The involvement of St. Helens Corporation in the working of the local transport system commenced on 1st April 1897, when the 9½-mile single-line track operated by the St. Helens and District Tramways Company was purchased.
Construction of the line had first started in October 1880, under the St. Helens and District Tramways Act of 1879, and had been operated initially by horse trams, until, in 1883, the Company obtained powers to operate steam trams.
The introduction of steam was delayed, probably by lack of finance, and it was not until 1890 that steam trams began running.
By this time, the old Company had been purchased by a new Company, registered, however, in the same name, but finally trading as the New St. Helens and District Tramways Company.
Having purchased the tramway track, St. Helens Corporation obtained powers enabling it to increase and electrify the system. At the same time a new 21-year lease was agreed with the New St. Helens and District Tramways Company.
The first electric tram ran on 20th July 1899 over the Dentons Green route and other sections quickly followed. Connections with the South Lancashire Tramways system, at Haydock, and the Liverpool and Prescot Light Railway, at Brooks Bridge, were made in1902.
In 1914 the Company tried to renegotiate a new lease, but failed, consequently little investment in the system took place after this.
When the lease on the system expired in 1919, the Corporation took over and set about refurbishing the fleet. Eight new cars were ordered, but, in the aftermath of the Great War, manufacturers faced severe difficulties meeting orders.
As a result, the new tramcars did not arrive until 1921, joining the 36 taken over from the Company in 1919.
The St. Helens Corporation Act of 1921 granted powers to run motorbuses and trolleybuses, although it was 1923 before the Corporation commenced services, hastened, no doubt, by the intrusion of Ribble Motor Services and Lancashire United Transport into the area.
The first routes opened on the 17th August 1923 between Holme Road, Eccleston and Ormskirk Street, and to Washway Lane, Haresfinch, using a single Guy BA.
At this time the question of licensing was in the hands of the local authorities and in 1925 the Corporation imposed restrictions on private operators, including Ribble Motor Services, in order to protect their trams and buses from competition.
In June 1927 the Corporation purchased the St. Helens and District Motor Service Company, which had been set up in 1915, with a little persuasion from the Corporation, to provide transport services in areas lacking access to the tramway system. Eight vehicles and a garage were involved.
By 1924, the state of the tramway track between Prescot and Rainhill was giving cause for concern; heavy road traffic along this route was causing undue wear and tear on the lines.
Consideration was given to replacing the trams with trolleybuses and a Provisional Order was obtained in 1924, but in the event only the section between Nutgrove and Prescot was converted.
Four single-deck Garrett trolleybuses inaugurated the route on 11th July 1927. Such was the public response that it was decided to convert the Parr route and this was taken over by trolleybuses on 30th July 1929.
A jointly operated bus service with Lancashire United, between St. Helens and Earlestown, commenced on the 1st September 1927, and on 28th June 1928, a joint service with Ribble and Lancashire United, serving Warrington and Southport, started.
Because of the scale of St. Helens Corporation’s operations (unusually for a municipal undertaking, St. Helens held a tours and excursions licence), which reached as far afield as Blackpool, agreement was sought by the local independent operators for a restriction on these activities, which posed a threat to their livelihood.
The outcome gave the Corporation the right to run buses unchallenged within a ten-mile radius of the town hall, while the private hire and excursion trade was left to the local operators.
In March 1929 the Corporation decided to renumber the entire fleet, with numbers 1-49 being allocated to the tram fleet, 50-100 to the motorbus fleet and 101 onwards to the trolleybus fleet.
Over the years St. Helens renumbered vehicles in its fleet several times until in 1954 a system using a prefix letter was adopted. This remained in use until 1965 when it was discontinued. Single-deck vehicles, however, were not allocated a prefix.
Although the bus network had been developed substantially over the first few years, the tramway remained the mainstay of the transport system in the early twenties.
In April 1927 a through service to Wigan commenced, jointly with the South Lancashire Tramways Company and a through service to Liverpool was proposed.
However, Liverpool Corporation was against the idea, claiming difficulties arose through a variety of reasons. St. Helens duly applied for licences to run buses, at first by an extension of the Prescot service and then later jointly with Lancashire United.
Liverpool refused the applications and the matter was referred to the Minister of Transport, but eventually dismissed.
In 1930 local authority licensing was taken out of their hands and placed under the jurisdiction of Traffic Commissioners, which helped to bring the parties together, wary of an imposed settlement.
