This thread was originally written as a post, published in December 2022. A follow-up thread further covers how the cable tramway system worked and various pieces of it that have been excavated from beneath Leith Walk between 2020-21.
Horse trams arrived in Edinburgh in 1871 with the Edinburgh Street Tramways Company under the provisions of the The Edinburgh Tramways Act 1870. This bill had passed unopposed when the Sabbath Alliance received assurances about Sunday running and therefore did not make obstructive objections. The ESTCo. were authorised to construct lines to “be worked by animal power only” and had a 21 year lease, after which the municipal authorities were empowered to take up the services for themselves or put them to tender.
Work proceeded swiftly with a capital of £300,000 under engineer John Macrae. The contractor was James (later Sir) Gowans. By 1888, an extensive tramway had been established, serving the City of Edinburgh and the burghs of Leith and Portobello in the East. Working around the compass, this network ran to Leith and Newhaven in the north; Portobello in the east; Newington and Morningside Stations in the South; and Murrayfield and Craiglockhart Stations in the West. Notice from the map below that it deliberately avoided the worst gradients in the city of The Mound, Broughton Street and the northern New Town; these were just too much for horses to cope with, and even lightweight horse buses required 5 animals to get up these gradients.
The system was popular, but was felt locally to be poorly built and run. Numerous junctions and curves had to be rebuilt; the cars were heavy and slow; the service unreliable and frequently made changes without informing the travelling public; the car wheels were unguarded and there were fatal accidents with pedestrians. Even the lamp oil smelled! The fundamental limitation of the system however was its motive power – horses – and it was said to be the most difficult horse tramway to work in the country. The company had to maintain its own stud – hired animals hadn’t been up to the job – and animals had to be rotated every few months between working the difficult and easier routes to allow them periods of working recovery. Running costs, at 7¾d per mile, were high – for each tram car, 6 horses were needed to keep it in full time service.
Edinburgh was desperate for improved and expanded tramway services, and one which could go up hills to serve the north of the city. The ESTCo. cast around for alternatives. The Edinburgh Corporation allowed limited experiments with power by steam, compressed air and even a giant clockwork spring. The latter two trials were resounding failures and the Corporation and electorate were fundamentally opposed to steam. In 1882 the company managed to have an act passed to allow it to use mechanical traction, but the Corporation had licensing powers and simply refused to allow any licenses for steam trams. The experimental services thus came to nothing.
There was however another and very practical option available. It was one which came half the way around the world from that hilliest of cities, San Francisco. That option was cable haulage and it was quick to be realised that such a system would answer Edinburgh’s particular public transport problems.
The principal of operation of a cable hauled tramway is quite simple. Between the tram tracks is laid a slot, in which there runs an endless loop of moving cable. The tram car is fitted with a gripper that slides into the slot; to move forward it grabs the cable with its gripper and to stop it releases the cable and applies its brakes. The cable is powered by steam engines in a winding house, from where it runs around the system under the streets on an ingenious (and complex) series of guiding and terminal pulley wheels.
Cable tramcars have two grippers, one at the front and one at the rear. This allows them to move across junctions and between different cables in a rather elaborate dance of applying and releasing each gripper in a certain order as it engaged different cables or passes over subterranean obstructions (such as pulley wheels) and cable diversions. The terminus of a cable car line was always a short, single line section of track on a slight incline. This meant that gravity could be used to move the car where the cable was passing round the large terminal pulley before heading back in the opposite direction
It was quickly decided that cable haulage was the future for Edinburgh and in 1884 a bill was put to Parliament seeking authorisation for a “Northern Tramway” to use this form of power on a 2 line system, from Stockbridge to Frederick Street and from Newhaven to Hanover Street; both very hilly routes. The bill passed and in August 1884 the Edinburgh Northern Tramways Company was formed, with 3 years to complete its works. The main contractor was the Patent Cable Tramways Corporation. Sensibly, they located the winding house in the centre of the two lines, on a connecting branch between them, at Henderson Row. The cables entered and exited the winding house around a subterranean pulley of 10ft 6in diameter and were powered by two 300hp steam engines built by Dick, Kerr & Co. in Kilmarnock. The boilers were by Babcock & Wilcox.
Construction work proceeded slower than expected, and an additional bill was passed (the Edinburgh Northern Tramways Act, 1887) to allow two more years for completion. The extension to Newhaven was allowed to lapse at this time and the route cut back to Goldenacre, meaning the E&NTCo. would never serve Leith. By late 1887, the Goldenacre and Hanover Street was ready for operation but not before the E&NTCo. and the Patent Cable Tramways Coportation fell out over payments due and ended up facing off in the Court of Session. An agreement was reached and the new line opened to the public on January 28th 1888, without any ceremony or even newspaper announcements. The Comely Bank to Frederick Street section followed suit on February 17th 1890.
