Horse buses are recorded serving Rochdale as early as 1796, when a twice-weekly horse-drawn coach to Manchester, via the neighbouring town of Bury, was withdrawn due to lack of patronage.
In 1824 the ‘Royal Mail’ passenger coach ran nightly, continuing on to Halifax, Bradford, Leeds and York.
Early records of horsebuses in Rochdale are from 1856 onwards, but by 1870 a number of horsebus services were operating, mainly from local hotels, such as; from the Spread Eagle, Cheetham Street to Bacup 6 times daily; from the Roebuck, Yorkshire Street to Heywood and Bury 3 times daily; and from the White Hart, St. Mary’s Gate to Norden, Smallbridge and Littleborough 3 times daily.
In 1882 initial work started on the construction of a steam tramway (horse-drawn trams never having reached Rochdale) under the auspices of the grandly named Manchester, Bury, Rochdale and Oldham Steam Tramways Company Limited, the first sections of route, along Oldham Road and to Littleborough, opening on 7th May 1883.
Due to a whim of the local council the Rochdale track was narrow gauge (3ft 6ins), whilst the remainder of the MBR&O system was standard gauge.
The Company, however, struggled to comply with their commitments under the 1870 Tramways Act, which required them to keep the section of road between, and to each side of the tramway track, in good repair.
In October 1887 the Company went into liquidation, only to re-emerge in 1888 as the Bury, Rochdale and Oldham Steam Tramways Company Limited.
The Rochdale Corporation Act of 1900 gave the Corporation the powers to operate tramways within the borough, and a decision was made to construct and operate an electric tramway in preference to the steam tramway, which, by this time, had become outmoded.
The Corporation commenced negotiations with the Bury, Rochdale and Oldham Company for the purchase of its track and operations within the borough.
The first Rochdale Corporation route was opened on 22nd May 1902 with just one single-deck car, along a short section of Bury Road to the Cemetery.
On the 17th June another section to Norden, via Spotland Road and Edenfield Road was opened, followed on 21st July by a short branch line to Spotland. By this time Rochdale had fallen in with surrounding authorities and was building its tramways to the standard gauge (4ft 8½ins).
Negotiations with the BR&O Steam Tramways Company became protracted and subsequent conversions and extensions were delayed.
In 1904, however, final settlement in the sum of £74,769 was made and Rochdale Corporation was free to commence wholesale replacement of the former steam tram routes.
The Station Circular route was constructed and the electrified sections of former steam routes along Oldham Road and to Firgrove, Sudden and Whitworth were opened. The last steam-hauled route to Littleborough was converted to electric traction in May 1905.
As was the practice at the time, Rochdale Corporation’s initial intake of trams was something of a mixed bag.
Six different trams were ordered, replacement orders being subject to a satisfactory trial. No.1 was an ERTCW bogie single-decker (which operated the first electric traction service on 22nd May 1902), No.2 an ERTCW bogie double-deck open-topper, No.3 an ERTCW single-truck double-deck open-topper, and Nos.4-6 were Milnes open-top double-deckers with various bogie types.
Several non-operating urban district councils constructed tramway tracks within their boundaries and granted Rochdale Corporation the lease to operate trams on their behalf.
Bacup Corporation extended the line from Whitworth to Britannia and Rochdale maintained a small, two-car depot there.
The line was opened on 25th July 1911. Milnrow UDC constructed the extension from Firgrove to Milnrow (opened 12th December 1911) and on to New Hey (opened 1st March 1912).
The agreement with Heywood UDC, however, was unusual, in that it provided for the purchase and payment of working expenses of two Rochdale cars, which, would give Heywood the right to receive revenue from journeys within the borough and to issue its own tickets.
The two cars would operate in Rochdale livery and be, to all intents and purposes, owned by Rochdale Corporation.
By this time Rochdale had built up a network of routes within the town and had a number of radial routes serving neighbouring towns, including Oldham, which, due to a low bridge on the Oldham Road route, prevented the operation of top-covered trams.
Oldham Corporation severed the route, rather than allow its townsfolk to travel in open-top cars!
Unlike other areas the tramway network had no serious competition from motorbuses until July 1924, when the crimson and cream buses of Ribble Motor Services Limited, operating from Blackburn, arrived in the town.
Two months later another Ribble route from Burnley was inaugurated.
Rochdale Corporation was not slow to respond, and the Rochdale Corporation Act of 1925 granted the Corporation the rights to operate motorbuses.
On the 15th June 1925, Rochdale Corporation, along with the Middleton and Chadderton authorities, agreed to buy the tramway system of the Middleton Electric Tramways Company for £79,000.
Middleton’s share of the line was leased to Manchester Corporation, and Chadderton’s to Oldham Corporation.
