"The Mumbles Train" - Swansea & Mumbles Railway, Wales

the world's first railway service

On 25 March 1807, a railroad carriage converted to carry people was conveyed by horse along the perimeter of Swansea Bay, travelling between "the dunes" at Swansea, and destined for Mumbles, an oyster harvesting and fishing village on the west of the bay. The people who undertook this journey were unknowing pioneers - they were the first railway passengers in world history.

Horse drawn train, late 1860's, similar to Swansea's original train of 1807 - the world's first railway service

The story of the "Mumbles Train", as it came to be known, is as heart breaking as it is fascinating. Considering its myriad achievements and world records, it's incongruous that the railway isn't more famous. It is disgraceful also that the railway was abruptly dismantled in 1960 (at that time electric tram powered) - 153 years after those historic first steps in 1807. To the commuter age and the world of transport that we take for granted today, this was an  innovation equivalent to any. The world's first - and the longest surviving railway until 1960 - is a worthy candidate of the history books. It is a complex human story of courage, humour and idiosyncrasy. It is a very Welsh story for it is as large, folksy and extraordinary as the ancient folk tales of our ancient Celtic nation of Wales, except all of it happened!

The story commences in July 1804 at Swansea's Bush Inn (which survives to this day). Local investors, who were responsible for quarrying and mining at Mumbles, were gathered to discuss establishing a railroad between Mumbles and the docks of Swansea. The initial suggestion had been to construct a canal along the foreshore of Swansea Bay, but this was met with vociferous opposition from parties such as Swansea docks which feared the establishment of a rival dock at Mumbles. It was however essential to mineral trade that a transport link was established, so a new railroad was the perfect compromise which threatened no other established business. The only method of conveying limestone and other minerals until that time had been to send heavily laden boats across Swansea Bay! This was as dangerous as it was time consuming and much of the cargo must have been lost.

By 1806, the tram road had been completed. In those days, rail tracks were "L" shaped, rather than flanged, and the carriage wheels fitted within this configuration. One member of the company, Benjamin French, had a vision. He proposed to convert an iron carriage for the conveyance of passengers. This was an entirely original concept in 1807 because the railroad itself was a relatively new "technology".  Benjamin French is by no means famous, but effectively, he is the godfather of all railway passengers.

French agreed to pay the company 20 a year for the privilege of operating his passenger service on their line and he devised a timetable. On 25 March, the timetable was first executed and this day is officially recognised as the commencement of world's first passenger railway service. 

The original act of Parliament which furnished the necessary legal permission to create the five mile railway in 1804 was worded so the line could employ mechanical power, in addition to horses, to draw the wagons and carriages. This was highly controversial at the time. Most scientists of the early industrial revolution, such as James Watt, were convinced that steam engines converted for the purpose of locomotion would be an impracticality. However, the owners of the line at Swansea had close links with Samuel Homfray's ironworks of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, where Richard Trevithick was developing a mechanical device that would be capable of pulling heavy wagons by steam traction. In February 1804, Trevithick confounded his critics and produced "Pennydarren", the first steam powered locomotive in the world to run on rails. The locomotive hauled ten tons of iron and seventy people along a nine mile route to Merthyr-Cardiff canal. Unfortunately, the experiment's initial triumph was frustrated by the relative weakness of the early 19th Century iron rails, which broke under the weight of the seven ton locomotive. The importance of the outcome of this experiment affected the Swansea passenger service's opportunity to also become the first steam powered passenger railway service in the world, which would have predated the more famous Stockton-Darlington railway by twenty years. Undeterred by Trevithick's failure, the creative Benjamin French was determined to make his passenger carriage run faster, and he experimented with various other forms of traction. This included attaching a sail to the carriage, which reduced the journey to 45 minutes; however, this method depended on a strong wind which wasn't always forthcoming!

