghost of days gone by on the roads she knows so well, and give her a wave as she rides off into the mists of time…

Stuart Williams  

My thanks go to those photographers individually named for allowing me to use their pictures, and to Walsall Local History Centre for archive images from their collection.

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News & heritage for Bloxwich, Walsall & Willenhall. Formerly The Bloxidge Tallygraph. Est. 2006, inspired by a Victorian news-sheet. Edditid by a Bloxidge Mon.

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