The tramway was subsequently merged into Rochdale Corporation’s network of services and, for the first time, through running to Manchester was possible.
Although Rochdale Corporation had provided Milnrow with its tram service, Milnrow would not, at first, allow Rochdale to operate buses within its boundaries.
As a result, the first motorbus service was to Castleton, via Deeplish on the 17th March 1926, followed soon after by services to Healey, Wardle, Jericho (on the Bury boundary, connecting with Bury’s tram service) and Turf Hill.
Rochdale Corporation’s first buses were Guy and Dennis saloons, followed in 1930 by double-deck vehicles, whose improved design and reliability, along with the increased cost of track repairs, led to the Corporation’s decision to abandon the tramways in favour of the new motorbuses (the first, major north-west municipal authority to do so).
The tramway livery of dark brown and pale yellow was initially adopted for use on the new motorbuses but from 1937 onwards a blue and cream livery was introduced, which remained in use until 1961 when it was reversed to facilitate spray painting.
Manchester operated a system of cross-city express services, which reached into the surrounding areas, and Rochdale co-operated on two routes, which operated between Littleborough and Altrincham, and Bacup and Flixton.
The popularity of the express services soon attracted the attention of several independent operators; notably the Rochdale based Yelloway Motor Services, who commenced an express service from Rochdale to Manchester via Royton.
Rochdale Corporation introduced two more local services in July 1927, to Syke, and a Circular route. Later that year, in December, the Bury Road route was joined with Bury Corporation’s Jericho working to give a through service to Bury via Bury Road.
In January 1928 a through service to Todmorden was introduced and in February 1928 the Ashton to Rochdale via Oldham route was inaugurated.
In August 1930, Rochdale decided to abandon the Norden, Bamford and Spotland sections of its tramway system, at the same time, arrangements were made to take on the tramway debts of the surrounding authorities into which Rochdale had run, on condition that all other operators were excluded.
As a consequence of the continuing tramway abandonment and the involvement with Manchester, Rochdale followed Manchester’s lead in numbering its bus services in late 1930, when cross-town bus routes were pioneered.
The bus network was increased during the early part of the decade with the services to Spotland, Thornham, Turf Hill, Healey and New Hey all being extended further.
By mid-1932 only the jointly operated tram service to Manchester remained and on 12th November 1932 that too finally ceased operation.
In 1937 the livery of monestral blue with cream window surrounds and domes, with black lining out dipping on the front upper deck panels to just above the forward cab window to provide an almost completely cream front, was introduced.
The first vehicles to have the new livery were nos. 135-139, 1937 Cravens-bodied AEC Regents. AEC was to remain the major bus supplier to the Corporation (apart from a batch of Daimler CRG6’s in 1953) until the rear-engined Daimler Fleetline was introduced in 1964.
In July 1944, Yelloway Motor Services decided to dispose of its express service to Manchester and Rochdale Corporation (along with Manchester and Oldham) took over operation of the service.
Several Yelloway vehicles were involved in the deal and Rochdale received three, two 1931 AEC Regals and a 1938 Leyland TD5.
Following the end of the Second World War the new traffic manager initiated further service development and the Manchester style of destination blind layout was also adopted around this time.
The Manchester to Bamford route was extended to Bagslate on the 2nd March 1947, the local Rochdale to Bamford route diverted along War Office Road, and the Sandy Lane to Bury Road section abandoned in favour of the Greave to Wardle service which ran over the same road.
The new estate at Kirkholt was provided with a service on 2nd January 1949 and on 2nd May two rush-hour only express services to Manchester, via Middleton or Royton commenced.
At the same time the ex-Yelloway express service was curtailed just beyond Chadderton centre.
After this Rochdale Corporation services received only minor alterations, to serve new estates at Mettle Cote and Wallbank and there followed a substantial period of consolidation until 1967, when a white paper entitled ‘Public Transport and Traffic’ was published.
This later became the 1968 Transport Act, which provided for the creation of Passenger Transport Authorities in the recently established metropolitan counties.
The Passenger Transport Authorities were made up of members of local councils drawing on the policies of each local undertaking. Under their control were the Passenger Transport Executives, who would be the professionals responsible for running the local services.
Rochdale would receive no compensation for its vehicles or premises, since they were handed over to another joint local authority.
At midnight on the 31st October 1969 Rochdale Corporation Transport ceased to exist and the following day, 1st November 1969, it became part of the PTE’s South East Lancashire and North East Cheshire (SELNEC) combined fleet of 2,526 vehicles, the largest of the four PTA’s.
In producing this history reference has been made to the following sources;
The Directory of British Tramways (Keith Turner, PSL 1996); The History of Bury Corporation Transport 1903-1969 (T. Fish, unpublished research); PSV Circle Fleet History PC24 (1998).