Meanwhile, the horse powered railway service did not escape the consternation and delight of the wealthy passengers who could afford the shilling fare (approximately 5 pence = 7 cents). In 1809, author Elisabeth Isabella Spence wrote the following account of her bayside railway journey on the Swansea to Mumbles service:

"I have never spent an afternoon with more delight than the one exploring the romantic scenery at Oystermouth (Mumbles). I was conveyed there in a carriage of singular construction built for the conveniency of parties who go hence to Oystermouth to spend the day. This car contains twelve persons and is constructed chiefly of iron, its four wheels run on an iron railway by the aid of one horse, and the whole carriage is an easy and light vehicle".

  
A horse drawn train on the Swansea and Mumbles Railway, circa. 1870  
Heavily laden horse train at Oystermouth, Swansea. Circa. 1870. 
  

Very little information survives about the service between the years of 1830 - 1860, but it is known that the track was refurbished in the early 1860's and steam locomotives were introduced in the form of a "Hughes" coke-powered device which was camouflaged as a carriage. The local dignitaries, such as Swansea's mayor and Member of Parliament, were fearful of this new "monstrosity". They predicted chaos as horses would be terrified at the sight of the puffing iron beast. On 16 August 1877 they were invited to take a horse to within yards of the passing locomotive, and it displayed no interest in the locomotive whatsoever!

By the late 1870's, a legal absurdity permitted two companies to operate services on the single track railway. One of the companies issued a court injunction to force their rivals to run exclusively horse-drawn services, while they provided a steam locomotive service. The second half of the 19th Century was the railway service's most turbulent era. The horse service was forced to leave the Swansea terminus some minutes after the steam service and hot coals and cinders were frequently thrown onto the track by the locomotive drivers in order to upset the horses following! Other accidents were commonplace - a compensation tariff had to be devised for Swansea farmers whose wildstock were killed after straying onto the line. Humans were also killed or injured. An inquest was heard in the 1880's to investigate the death of an important politician who had become very drunk one night and followed the track home. He was killed by an oncoming horse. Local man Samuel Ace fell off his carriage and lost an arm when the locomotive drove over it. Sunday night drunken brawling was commonplace on the last train from Mumbles, and local newspaper, "The Cambrian", reported that these fights were usually caused by arguments concerning young ladies.

The Swansea & Mumbles Railway at Oystermouth 

 

In 1898 sanity returned to the line when one new company was responsible for the services. The Mumbles terminus was extended to Swansea Bay lighthouse and an 835 ft. pier was constructed parallel with the lighthouse rocks as an incentive to attract even more passengers. Entertainments such as brass bands and Welsh choir music were provided and the investment which cost five times its allocated budget of 10,000 was financially justified. During the Edwardian period, between 1900 and 1920's, the railway usually carried up to 1,800 passengers per single journey! This provided Swansea & Mumbles railway with another world record - the most passengers conveyed on any train journey. People filled every available space on the double deck carriages, and many clung precariously onto the side railings. The fare conductors had dozens of classes of tickets to issue and had to negotiate the dangerous railings and footboards. Due to the enormous load of passengers the train progressed at only 5 miles per hour and the journey took almost an hour to complete. Local children performed somersaults and tricks by the trackside and many passengers showered them in coins for their efforts. A young boy was employed as lookout on the front of the locomotive and rung a bell if anything strayed onto the track. The passengers on the open top decks were deluged in smoke and smuts from the steam locomotive, rendering their "Sunday best" clothes filthy. However, they weren't perturbed at this inconvenience because at the time it was believed that smoke killed germs! This era was a golden age for the train which was affectionately known as "Puffing Billy". The Victorian pier at Mumbles survives intact today.

Boys perform tricks alongside the Puffing Billy at the turn of the 20th Century

Boys perform trackside tricks for passengers of a slow train. Notice the lookout boy at the front left of the locomotive. Circa 1900.

