It was the Summer of 1920, with a world struggling in the midst of vast unemployment to return to peace and sanity after the first world war, that the writer - then a scholarship boy of 14 years - was impelled to forsake the security of the Southern Secondary School (itself not long released from use as a military hospital). The illness and subsequent death of my father - there were no widows' pensions for civilians in those days - rendered work imperative. Jobs were few and of limited scope. Secondary School pupils were not wanted, even as errand boys, low though the wages were. However at one time my father had worked on the permament way of the Portsmouth Tramways and my mother had been a servant in the Traffic Superintendents' household so, hopefully, I approached the Tramway Office at North End for an interview. There was a list of over 100 applicants for jobs as point boys. There was however some sickness and so I was offered temporary work for one week - in fact I spent four years as such.
Perhaps the most attractive inducement in those days was the wages - 25/- per week - plus a shilling extra per year of service. However it was necessary to leave at 18 years, with the option of returning as Conductor at 21. There were, of course, no holidays apart from Christmas Day. Nevertheless later a day off per week was introduced with subsequent reducation of pay to 16/4 1/2d. Sundays however counted as half days since the trams commenced at 1.00 pm.
In London, the points were remotely controlled from the pavement, but in Portsmouth, one had to brave the traffic and operate the points directly. Some of the boys when new on the job would fall asleep late at night, but the tram drivers good humouredly turned their own points with the point bars carried on each tram and kept quiet about it.
One unusual detail was that, due to an initial mistake, point boys were not issued with trousers - merely a tunic, overcoat, cap and mackintosh, and this held until 1924 when the points were electrified, being operated by the trolley wire current.
The point boys' tool was a long round iron bar forged with a chisel and for insertion into the rails at the point, the other end being formed into a ring for hand gripping. After shut down, the point bars were commonly left behind the nearest telephone kiosk until required next morning. The two rails at the point were linked by a crewed rod under an inspection plate; it was essential to check periodically that both points moved equally in case of play developing on the rod. In dry weather the points were kept watered for freedom of operation.
The number of points operated per boy varied from one to four, the latter referring to Bradford Junction. The tee junction of three. Fratton, Kingston and Lake Roads was a special case. Due to the three narrow roads, the rails were single track each linked by spring loaded points set for forward running trams and giving way and automatically resetting for trams proceeding in the reverse direction. Hence a tram running on to the single track would find it difficult to regain its original track in the case of a wrong signal. During the day hand signals were given to prevent collisions. After dark an ancient hurricane lamp was provided fitted with one red and three white glasses.
Diversions of traffic occurred when worn rails were relaid. One example was the renewal of Commercial Road track from the Air Balloon to Charlotte Street. All Commercial Road trams were re-routed through Kingston and Lake Roads. This made approximately 20 trams passing every 10 minutes and these were reinforced by a similar number of Dockyard specials during the lunch hour and also at 5.00 pm. The strain on the system due to the three lengths of single track was such that I applied for and obtained two flags, red and white, to reinforce the hand signals. The red one was large and nailed to a short thick pole while the white one was very small with a large set of oily fingerprints and nailed to a very long thin rod. These proved very successful - apart from the fact that my relief was an invalid conductor suffering from acute shell shock (from World War I).
Usually all went well but, occasionally, ill as he was, an over-run (ie a tram coming on to the single track against the signal) would happen. During the confusion, the remaining trams would follow blindly on, and the unfortunate sick pointsman would panic and dash round in circles waving both flags together. Within minutes a huge jam of trams built up.
Returning from dinner I would see a continuous stream of trams all stationary from Fratton Road end of Arundel Street so far as they eye could see. I would run to Lake Road junction. There, spare shunting rail formed a triangle with the other and an invisible policeman on point duty could be heard roaring away completely surrounded by a conglomeration of immobile trams. As I appeared through the pile up he would cease ranting and, relieved, offer up thanks to the Almighty, while I stood on the tram track to deter any driver from acting acting in desperate frustration. Within a few minutes; thanks to the friendly co-operation of the drivers during a complicated system of shunting, all would be clear and peace would reign once more.
The hurricane lamp system functioned from 1902-1922 approximately, but it failed one night when a somewhat inebriated member of the staff ordered me to light the lamp. I protested that it was not yet dark. "Boy Scouts Motto 'Be Prepared' " he replied sternly. "Give me the lamp!" With some trepidation I obeyed. "Watch" he commanded. He held the lamp high and then let go. It fell to the ground in a shower of glass. "Pick it up" he snapped. Again I obeyed. He then unscrewed the wick and poured the paraffin all over the pavement. "I'm off to the Pier, boy, to see the show!" [.....] This I sent back to the Depot stating there had been an accident. Back came the reply:- "If you are so careless you can't be relied upon to take care of property entrusted to you, you deserve to go without a lamp, and go without a lamp you will!"