Cars set off every 5 minutes on both lines. They were painted dark blue and cream, with an initial fare of 3d (first class) on the inside or 2d upstairs on the outside. Eight were built by the Metropolitan Carriage Company for the Hanover Street route, they had square ends to the tops and were nicknamed “coffins”. A further eight slightly shorter cars were built by the Falcon Company for the Frederick Street route.
After some minor snags, such as cables falling off their pulleys or breaking, the system began working well. A feature of a cable hauled tramway is that there is no speed regulation; trams either move at the speed of the cable or they stop. Free wheeling is only ever used in certain authorised sections to transit across junctions and between different cables. For Edinburgh, the Board of Trade limited the speed of the cable to 6mph; the company had wanted 8mph but this was denied. At least it meant you could always run to catch up with your tram!
An inherent danger of the system is that if the cable gripper was not released when moving between cables or past one of the subterranean pulleys, the whole gripper arm and part of the tramcar with it could be wrenched apart as the car went one way and its gripper went the other way with the cable. This eventuality was prevented by a device known as a “pawl”. The pawl sat underground wherever the cable diverted and effectively released the gripper and stopped the car dead on the spot – it was a frightening experience and dangerous to any passengers who were not in their seats or holding on tight, but it did avert disaster. A subtle yet ingenious system of road markings were devised, laid into the street setts by patterns in the masonry itself.
As early as 1890 the company was planning for extensions to its routes, but the Edinburgh Corporation blocked these; it had plans of its own. Seeing the success of the cable system it decided that this was the future for all its existing horse tramways and desired to acquire the whole lot for itself (as the parliamentary act allowed it to) and to unify the Northern (cable) and Street Tramways (horse) systems into a single – cable hauled – network. In 1892, the Corporation exercised its rights and acquired the Edinburgh Street Tramways system within its boundaries, and leased it to Dick, Kerr & Co., who formed the Edinburgh & District Tramways Company to take it over. A new act of parliament was gained that allowed for the system to be expanded and converted to cable traction.
The Burghs of Leith and Portobello both declined to acquire their portions of the ESTCo. routes within their municipal boundary and renewed the lease on them to that company, who continued to use horse power. While arrangements for through running were made between Edinburgh and Leith so long as they both remained hauled by horses, Edinburgh’s intention to move to cable traction on its own was the first step in dis-integration of the Edinburgh and Leith systems that would eventually lead to the infamous Pilrig Muddle. Leith tried to avert Edinburgh’s intentions in the courts at the last minute, and managed to delay matters for a whole 4 days, during which time the system had to be run by a court-appointed lawyer until agreement was reached for the Edinburgh & District Tramways Company to take possession.
The new proposals for Edinburgh’s tramways were extensive, and are summarised in a map published in 1895. Black dotted lines were to be worked by horse due to the low traffic levels. Red routes with black dots were existing horse lines that were to be rebuilt to be powered by cable. The red dashed lines were proposals for new lines and extensions allowed under the parliamentary act. New power stations were to be constructed for the cable system; one at the existing horse tram depot at Shrubhill (A on the map above) and a second at Tollcross, which would also be a depot (O on the map above). Note that at this time, it was still intended that cable traction would be taken into Leith.
With work progressing on the two new depots and power stations, attention turned to the tracks, which had to be totally rebuilt to accommodate the cables and also the heavier cars. Work started at the new Newington terminus on September 9th 1896, with a formal ceremony presided over by Lord Provost McDonald (who the previous year had brought a public electricity supply to the city.)
The Northern Tramways were also planning extensions of their own, but these were blocked by the City, who exercised their powers again to acquire the line, despite it only being 12 years into the lease. Duly acquired, the lease of the Northern system was handed over to the Edinburgh & District on December 31st 1896, creating a unified system (for Edinburgh at least). As late as the municipal elections in the middle of 1898, it was intended that Leith would be included in the cabling, including an ingenious system whereby an auxiliary cable would be incorporated in the Bernard Street swing bridge to cross the Water of Leith. On November 15th 1898 however, a Special Committee on Tramways of the Leith Town Council met late into the night and voted 14 to 4 in favour of rejecting cabling (largely on the grounds of costs) and instead renewing the Edinburgh Street Tramways leaser within its own boundaries, still under horse traction. This meant a boundary at Pilrig where the two systems met, and for the next 24 years an inconvenient change of cars had to be made to travel between the burgh of Leith and City of Edinburgh; the Pilrig Muddle. The system was not re-unified until 1922, when the first through electric tramcar ran from Leith to Edinburgh.