Due to the limitations of steam power, the innovative line attempted to perfect a new form of carriage traction in 1902 - battery accumulator. However, the early batteries were crude and the stored electrical power drained too quickly. It was the company's intention to replace steam with electric trams, the variety which followed overhead power cables. The expense of electricity and the coming of the First World War thwarted these aspirations, however, and the line wasn't electrified until 1929. The battery car was one of seven methods of traction utilised in the railway's history, which gave the Swansea line a further world record. These were: horse, sail, steam, battery, petrol, diesel, and electric tram.

The new fleet of eleven electric trams were to be the largest tramcars in U.K. service; each had a capacity of 106 seated passengers. These were constructed by Brush Electrical Engineering Company at Loughborough. The electrified line employed posts carrying overhead power lines, which was converted to the requisite direct current in a purpose-built station at Blackpill, which was located at approximately the half way stage of the tram's route. The building survives to this day. The tram followed the traditional line of the original railway, along the curvaceous scenic coast of Swansea Bay. At some points the sea lapped up to within a few feet of the track. On March 2, 1929, the first day of the new tram's service, the public were delighted to learn that the double-decker trams did not contain an open top deck - no more smoke to inhale! The electrification not only met the immediate demand of the railway but as the decades advanced many more passengers were to use the service - for example, five million passengers and tourists were conveyed in 1945. To cope with demand, it was commonplace to couple a pair of trams. Travelling the "Mumbles Train" as it had now come to be known, was an enchanting experience; the combination of the smooth, fast electric trams and the panoramic bayside views provoked the illusion of gliding across water. There were ten stations en-route from central Swansea to Mumbles - Swansea Rutland Street, "The Slip" (the closest stop to Swansea civic centre, Victoria Park, St. Helen's cricket & rugby stadium and the Brangwyn Concert Hall); Brynmill, Ashleigh Road, Blackpill (where the electricity conversion station was located and the closest stop to Clyne Park and the Blackpill Lido paddling pools); West Cross, Norton Road, Oystermouth (at the heart of Mumbles), Southend and Mumbles Pier terminus.      

In March 1941 the German Air Force partly destroyed Swansea centre in a series of terrifying bombing raids; miraculously the Swansea railway survived in tact. The large, bright red trams came to symbolise Swansea people's defiance in the face of such devastating adversity. As such, the railway was the subject of inestimable affection and emotional attachment to the Swansea population; it was associated with happy weekends enjoying picnics and concerts by the sea, but it also meant considerably more than this - it was a metaphor for the city's survival.

In 1954, Swansea children were granted a day off school to join in the celebrations of the Swansea line's 150th anniversary. Many thousands of people dressed up in period costumes and the event was filmed for television and cinema. Replica carriages were meticulously reconstructed to emulate the original journeys of the horse drawn train in 1807 and the later steam era. The trams were decorated and one was painted in the original cream and crimson livery which was used between 1929 - 1933. However, as everyone celebrated, sinister plans were being laid by the owners, a bus company which were planning to purchase the line outright. The former South Wales Transport company seemed to favour bus transport and were forced to declare their intention to scrap the railway in late 1958. Throughout the 1950's the former bus company maintained worn track by replacing it in inadvisably small sections. This made the ride somewhat bumpy. The company's intention was to discourage people from using the railway, a plot was developing to close the railway down. But rather than alienating the public to the railway, this endeared it to them more; the tram ride was by now referred to as the "rock and roll to paradise", and a greater attraction than ever.

150th anniversary celebrations of horse, steam and electric power on the world's first railway

Three incarnations of Swansea and Mumbles Railway - the world's first fare paying passenger rail service. Horse powered, steam and electric tramcar traction. The celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the railroad, which at the time was also the longest surviving line in world history (June 29, 1954).

The Swansea public were outraged and dismayed at the announcement to dismantle their historic and beloved railway. A campaign to reverse the decision ensued, and a huge petition of 15,000 signatures were swiftly collected. The Mumbles Pier Amusement Equipment Company hired a barrister to oppose the case in Parliament but he withdrew within 12 hours of the hearing. Another barrister was hired, but it wasn't possible to comprehensively brief him of the full facts of the case, and the proposal to dismantle the world's first and longest surviving railway was upheld by U.K. Parliament. At 11.42am on 5 January 1960 the last journey of the world's first railway service commenced, amidst the sound of a trumpet and a blaze of world publicity. Children threw coins onto the track so the wheels of the tram would buckle these and provide interesting souvenirs. The night before the last journey, opponents of the railway's decommissioning dressed in black and symbolically buried a cardboard coffin. It was as devastating a blow to Swansea morale as the bombs of World War II had been 19 years earlier.

