Holbeck resident Steve Peacock has been part of the Middleton Life local history project. With help from our new community reporters’ website he’s written this overview on the days when trams trundled through south Leeds:
I have been interested in the local history of Leeds for many years now and, having lived in Middleton for a numbers of years during the 1970s and early 1980s, earlier this year I was pleased to be able to become involved in the Middleton Life project.
Not only did it give me a better insight into the history of Middleton, but it gave me the ideal opportunity to pursue my long held interest in trams which I have used to produce the following brief look back at the tramways in Middleton:
Back in the 1950s I was a youngster living and growing up in Holbeck. In those days, kids spent a lot of time ‘playing out’; television was in its infancy and home computers were only science fiction.
‘Playing out’ took many forms – football and cricket in the back-to-back streets, tig, hopscotch, kick-out-ball were among the many games we played.
Furthermore, we were allowed to wander well away from home. I remember on one occasion cycling with one of my mates up to Adel and collecting conkers there.
One of the areas we sometimes walked to was Middleton Woods. We would walk up Beggars Hill, the quarry path, across Cross Flatts Park, up past the Cockburn playing fields and along a dirt track which ran over the Hunslet/Beeston railway line and then into the woods. There, we might go to the pond where there were paddleboats; sometimes we would collect chestnuts and conkers from the trees in autumn. The woods were a big attraction, not having anything like that in Holbeck.
To get to the woods we had to cross the tram track and at this time the trams were still running. It was always exciting to see a tram come careering down the track from Middleton going into Leeds.
Walking along the track was fraught with danger (and probably illegal) but we would take the chance because this added to the thrill of visiting the woods. Unfortunately, however, I never had the opportunity to ride on the trams through the woods although I used the trams on the No. 8 Elland Road service and rode on trams to Meanwood and Roundhay Park.
In those days, before diesels became the norm, mucky old steam trains ran on our railways. Alas, buses were beginning to replace the trams on the public transport system in Leeds. For a young boy growing up in this world, the trains, trams and buses were a source of fascination. Like many other kids of my age, I started train-spotting and collecting bus and tram numbers. As a result, my interest in trams began.
A horse-drawn tram service started in Leeds in 1871. The first electric trams were introduced into the city in 1891. In 1920, Middleton was incorporated into the borough of Leeds.
Around the same time in the early 1920s, Leeds City Council had started to carry out extensive slum clearance. The need for additional housing to rehouse people from the slum clearance areas resulted in Middleton becoming the location for one of the large council estates that were built on the outskirts of the city.
Bricks from the Fireclay Works at Broom Pit and other materials used in building the estate were transported along a light railway that was constructed through Middleton Woods.
When the first residents moved on to the new estate, complaints were made that it was set in the middle of the countryside without any transport link. To improve the public transport links, the light railway was adapted for a new tramway system (standard gauge of 4ft 8ins) to serve the estate. It was opened in 1925 and ran from Dewsbury Road through the woods with a tram stop in the middle of the woods for joining or alighting; it terminated in Middleton – circular route No. 12.
In 1933 Leeds pioneered a new bogie tram which was introduced on the Middleton route that seated 70 passengers and improved passenger comfort – known as the ‘Middleton Bogies’. These trams were considered by many as the finest trams ever made in Britain.
The trams in Leeds were now carrying large numbers of people at cheap fares, which remained unaltered between 1928 and 1944. This policy was very successful and in 1939 the system carried around 200 million passengers annually on 52 route miles of track.
Later, in 1940, an extension from Balm Road to Belle Isle was introduced which terminated at Belle Isle Circus; this was followed by an extension from Belle Isle to Middleton in 1949 to join the Middleton route that went through the woods – the last ever tramcar route development anywhere in the UK until Manchester built their new system in the 1990s.
The original routes serving Middleton were:
12. Swinegate to Middleton via Parkside, and return.
12C. Swinegate – Middleton – Belle Isle – Swinegate, (from 24-8-49).
26e. Swinegate – Belle Isle – Middleton – Swinegate. (from 24-8-49)
In later years the Middleton-Belle Isle circle was linked with the York Road services.
R J S Wiseman wrote of a journey to Middleton on the 12C route aboard tram No. 268:
“We crossed the Aire after the Sovereign Street junctions and completed the terminal circuit by turning right into Meadow Lane. We forked left at the junction and were away at speed down the almost deserted Dewsbury Road. We crossed over the Midland Railway and then slowed for the sharp left turn into Moor Road. We crossed the public park at Hunslet Moor which was much improved in later years with flowers adding a touch of colour to the district.
“Some distance before Hunslet Station No. 268 turned right on to the private track and we surged forward into a desolate landscape of cinders, bedraggled grass and telegraph poles, which together with the background of domestic chimneys to the right, take us back to an earlier period of our industrial history. The overhead is supported by centre poles and the ‘Whistle’ notice nearby applies to’ the Middleton Colliery Railway which runs alongside the tramway for some distance.
“We next passed a number of sports grounds and the crossover at Parkside was used for reversing extras serving the nearby Hunslet R.F.C. ground. After twice crossing the meagre Belle Isle Beck and passing under the GN.R. loop line we leave the old colliery workings behind and begin the long climb through the woods of Middleton Park. The tramway followed a gently curving course between the trees, and crossed one or two woodland paths each protected by a dilapidated notice reading ‘Caution’ Tramway Crossing.
“Leaving the woods the line curved to the left and followed the northern edge of the housing estate to’ the much altered Middleton terminus.”
In further recollections of the Leeds tramway system he says,
“…….but the outstanding memory is of the Middleton route when late night cars would rush through the darkness, an oasis of light and cheerfulness, carrying the citizens home in speed and comfort.”
Some other memories of the route through the woods:
“I rode the Middleton run on many occasions and when the drivers started on the run heading for Parkside, they knocked the tram out of gear and went like hell. The trams rocked from side to side. It was like been on a ship. You felt sick.”
“I used to ride on the tram to Cockburn school through the woods from Middleton. Boy did those trams rock their way on that track in winter it was quite scary.”
“We used to “back” the trams (sit on the back steel bumper) so we didn’t have to pay, down to Parkside or back home after we had spent the evening at the Crescent cinema. That tram track could tell many tales if it could speak. Some scary I might add. Great fun as kids though.”
“The best tram ride was from Middleton down to Hunslet Moor, especially if the journey was at night when it was dark. The tram only had one small headlight and would hurtle down through Middleton Woods at great speed; this could be quite a scary ride. The tram would then continue over the moor and go past the old man’s shelter and the horse trough. The trams were very much a part of old Hunslet.”
“What a ride it was through Miggy Woods downhill all the way past Parkside Rugby Ground, It was like riding the big dipper at Blackpool you had to be upstairs of course to get the full feel of the ride. It did not seem to slow down until the sharp left-hand bend at Hunslet Moor. Happy Days”
The Labour controlled Council finally decided to abandon the tramway system in Leeds. On 28 March 1959 both the Middleton and Belle Isle routes were closed during the final act of the tragedy known as ‘The Dissolution of the Leeds Tram-car System’ and the last tram in Leeds ran on 7 November 1959 – a sad day indeed.
If trams could be brought back on the route through the woods I am sure it would be a major tourist attraction for the area today. When you go through the woods today you can still find remains of the tram track – sleepers and ballast – and perhaps let yourself dream, as sometimes I do, of a tram trundling down the track on its way into Leeds – unfortunately those days are gone.