The thread about the irrepressible Mr Binko’s Electric Railway; his famous passengers; the first electric tramway in the country; and his endless financial woes that ended it all

My sources tell me it is #ElectrificationFriday and although I was saving a picture for another day it seems right to share it now. Behold! Mr Binko’s Electric Railway!

Mr Binko's Electric Tramway. © Edinburgh City Libraries
Mr Binko’s Electric Tramway. © Edinburgh City Libraries

The passengers in the car are the Prince of Wales (future King Edward VII) and his wife Princess Alexandra, Princess of Wales. Regular viewers may recognise the backdrop as Donaldson’s Hospital. It was the setting of the First International Forestry Exhibition of 1884 and that was the reason for Binko’s railway being there. When the Royal Party toured the exhibition and rode Binko’s railway on 22nd August, they became the first British Royals to be moved by electric power.

Donaldson's Hospital. CC-BY-SA 3.0, David Monniaux
Donaldson’s Hospital. CC-BY-SA 3.0, David Monniaux
The 1884 exhibition, colour oil painting © Museums & Galleries Edinburgh

The carriage was named Alexandra after the Princess of Wales. It was made locally by coachbuilder John Hislop & Son. The carriage was “richly upholstered in silk plush of the Royal scarlet, while the sides and roof were elegantly decorated. In the centre of the roof a brilliant prismatic lamp was placed, lit within by electricity… and by an ingenious arrangement a beautiful bouquet on the centre table was lighted up by miniature lamps on a button being pressed”. The only other time the carriage was officially used was for the visit of William Ewart Gladstone – four time Prime Minister – and a (grand) son of Leith. He is seen in the car below.

Zooming in, we see some of the occupants seem more enthusiastic than others. Mr Binko is seen on the right of shot, he with dark hair and moustache infront of the carriage window and clutching his top hat.

Gladstone, seated in the carriage, does not look impressed!

In the background we can make out a showbill to do with Electricity. An experimental display of electric lights was also part of the exhibition.

This was the first electric vehicle in Edinburgh and its inventor and promoter was the splendidly named Mr Henry Binko. Henry Bock Binko was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1836, becoming a naturalised British citizen in 1881. He brought to Edinburgh a modified version of the electric locomotive that he had exhibited in London in 1882. In his experiments he was a few years behind Werner von Siemens, who had exhibited the worlds first electric railway in Berlin in 1879. In 1883, Magnus Volk opened the first electric railway to the public in Britain with his Volk’s Electric Railway on the sea front in Brighton (remarkably, it’s still going!). However, as far back as 1842 the Scottish inventor Robert Davidson had trialled an electrically powered locomotive using batteries on the Edinburgh to Glasgow Railway, his Galvani could unfortunately only propel itself at walking speed and could pull no useful load.

Volks Marine Electric Railway, CC-BY-SA Robert Cutts
Volks Marine Electric Railway, CC-BY-SA Robert Cutts

Binko was described as a chemist, and seems to have been a serial inventor and patentee, intent on making his fortune by licensing out his contraptions to others. His “Spectrograph” achieved some success, and it was advertised for a reasonable sum as a money making scheme, the idea being people could get one and then duplicate photographs for sale by using it. Binko later fell out with the licensees.

Advert for a Binko patent

The locomotive brought to Edinburgh was called Ohm and was a rebuild of the Volta that he had exhibited in London. “The line was eventually opened as a ½ mile circular route in the grounds, the charge being 3d (three pence) for the 2.5 minute journey.” 30,000 passengers were carried by the railway during its time at the exhibition. The Railway News reported;

It has been met with extensive public patronage, besides being honoured by a journey taken by the Prince and Princess of Wales and their family and subsequently by Mr and Mrs Gladstone. The length of the line laid down at Edinburgh is about double the length of that at the Crystal Palace and traverses the length of the exhibition building on the outside twice, besides making a wide sweep for turning.

Railway News – 6th September 1884

Power came from an 8hp stationary Robey steam engine, which supplied DC electric power through a dynamo using the two rails. Speed was changed by resisters built into the engine. The article confirmed that the locomotive or “guiding car” weighed about 2 tons, and that the whole train weighed 6 tons when loaded. It could pull up to 3 passenger cars, each with capacity for 10, and it was noted that each car had its own motor, so the train was what we would nowadays call a DC EMU or Direct Current Electric Multiple Unit.