By 1931, St. Helens ran bus services to Liverpool, jointly with several operators, including Ribble, Lancashire United and Wigan Corporation.
Plans to extend the Dentons Green trolleybus route to Eccleston in 1933 fell foul of Whiston Rural District Council, who opposed the erection of trolley wires in Eccleston, and, as a result, only part of the route was served by trolleybuses.
However, as the tramway system was slowly abandoned, both trolleybuses and their motorbus counterparts were employed on replacement services.
The final tram ran in service to Prescot on the 31st March 1936 and the following day trolleybuses commenced a circular replacement service, although Liverpool Corporation trams still served Prescot, on St. Helens owned track, for another 13 years.
In 1939, the first year of the Second World War, fuel economies were demanded of motorbus operators, although trolleybuses were exempt. This resulted in severe cuts to the bus services in St. Helens and some services were withdrawn altogether.
In time these proved to be too severe and some routes had to be re-opened. During the War, vehicles were dispersed at night to minimize the danger from aerial attack.
As it happened, St. Helens largely escaped serious damage during the War, but the condition of the vehicles, especially some of the older trolleybuses, deteriorated badly from the effects of the weather.
Some renovation work was carried out in 1942 and ten trolleybuses built on chassis intended for export to Johannesburg were diverted to St. Helens by the War Department. Ten utility Guy Arab II’s were also delivered during the war years.
Following the cessation of hostilities, St. Helens Corporation set out to improve and increase the services. In 1947 additional parking space was opened at Jackson Street, and a route numbering system was introduced for bus services.
Improvements were made to the trolleybus infrastructure, which necessitated an increased power supply, provided by four additional sub-stations.
A half-hourly service to Speke was inaugurated in February 1947, operated jointly with Crosville Motor Services, which brought their buses into St. Helens for the first time.
The postwar housing developments led to increased demands on the public transport sector and the closure of the Widnes to Rainford railway line, which served St. Helens, in 1951, initiated a phase of new and increased services.
In 1951, however, the General Manager submitted a report to the Transport Committee, concerning the trolleybus system, the infrastructure of which was nearing the end of its useful life.
The costs of replacing the wiring were considered, but found not to be justified, since buses duplicated most of the trolleybus workings and the system could be temporarily maintained by cannibalizing other sections of wire.
In the circumstances the Council decided upon a gradual replacement of the trolleybuses by buses and an initial date for full withdrawal was set for 1962.
In the event, by 1958 only the Prescot Circle service was left and this was converted to motorbus operation on the 30th June of that year.
The decline in passenger numbers, experienced by many transport undertakings in the early fifties, also affected St. Helens Corporation. In 1956 over 60 million passengers were carried, however, in the following years there was a steady decline in numbers.
The closure of many of the local collieries and the gradual decline of industry throughout the area also contributed so that the regular net surplus generated by the transport system became a regular net deficit.
Staff shortages also caused great problems and prompted the Corporation to revise some services accordingly. The unreliable nature of the services coupled with the rise of the motor car led to even more passenger losses.
By 1967, passenger numbers were down to just over 43 million a year and the Corporation introduced one-man operation as a method of combating the difficulties.
Three 1963 Marshall-bodied AEC Reliance’s were converted for one-man operation and they were introduced in April 1967 on the 22 (Eccleston-Sutton) and 79 (St. Helens-Rainhill Stoops) routes.
Subsequently the Corporation pursued a policy of acquiring high capacity single-deck vehicles suitable for one-man operation and a number of AEC Swifts were purchased to fulfill this role.
The Transport Act of 1968 was brought in to help rectify some of the problems facing bus operators at the time.
It also allowed for the creation of Passenger Transport Executives, Merseyside PTE being one of the first so designated. St. Helens, however, lay outside the PTE catchment area for the time being, although some of its operational areas, such as Prescot, fell within the PTE’s jurisdiction.
The Local Government Act of 1972 created the new Merseyside County, which included the boroughs of St. Helens and Southport.
As a consequence, on the 1st April 1974, the transport undertakings of these two municipal undertakings were absorbed into the Merseyside PTE, and at midnight on the 31st March 1974, St. Helens Corporation Transport passed into history.
In producing this history reference has been made to the following sources;
Directory of British Tramways (Keith Turner, PSL 1996); Local Transport in St. Helens 1879-1974 (Maund & Ashton:Venture 1995); PSV Circle Fleet History PC22 (1989).