That night, smarting under the undeserved rebuke, I wrote a note to the superintendent requesting an electric signal without stressing the unfortunate incident. This was sent off next day. It was written on a gilt edged correspondence card (25 for 6d at Woolworths). The lavish opulence of the gilt edging was however sadly marred by a large oily thumbprint - the result of handling the wrecked lamp. However the result was an impressive electric signal operated from the 550 volt overhead wires, and this functioned until the demise of the trams.
The water tram was a functional piece of apparatus on which was mounted two large tanks connected with an electric pump. Being for staff use only, it had no conventional steps for boarding but two short vertical iron ladders. This tram was in great demand after 11.00 pm, there being at that time, no staff trams or buses. On one occasion when returning home late at night, I attempted to jump off as we were speeding through Fratton Road. Unfortunately my heels caught in the rungs of the iron ladder and I fell on the cobbles at Penhale Road, sustaining considerable bruising of arms and elbows. Times being as they were, I kep quiet about it and reported nevertheless for duty next day.
Although the system functioned remarkably well day to day, there were occasional incidents which, if they did not help, at least relieved the monotony, and were even welcomed to that end.
On one occasion an upright piano was being lowered from an upstairs window in Lake Road. One man descended the ladder, holding the front end of the piano; a second supported the rear end, while a third payed out the rope, regulating the speed of descent. The trailing rope lay loosely in the . road. All went well until a tram passed by. The 'cowcatcher'- a safety device - caught the rope and stretched it taut. The piano descended with unseemly haste. It struck the tramtrack with a chord which even the late respected Sullivan would have envied and, when the dust had subsided, one of the men was seen sitting in the road with the piano round his neck.
Co-ordination of transport is a modern sounding term but, even in those days, we had the green trams of the Horndean Light Railway running through the City every twenty thinutes. The ropes attached to their trolley poles were rather longer than those on the Corporation trams and one day, an unlucky passenger sitting upstairs narrowly escaped hanging when the pole came off and soared upwards, the rope forming a noose round his neck.
Another potential hazard lay in an insulation failure of the iron trolley standard. As a precaution two 250 volt carbon filament bulbs coloured red were wired in series across the 550 volt supply and fitted above the driver and conductor's heads on the lower deck. If they glowed, all passengers were turned off the uper deck and the vehicle rushed to the Depot with closed wicket gates to prevent other would be passengers from boarding.
While at Lake Road came the worst fog I have ever experienced. It descended one Sunday evening, blotting out the electric signal and even the passing trams, so that I had to run continuously between Kilmiston Street, Turk Street and Sultan Road to guide the invisible vehicles. Despite the headlamp on each I crashed into the fender of one stationary tram, fortunately, without injury. Later, a fire engine was found to be proceeding at walking pace preceded by an officer armed with a torch. The chief inspector, Mr Prescott and two others were sent from North End to regulate the trams at the junction but, after half an hour, they departed quite satisfied, and I was subsequently heartened by a commendation which compensated a weary perspiring point boy for an anxious night; although, due to the friendly co-operation of the drivers, no over-runs or collisions occurred that night.
A very heavy cloudburst took place one day, flooding both roads and pavements in Fratton and Kingston Roads. I retreated to the top steps of Hunt's Wine shop nearby, but, operating the points was a problem, entailing repeated probing throughout the flood to locate the points before the trams over-ran them. Several trams suffered burnt out motors and shops were flooded. In addition, large parts of Scuthsea, Old Portsmouth and Commercial Road under the railway bridge were under water.
Another hazard was fire. Instructions were given to jettison the passengers and make at speed for either the Fire-station or the Depot - which ever was the nearer. Several times I saw a tram belching flames and smoke accompanied by furious clanging of the drivers' foot bell, speeding to North End Depot.
Tram collisions were rare. I witnessed one outside the Gas' Companys 'showrooms at the Guildhall. A fully loaded tram was waiting here en route for the football match when another arrived empty to change round. Apparently the driver went into the office without taking the master key (removable in the neutral position) with him. The conductor carried the point bar from the back to the front of the reversing tram and flung it down by the controller. It caught the starting handle and the vehicle, being empty, accelerated rapidly and crossed the track via a set of shunting points. It crashed into the back of the loaded tram which wa pushed forward a yard or so despite its brakes. The stairs on the runaway collapsed, while the others' driver suffered a cut head, the glass door behind him being shattered, while several passengers suffered shock and minor injuries. However, medical help was refused as nobody wished to miss the match. Plasters were therefore applied and a head bandage for the driver, and, prompt to the minute, in the best tradition of the service, the vehicle set off.
