Horse buses were running in Birkenhead as early as 1848, when a service between the Woodside Ferry terminal and Oxton commenced.
Towards the end of the century the borough was well served, with buses running to Upton, Claughton Village, Bromborough and Charing Cross, with the last of these being inaugurated as late as 7th September 1903 by Thomas Peters with second-hand buses purchased from the bankrupt Birkenhead Carriage Company.
It ran from Seacombe Ferry to Charing Cross via Four Bridges, Watson Street and Exmouth Street, and continued to run until after the First World War, when it was replaced by the motor buses of the Birkenhead Motor Works.
On the 30th August 1860, Birkenhead saw the inauguration of Britain’s first street tramway. Pioneered by George Francis Train, an American entrepreneur, it ran from Woodside Ferry to Birkenhead Park, a distance of some 1½ miles, via Shore Road, Argyle Street and Conway Street.
The horse drawn tramway was operated by the Birkenhead Street Railway Company Limited, and the initial rolling stock consisted of two open-top double-deck cars (Nos. 1-2), and two single-deck saloon cars (Nos. 3-4), imported from America and assembled by local coachbuilder, Robert Main.
Despite opposition from local horse bus operators the line was a success and, in 1861 a 1-mile extension to Oxton, around Birkenhead Park via Park Road East, Park Road South and Palm Grove was opened.
In 1864, the tramway, which had now been extended to around 2½ miles with additional lines being laid in Price Street and Hamilton Street, was completely relaid to the standard 4ft 8½ ins gauge.
Another short length of track, between Woodside Ferry and the Dock station of the Hoylake Railway, was opened on 6th September 1873 by the Hoylake and Birkenhead Rail & Tramway Company.
It ran from the Ferry approach via Canning Street, Bridge Street, Cleveland Street and Beaufort Road to the railway station where it terminated at a covered interchange.
The line was single-track, built to the standard gauge of 4ft 8½ ins, and was worked by eight open-top double-deck cars built by Starbuck carrying the legend ‘The Hoylake Railway’.
The Birkenhead Street Railway Company was put up for sale in 1876 and a new company; the Birkenhead Tramways Company was formed to purchase it the following year, under the Birkenhead Tramways Act of 1877.
That same year, on 23rd July, another tramway opened. It ran between Woodside Ferry and New Ferry, via Chester Street, New Chester Road and New Ferry Road, and was operated by the Wirral Tramway Company Limited.
The initial Board of Trade inspection failed to pass the single-track line as fit for service (although services were commenced immediately and ran for some days before being halted), and it was not until November 1877 that it finally received approval and services re-commenced.
The initial rolling stock consisted of seven Starbuck single-deckers (Nos. 1-7), replaced in 1879 by seven longer cars, an obvious indication of the tramways success.
Double-deck cars were unable to operate throughout the route because of a low railway bridge over Chester Street, although four were purchased between 1894 and 1896, presumably operating on the longest section of the line, south of the low bridge towards New Ferry, which passed close to Tranmere Ferry pier and Laird’s shipyard.
In 1898 the Company started a horse bus service between New Ferry and Bromborough as an extension of the tram route.
In August 1878, the Birkenhead Tramways Company opened another section of track. It ran from Argyle Street to North Road, Prenton, along Brough Road, past Clifton Park and Higher Tranmere, a distance of 1½ miles.
The following year the Company purchased the neighbouring Hoylake and Birkenhead Tramway, but by the end of the next decade it was in financial trouble and in September 1888 went into liquidation.
On the 8th August 1888, the Birkenhead United Tramways, Omnibus and Carriage Company was formed to purchase it (at the same time acquiring the Birkenhead & District Omnibus and Carriage Company), the take-over being completed on the 15th August 1890.
The tramway track was purchased by Birkenhead Corporation and leased back to the Company until 31st December 1900, by which time the Birkenhead Corporation Act of 1897 had vested the Corporation with powers to operate their own tramway, and the Act of 1899 had authorised the purchase of the existing horse tramways in the borough.
On 8th May 1900 the last Wirral Tramway Company tramcars ran, with Birkenhead Corporation agreeing a price of £22,666 for the purchase of the system; electrification and reconstruction of the track taking place throughout that and the following year.
By the 24th January 1901, the horse tram services of the Birkenhead United Tramways Company had been acquired and on the 4th February 1901 Birkenhead Corporation Tramways commenced operations in its own right; the first electric traction route opened being the old Wirral Tramways route to New Ferry, followed shortly afterwards by a new route from Woodside Ferry to Bebington Road in Tranmere, opened on the 14th August 1901.
The initial rolling stock consisted of 13 single-deck tramcars (Nos. 1-13; necessary because of the low railway bridge that spanned Chester Street) and 31 open-top double-deckers (Nos. 14-44), all built by the local firm of G.F. Milnes and Co., whose works were situated at the junction of Cleveland Street and Charles Street.
On the 11th December 1905, the Mersey Railway Company started a motorbus service between Central Station and Slatey Road, travelling via Grange Road. It was later extended to Bidston Road, and then into a circular route with buses serving Oxton Road, Balls Road, Christchurch Road, Village Road and Wellington Road.
The venture was in response to the poor service afforded the railway company by the Corporation trams, which were perceived as favouring the ferry operators.
It was legally challenged by Birkenhead Corporation and had to be curtailed on 17th March 1906. The railway company duly instituted a new route between Rock Ferry Station and Port Sunlight on 16th May 1907, but a legal ruling by the House of Lords that the railway company had no powers to operate buses resulted in the cessation of the service on 8th July 1907.