All was not well for Binko and his railway however. Construction over ran and it was not ready for the opening. When it finally got going on July 17th, technically it was a triumph, but financially for Binko had proved a disaster. He was unable to pay his creditors off of whom he had borrowed heavily to finance the scheme and one of them seized his railway before it was even in operation. An arrangement was made with the creditor that he would lease it back off of them for £650 to work off the debt, payable over 13 weeks in instalments. However, even though he was making up to £20 a day (approximately £2,800 in 2022) off of ticket sales, he remained seriously in debt and the creditors lost patience. Well before the end of the exhibition they advertised the whole thing for sale – obviously they had decided that Binko could or would never pay them what he owed and storage costs would be too high. On 30th September the electric railway was cancelled and Binko locked out from using it any more.

Advert selling Binko’s Electric Railway, Scotsman 20th September 1884

On 10th October 1884, Binko was taken to court in London and bankrupted, still owing the creditor £100. Being in Edinburgh with “his” railway, he did not appear in person to defend himself. The court heard that now that the exhibition had ended, Binko did not have any way to recoup any more money from it to settle his debts, but had not provided any accounts of his income from it during the exhibition. The court adjourned to give him time to prepare the accounts and to appear in person.

But that wasn’t the end for Binko in Edinburgh. The reason he hadn’t come to London to face court was that somehow he managed to convince the Edinburgh Street Tramways Company to make an experiment in electric traction, and had managed to convince his creditors to allow him the use of the steam engine, the dynamo and the mechanical components from the Ohm. A few hundred yards of copper strip were laid between the horse tram rails between the exhibition at Donaldson’s Hospital and Haymarket Station, the moving parts from the Ohm were bodged into a horse tram of the Edinburgh Street Tramways Co. and the whole lot was hooked up to the dynamo and steam engine. On 11th October 1884, with 10 passengers on board, Mr Binko’s Electric Tram became the first electric tram to run in the British isles when it haltingly ran between Donaldson’s and Haymarket. Three journeys were made, the third (and final) hauling a second horse tramcar, and then no more was heard of Henry Bock Binko or his experiments in electrical traction.

An Edinburgh Street Tramway Company horse tram of 1884 of the the sort electrified by Mr Binko © Edinburgh City Libraries

But once again this was not the end of Mr Binko and experiments in electrical traction. He resurfaces in 1886 in Great Yarmouth where he was trying to start up a seaside electric railway but ended up being tried for unlawfully obtaining credit while being an undiscovered bankrupt. He was eventually acquitted, largely on the grounds of his reputation from the 1884 railway in Edinburgh being taken in evidence that his schemes were serious and practical and not just a swindle, but not before it came to light that he had been previously bankrupt in 1871. He died in London in 1911, being recorded on censuses in the last 10 years of his life as employed as an electrical engineer.

Electric railways returned to Edinburgh the same year at the 1886 International Exhibition of Industry, Science and Art held in the Meadows. This scheme had nothing to do with Henry Binko and seems to have been something of a collaboration, directed overall by the energetic architect, builder and local politician Sir James Gowans, also the organiser of the exhibition. The scheme is described as being a line 500 yards long, with electricity supplied to a central live rail by a 7 horsepower static steam engine. An electric locomotive hauled two tram cars sent by the Northern Metropolitan Tramway Company, a double decker with 20 inside and 26 outside upstairs and an open single decker with 25 seats. It could make 10 miles per hour. The steam engine was by Marshall & Co. of Gainsborough and the rails were made to Gowans’ own design in Barrow, supplied complimentary. The electric equipment was provided by King, Brown & Co. of Rosebank in Edinburgh. The fare was 2d and in the course of the exhibition it carried 80,000 passengers.

Ground Plan of the 1886 Edinburgh International Exhibition, the electric railway is highlighted in yellow
Ground Plan of the 1886 Edinburgh International Exhibition, the electric railway is highlighted in yellow

Despite all the engravings and photos taken at the exhibition, I have struggled to track down a good picture of the electric railway, but managed to track down a bit of it. You can see a sheeted vehicle, possibly the tram car, on the left behind the flag pole. The rails run parallel to the fence, off to the right.

Hints of the 1886 Electric Railway, CC-BY-NC National Galleries Scotland

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