Another incident occurred at the Guildhall barrier. It was the custom for drivers to dismount here for a smoke while passengers alighted and boarded. One driver developed a technique of starting the tram from terra firma - reaching up to give the controller one notch and then, grasping the brass handrail, swinging up on the platform as the vehicle moved off. One day he missed his footing and rolled under the front apron of the tram. The automatic lifeguard ('cow catcher') immediately operated and scooped him up. The driver of a Dockyard tram emerging from the railway bridge beheld an apparently driverless tram accompanied by cries of "Help, help" coming from empty space. He promptly stopped his tram, boarded the runaway and switched off the motors - it seems the other driver suffered no harm.
An efficient and successful course in tram driving was pursued to keep up the supply of drivers. However, a few - mercifully rare - cases of do-it-yourself by over enthusiastic conductors hardly reflected such success as in the following^ case:- A conductor expressed a wish to be taught tram driving. His driver replied "Just release the hand brake and give the controller the old 1-2, and that's it!" At the Floating Bridge stop, the driver went for a cup of tea. The conductor, as advised, seized the starting handle and gave it two notches. Obediently the tram glided forward. Flushed with elation at the success of this DIY effort and, possibly dreaming of the extra shilling per week drivers' pay, he failed to notice the end of the tram track disappear under the speeding tram until the runaway plunged down the shingle en route apparently for Gosport. The unscheduled launch was hardly a success as the vehicle came to rest offshore. Just as the tram had run out of tram track, it had obviously run out of trolley wire as well.
The vehicle was salvaged by heavy haulage equipment but, as the conductor sadly confessed afterwards:- "He taught me to start it, but he didn't tell me how to stop it."
All trams were checked in at night - a margin of two minutes being allowed. One night a search was ordered for a a missing tram. This was finally located at the South Parade Pier. The conductor had turned the role round and in the darkness, so the crew sat down inside to await restoration the supposed breakdown. Investigation showed that the tram was on an insulated piece of rail whereas the supposed trolley wire was, in fact, a 'dead' span or supporting wire.
Discipline was severe (eg a driver was sent home for wearing a pair of brown boots), yet there was a wise and kindly sense of humour revealed in some of those in authority. For instance drivers were discouraged from using full speed (parallel) in town, Other drivers observing such a breach from others would warn them if an official was in the vicinity. Once, a driver standing on his platform at the Guildhall, started off unaware that Mr (Bill) Mumford, the superintendent, had opened the wicket gate and was standing behind him. While journeying through Lake Road, he saw another driver speeding towards him on the interlacing track. Instinctively he shouted "Look out Billy's down the road." The other driver ignored him. Desperately he repeated the warning "Billy,Billy, - down the road!" Still no response. "Billy, Billl." Then stroking his chin suggestively, "Ba-bat Ba-baL" jerking his thumb in the direction of the Guildhall. There came a tap on his shoulder. "All right, all right B--- " snapped Mr Mumford testily, "I think he's heard you by now."
Another driver had apparently been reported for a very minor breach of discipline. In the office he turned on the superintendent and told him in very questionable language what he could do with the job. Mr Mumford, having admonished him severely, rose from his desk, advised him to calm down, and suggested that he took a day off and came to see him on the next day when presumably he would be feeling more reasonable. Somewhere there is a lesson for modern captains of industry.
The trams served as transport for the 'Evening News', the drivers' platform being loaded up with batches of the latest edition. On arrival at North End and other selling points, the point boys' job was to board the tram and convey these parcels to the shops, and even to assist in selling them at wayside points.
Another task for the point boy at Fratton Bridge was to deal with the horse drawn coal carts passing over. He had to lock the nearside rear wheel by a chain to prevent the horses slipping as they descended the bridge and then to run down and uncouple the chain at the bottom to save the driver dismounting. This service was given freely, but some of the drivers would offer ld or 2d for the service.
Very cold spells could be a hazard as in I believe 1922 when the entire rail system froze up between Cosham and South Parade Pier necessitating a complete shut down for 3 days, during which the entire staff worked to clear the tracks. Driving on the older trams was an extremely cold job as they were entirely open front and back. During snowy weather the drivers could be seen as snowmen being coated with a layer of ice. This partly explains the desire for a drink (a practice frowned on naturally) but the writer confesses with some shame to loading an occasional crate of beer on the platform although, so far as recollection goes, no case of accidents due to alcohol took place. Broken axles were an occasional hazard causing congestion as the vehicle would leave the rails and wander off up a side street, having to be [...} and coaxed on to the rails. Horses, carts and lorries would frequently park on the tram-track and the frustrated tram driver would leave his vehicle and enter the shop concerned to negotiate for a free rail.