The buses used were ten 34-seat open-top double-deck chain-driven Saurers (registered CM501-510), garaged on railway land at Argyle Street South.
In 1919 Birkenhead Corporation introduced its own motorbuses in the form of five 32-seat Leyland ‘O’ type vehicles (Nos. 1-5), with five similar vehicles (Nos. 6-10) arriving in 1920.
The livery was maroon and cream (as it was for the trams), which was changed in the early 1930’s to mid-blue and cream, probably to distinguish Corporation vehicles from those of Crosville Motor Services, who also used a maroon and cream livery.
The first service, which commenced on 12th July 1919, ran between Rock Ferry pier and Park Station, via Bedford Avenue, Bebington Road, Derby Road, Charing Cross and Park Road East. On the 30th August it was extended to serve Moreton Cross.
In 1920 two more services were started, from Charing Cross to Upton, via Claughton Village, on 14th July 1920, later extended to the Central Station, and from Rock Ferry Pier to Woodley, on 4th October 1920, extended to Port Sunlight on 12th March 1921.
Later that month, a joint service with neighbouring Wallasey Corporation between Seacombe and Charing Cross commenced, followed by two more joint services later in the year.
Other attempts to operate services outside the borough were thwarted by Crosville Motor Services who already operated a network of services around Birkenhead, although later an agreement between the two parties provided for a joint operational area, which allowed Birkenhead Corporation access to areas outside the borough.
Although it had been intended to operate the motorbuses as feeder services to the trams, on 30th August 1925, buses replaced the trams on the Claughton Road route.
This had been the least profitable of the tramway services, but heralded the demise of the Birkenhead tramway system. On the 28th December 1931, motorbuses, which had been operating along the New Ferry route since August 1930, replaced the trams completely.
The Tranmere route closed on the 29th September 1934, and the Prenton route the following day.
On the 1st April 1935 the Docks service (the old Hoylake and Birkenhead Rail and Tramway Company route), ceased operation, leaving only the circular route through Claughton Village and Oxton. On the 17th July 1937, the final service tram (No. 31) ran, marking the end of the tramway era in Birkenhead.
Meanwhile the bus network had continued to expand. In 1926, after agreement with Crosville Motor Services had been reached, Corporation buses began to serve Arrowe Park, Upton and Moreton.
New housing development taking place in 1928 resulted in the expansion of services in the Woodchurch area, and services to Bebington commenced in March 1929.
Co-operation on joint services with Wallasey Corporation continued in 1929, when the Seacombe to Charing Cross route was extended at both ends to serve New Brighton and New Ferry.
In 1930, the Corporation allowed Crosville Motor Services access to Woodside Ferry, which had previously been denied, and in return received operating rights on routes to Eastham, Bromborough and Heswall, necessitating an immediate increase in fleet size.
New vehicles delivered in 1929 and 1930 were of Leyland manufacture, with the Leyland TD1 making up the bulk of the purchases. In 1932 the tram depot at New Ferry was rebuilt to house fifty buses.
Throughout the decade the motorbus network was consolidated, with services being extended or newly introduced to cater for the construction of new housing estates. The fleet included a number of single-deck vehicles and low-height double-deckers for use on routes with low bridges.
With the onset of World War II in 1939 and the subsequent fuel restrictions, the level of services was greatly reduced. Damage to Laird Street depot was suffered on the night of 21st December 1940, and again on 12th March 1941, with a considerable number of buses being damaged or destroyed.
During the war a joint service with Liverpool Corporation, via the Mersey Tunnel, replaced the ferry services, which had been suspended because of the risk of mines.
After the cessation of hostilities the fleet was in need of replacement, but because of the postwar demands on the chassis manufacturers this proved to be a slow process and a number of vehicles were rebuilt or re-bodied as a temporary measure.
Birkenhead did, however, receive a number of wartime deliveries; Nos. 319-354 were Guy Arab II chassis delivered between 1943 and 1946 with austerity bodies, that did not wear well, and Nos. 323-337 received new all-metal Massey bodies in 1953, which enabled them to give another 16 years service.
More joint services with Wallasey Corporation were introduced from 1947, providing the local inhabitants with a concentrated network of services between the two boroughs and access to the resort at New Brighton and to the countryside of the Wirral Peninsula.
The first 8ft wide buses were delivered in 1951. Nos. 206-225 (ABG806-825) were Leyland Titan PD2/3’s with Leyland H31/26R bodywork.
Throughout the remaining years of the 1950’s, in common with most other operators, the level of passengers began to decline and some services were curtailed or withdrawn altogether, although this was partly offset by the development of new housing, especially the Woodchurch Estate in the early part of the decade.
In 1955 the title of the undertaking became Birkenhead Municipal Transport.
Despite the advent of rear-engined vehicles, Birkenhead Transport remained a firm supporter of the traditional exposed radiator half-cab bus and continued to order vehicles of this design until 1968, although a batch of Daimler Fleetlines was purchased in 1964.
By 1969 with costs spiralling, it was envisaged that a move to one-man operation would be more economical than traditional crew-operated vehicles, however, with the formation of the Merseyside Passenger Transport Executive on the 1st December 1969, Birkenhead Transport was absorbed, together with the neighbouring fleets of Wallasey and Liverpool Corporations, bringing to an end almost 70 years of locally controlled municipal operations in Birkenhead.
In producing this history reference has been made to the following sources;
The Directory of British Tramways (Keith Turner, PSL 1996); Birkenhead Electric Tramways 1901-1937 (Ryecroft, Eaton Press, 1993); The Birkenhead Bus (Maund, Eaton Press, 1994); PSV Circle Fleet List PC18A (1985).