Work proceeded from the outer termini towards the centre, with Princes Street starting to be tackled in April 1897. Work began on the complex junction pits – where cables had to route around terminal pulleys or the pulleys that guided them around curves or above and below other cables – in April 1898. In May 1899 the two 500hp engines at Shrubhill were ready for testing and were set in motion for the first time (although for now there were no cables to pull). On May 29th, a cable was fed through the system between St. Andrew Square and Shrubill and the first tests took place on the following night.
On June 1st, on the firing of the one O’ Clock gun, the first official cable car journey on the new system took place, when a party of dignitaries left Shrubhill for the short journey to St. Andrew Square and back again. All afternoon the car plied back and forth, giving the public free rides. The cable of the new system was authorised to go at 8mph, a considerable improvement of the 6mph allowed for the Northern lines. On 27th September, the cable from Princes Street to Braid Hills, powered from Tollcross, was threaded through the system and the complete route between Pilrig Street and Braid Hills – requiring a change from the Shrubhill to Tollcross cable at the east end of Princes Street – was approved by the Board of Trade. On the morning of 26th October the service was quietly started. Introduction was gradual, and for a time both horse and cable cars ran the route until it was entirely running smoothly with cable cars.
Also in 1899, plans to electrify the Portobello Section were abandoned, and instead an act of parliament was obtained allowing this line to be also converted to cable traction, with a further power station and depot built in that town (the Burgh having been merged into Edinburgh in 1893). Work was slowed by the severe winter of 1899/1900, and it was not until March 1900 when the cables were ready on the next routes to be started. There were still hopes that Leith might be brought at least partly on board with the cabling system, and an offer was made to extend the Shrubhill cable as far as the Foot of the Walk where the cars would return from where they came without stopping, around a great U-bend in the system.
Most of the conversion of the system was completed that year, but the Portobello section and extensions along London Road to Abbeyhill and up the Mound to Tollcross via Lauriston Place would not complete until July 1902. The map below shows the maximum extend of the cable tramway system in Edinburgh, and the winding houses from where each cable was powered. At it’s maximum extent there were 21¼ miles of cable tramway (and therefore at least twice this length of cable moving around the system at any one time). Portobello drove two cables, one east to Joppa and a long one west to Waterloo Place. Shrubhill drove two cables, one for Leith Walk to St Andrews Square via York Place and Abbeyhill, the other from the Bridges to Newington. It had been intended to power a further cable to serve Leith – and there was a winding drum provided for it – but this never materialised.
The Edinburgh & District Tramways Company caused outrage in late November 1901 when they started running cars on a Sunday; something the Sabbath Alliance and the City have been assured 30 years previously would never happen in Edinburgh. The Corporation tried – but failed – to stop Sunday running in the courts; it turned out they didn’t have any power to do so. The Sabbatarians (who held considerable sway within Edinburgh society at the time) were appalled; the travelling public were very pleased to get where they were going without having to walk; the horses got their day of rest however so only the cable cars ran. The company cunningly chose the end of a mission fortnight where many of the ministers in the city had swapped pulpits with eachother and thus “had not the liberty of expression they would have had, had they been preaching in their own churches“. The Rev J. B. Johnston of the United Free Church in Falkirk was less constrained:
Afer the initial shock of running on the Sabbath, the system now settled down to a regualr and (relatively) reliable service. In 1905, the Board of Trade permitted the cables to be speeded up, reaching the hithertoo unheard of speeds of 11¾mph on the long Portobello Section, 9½mph out to Liberton, the Grange, Gorgie and Murrayfield and even the old 6mph cables of the Northern routes were allowed to go up to 8mph. The Mound route was the slowest, restricted to 7¾mph.
An anomaly remained however, which was the old horse tramway route out to Craiglockhart Station. This left Tollcross along Gilmore Place, which back in the 1890s was found to be unsuited to conversion to cable traction as it was too narrow, and the levels of patronage of the route meant it was not worth the expense of either widening the street or trying an alternative (electric) form of traction. So it lingered on sedately under horse power, to which it was well suited given the general lack of inclines, until they were retired on 24th August 1907 to allow the switch to cable. This took place in 1908, a method having been devised to run down Gilmore Place on a single track, with multiple passing loops.
A follow-up thread further covers how the cable tramway system worked in more detail and various pieces of it that have been excavated from beneath Leith Walk between 2020-21.
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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur
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