Was opened in 1902 when the electric system replaced the horse trams. It was situated in Vivash Road, behind the Co-operative Stores in Fratton Road, and operated until rising maintenance costs led to replacement by a substation supplied from the 5,600 volt network from the Portsmouth Electricity Supply power station. The three reciprocating slow speed steam engines were replaced by two 1,000 Kw rotary converters and one smaller converter which was intended to light the North End Depot during shut down hours. My father assisted in transport of the bricks. It was a hand fired coal burning station although later experiments were made to convert it to oil burning during the great general strike of 1926. The three reciprocating steam engines each drove 550 volt DC Generators.
The showpiece of the station was undoubtedly a magnificent 1,500 Brake Horse Power vertical triple expansion marine steam engine. With its three huge cranks set at 120 and its slow speed (100 revolutions per minute) it was a veritable giant, coupled by a 24 ton flywheel to a 1,000 KW 550 volt 1,800 amp. dynamo by Dick, Kerr & Co. (now English Electric Co.). So smoothly did it run that a penny could be balanced on its edge on the bearings.
The other two were horizontal steam engines coupled to 500KW dynamos. Huge, but somewhat less impressive.
The switchboard was a long marble structure also by Dick, Kerr and Co. The trip coils of the automatic circuit breakers were formed of solid copper bar and the main ammeter was a quadrant shaped cased instrument inscribed 'Lord Kelvin's Patent Ampere Gauge' and measured current of the order of 4,000 amps. It is interesting to recall that the switchboard, virtually unchaned was still in use in 1963 when the last of the trolley buses faded from the scene. The basement of the Power Station contained a large blackboard and easel upon which some wag had written 'Beware of water - it is wet - by one who knows'.
The station manager was a short dapper man Mr Lironi, who was courtesy itself when a secondary school chum and I visited the station about 1918. A typed authorization was pinned to the station notice board, and we were treated as honoured guests, even being allowed to climb the steel stairs to the top of the triple-expansion engine from which we could look down and marvel at the immense flywheel and DC Generator which was mounted half below the floor.
The trams (also by Dick, Kerry) in use embraced several models. Two were modified horse trams. In addition were the DBI's in which the steps to the upper deck were reversed and which incorporated a few notches of electric braking. This was most effective, but [...] forbidden in order to prevent overheating of the starting resistances which were placed under the tram. The others were fitted with an emergency stop position. Since this short circuited the motors producing an almost instant stop at any speed; it was considered too dangerous, and a more popular method was to turn the master key, to reverse, when one or two notches of the starting handle would safely halt the vehicle. The later 15 trams (mis-named double deckers) because of the covered in top deck (as also were the front and rear ends of the vehicle) had a rachet operated controller, it being impossible to pass a notch without a momentary pause. Extra notches of electric braking were also a feature and, for the first time, electric braking was officially blessed thus saving wear and tear on brakes. With the later trolley buses these motors were so connected that the braking current could be returned to the overhead wires, thus saving brake linings, tyres and contributing somewhat to economy in power. The resistance boxes on the later trams were on the platform, thus warming the vehicle in cold weather as well as the crews lunches.
The older trams were fitted with two 25 H.P. motors. Provision was made to cut one out should a fault occur and I have seen a tram with one motor cut out propelling two others.
All trams had two stages of control. At starting the motors were series connected with 250 Volts each, while at higher speeds a parallel connection gave each motor 500 Volts.
Was operated by a large brass handle with a rachet to hold it as the handle was wound up. The spring was powerful - a driver suffered a broken nose due to apparently a slipping rachet. The brakes were applied directly to the rims of the steel wheels. The Horndean trams had, in addition a large brass wheel operating a track brake which, when lowered, gripped the rail between the wheels on each side, enabling the vehicle to descend Portsdown Hill in safety. The trolley collector was a brass grooved wheel, but the trolley buses later used an impregnated grooved carbon block which largely minimized dewirements. These notes have merely scratched the surface of the history of passenger transport. Suffice is it to remind readers that passenger transport has always represented a loyal, warm and kindly cross section of our community; and one which, despite unsocial hours, irregular meals and public holidays including service in all weathers, remains at heart devoted to the service they render; in the best tradition and for whose acquaintance we are all the richer in spirit.
It is also interesting to recall that the Southdown Motor Services commenced operating with Tilling-Stevens Petrol Electric buses. These comprised a petrol engine driving a dynamo and an electric motor. To start, the accelerator was operated and the dynamo then drove the bus via the electric motor. The resulting ride was very smooth, there being no [...]. One disadvantage lay in travel through flooded lanes [...] short circuit due to flooding would cause the bus to stop abruptly at whatever speed attained. [...] had to be experienced to be appreciated.
Published by kind permission of the WEA Local History Group. Copyright is retained by the WEA and the author. Originally published in the 1980s under the title "Point Boy and the Power Station."