The driver for the final journey was Frank Duncan, one of the Mumbles Train's great, colourful characters. He had driven the train since 9th January 1903, after he was promoted as a boy from emergency bell ringer, and then fireman, when the Mumbles Train was still a steam service. His stunts were legendary. He would often stop the train alongside the Blackpill golf coarse and confiscated golf balls that had strayed onto the track ... he was even known to keep a hen that had wandered into the path of his train! His service as a driver for the Mumbles Train had spanned 57 years.

Within minutes of the train returning to the Rutland Street shed for the final time, the track was torn up and the trams were being dismantled by a specialist breaker firm, Thomas Ward Bros. A complete tram was offered to the Royal Institution of South Wales Museum, but the curator refused to take it because he felt it was of "no historical interest"! However, a driver's cab was removed - or shall we say guillotined - from one tram which can be viewed today at Swansea Maritime Museum, alongside the replica horse drawn carriage featured in Swansea & Mumbles Railway's 150th anniversary celebrations. One complete tram was transported to England, to the  Middleton Railway Society in Leeds, but this was the subject of irreparable arson and vandalism attacks in 1965.

Mumbles Train - world's first passenger carrying railway

Photograph of Mumbles tram at the Rutland Street terminus, Swansea. RE James-Robertson, circa 1959

Some time later, it transpired that the former South Wales Transport bus company had submitted a claim at the parliamentary hearing in 1959 that the railway was operating at a loss. However, the company accounts which were published in later years revealed that although the company owned the track outright, for accounting purposes it had been charging itself rent. In fact, the railway had been making a 5,500 profit.

Very few people are aware of the unsubstantiated but reliable report that Billie Butlin (who was a vacation camp entrepreneur) had proposed to purchase the railway from the bus company and use it as part of a themed holiday experience based at a camp located in the present day Maritime Quarter. Whether there was any truth in this rumour we will never know. Swansea Council, who had not opposed the dismantling of the railway, gained the Swansea foreshore land which the tram negotiated; this was landscaped and converted to a splendid bayside promenade and cycleway linking Swansea Maritime Quarter with Mumbles. This is an experience which can be enjoyed today.

In the 1970's the Mumbles Railway Preservation Society was established  in order to formalise the line's archiving, and as an interested party to assist in re-establishing Swansea's bayside railway. Many ideas to reinstate the railway have been forthcoming in the years since, including monorails, horse drawn services and "people carriers" - cableless trams. Considering the peak time traffic congestion on the Swansea to Mumbles road today, the railway would be a practical solution to relieving this artery into the city centre. The loss of the railway still provokes an emotive response from Swansea natives to this day. However, I don't believe that short sightedness can exist interminably and one day our railway, the first passenger service in the world, will return again to grace the sandy perimeter of romantic Swansea Bay.

The Mumbles Train, Oystermouth Road, Swansea, Wales

Swansea Bay at West Cross, Swansea, Wales

Photograph of a double coupling of the Swansea tram at Oystermouth Road, Swansea. AA Jarvis, circa 1959.

The Swansea Bay scene today - the railway was replaced with a picturesque five mile promenade - a popular location for walkers and cyclists

Mumbles Train at Knab Rock

Mumbles Train - nears the final destination - Mumbles Pier.

Colour photographs of the tram copyright Mumbles Railway Society.

 

Pete Rogers - web master of this site - wrote, researched and co-produced "Tren Bach I'r Mwmbwls" ("the little train of Mumbles") for Welsh language television channel S4C in 1995.  All text on this page copyright Pete Rogers

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