"A Chat on a Cable Car", written by the Reverend John P. Hobson, MA, describes a ride on the Brixton Cable Tramway. It was published in the The Leisure Hour in 1902-1903.
"A Chat on a Cable Car"
Any one who travels by the tramcars from Blackfriars or Westminster Bridge to Streatham has noticed that soon after passing Kennington Gate and entering upon the Brixton Boad a longer pause than usual is made. The horses are taken out, and a machine is run under the car with a sudden jerk. Shortly afterwards the car proceeds upon its way without any visible means of locomotion. The "machine" is a gripper which is fastened beneath the car and grips a cable by which you are carried along. Before entering upon a description of the cable and its working, we will mount the stairs of the car and take a place upon one of the garden-seats. We will keep our eyes open to notice the points of interest, and there ought to be several, for the road upon which you pass is part of the old Watling Street, running from Richborough to London Stone. As you look around you see houses, houses everywhere. A few old trees, however, may be the last remains of the country that once was here. Bishop Montgomery, in his (History of Kennington (p. 80), prints a letter describing this part of the road. "From Kenning Common to the 'White Horse' (on the Brixton Boad), an old inn where coaches pulled up, were houses and cottages upon the right; but on the left was farm-land with old farm-buildings and sheds. The river Effra ran between the farm and the road. A little hamlet had grown up around the 'White Horse,' and beyond it were detached cottages and houses on the left, beyond the Effra, and on the right a park, called in those days Angell Park, with noble trees and an old red-brick mansion enclosed by an undulating bank, with trees and rustic fencing. A horse-pond in the park ran through the hedge into the road for the use of the passers-by." (George Buckler, of 107 Camberwell New Road, April 23, 1885.) In Cranmer Road are still to be seen old parts of houses which formed portions of the old farm-buildings which could be seen from the Brixton Road when there were no other houses near them (History of Kennington, p. 83).
In proof of the rural character of the Brixton Boad I notice in a Guide to London of 1818, in the list of villages near London, "Brixton Causeway" is mentioned, and it is said "a town has lately sprung up from the neighbouring brickfields." " People are still living," says a writer in The Free Press Almanac for 1889, "who remember when Brixton was a rural district, and when there was no church between Lambeth and Streatham except a small chapel-of-ease at Stockwell, now known as St. Andrews' Church ; and old couples still relate how on pleasant evenings they strolled from Kennington through the Brixton fields, or along the course of the Effra to the charming village of Dulwich, or took the shady side of Coldharbour Lane to Myatt's fields, to regale themselves upon strawberries, for which that part of the neighbourhood was at one time famous."
But now to our car again. Soon after we have started you see upon your right an oriental building in course of construction. Please do not ask, as some have done, if it is a Mohammedan mosque. It is Christ Church, where ministers the popular clergyman, Rev. W. R. Mowll.
As you pass on will you look carefully at No. 168? for in the garden of this house stood the box of the last London "Charlie" -- one of the ancient watchmen who guarded the interests of the inhabitants before the reign of the police. He and his box were maintained long after his services had come to an end. But soon he passed away, and his box followed him, though it was standing till about 1875.
Look ! That house on the left is the "Old White Horse," already referred to. A pleasant ride takes us to Brixton station, ever busy with flower-sellers, who are well patronised by the crowds who throng the streets. Just past the bridge is Atlantic Road, which takes its name, so I have been informed, from the fact that there were marshes here connected with the river Effra, and in these marshes stood a pool somewhat larger than the rest, which a wag facetiously dubbed "The Atlantic." The name stuck. And Atlantic Road recognises the size of the pond and the wit of the wag.
The next point to notice is Effra Road. This reminds us that the river Effra at one time ran along by the side of the Brixton Road. It was kept in its place by a bank on the side of the houses, but was left unprotected on the road side, which it often overflowed, hence the part from Canterbury Road to Kennington was called the Washway. The river passed South Island Place, then ran by the gallows which stood upon the site of St. Mark's Church, Kennington, and then fell into the Thames near Vauxhall. There is a tradition that Queen Elizabeth rowed up the Effra in a barge when she came to visit Sir Walter Raleigh. A lady, who till quite lately resided in Brixton Road, told me she could recall the days when boats sometimes came up the Effra past her house.
At the corner of Effra Road is St. Matthew's Church, one of the four churches erected by Parliament as a thank-offering for the peace of 1815 after the battle of Waterloo. The old terminus of the tram line was at Water Lane, about six hundred yards higher up. It was up to about this point that the line ran until the year 1892. Beyond this point Brixton Hill and then Streatham Hill extend for one and a half miles, with a rise in one part of 1 in 20. This is too steep for horses, and so in the year mentioned the cable system was applied, and carried the cars from Kennington changing-place to Streatham power-station. In 1895 the further extension to Streatham village was completed and opened.
The name Raleigh which we see frequently on the left as we pass up Brixton Hill recalls the fact -- or is it only a legend ? -- that Sir Walter Raleigh lived here. A little beyond Brixton Church on the right is Ivy House, where it is said Queen Bess used to stay. At the back of the house is a street which used to bear the name of Elizabeth Street, so called obviously after the Queen. We have now mounted Brixton Hill, a rise of one hundred feet. A little further on we pass the power-station which works the cable on the left. The large building reached just before it is the St. Pancras Auxiliary Workhouse. A few yards before we arrive at Streatham Hill railway station is a beautiful estate stretching back on the left. In it is Leigham Court. An avenue leads from an iron gate, large cedar trees are seen in the grounds. In the house lived Mr. Treadwell, a rich contractor. He was in early life a navvy, and had by his skill and industry raised himself. Nor was he ashamed of his humble origin. His spade and pick, brightened up, used to hang in the hall of the house. Now the estate is, in another sense, in the hands of the contractor. Norfolk House, Streatham, is also worth mention as a typical example of a country mansion.
The line dips down to Streatham Terminus. Why does it stop here ? Well, the reason is that the High Street beyond is at present too narrow to allow of the tram lines being laid. The C. C. (County Council - JT) is, however, considering the advisability of extending the tram lines to the county boundary at Norbury, to which point the Croydon tramways run. Such extension will involve extensive street widenings. The motive power will be electricity on the conduit system, which will before long replace both horse and cable traction on the Council's lines.
It will repay you to go on to Streatham and see the picturesque church, the site where stood till 1863 Thrale Place, of Johnsonian memory, and the dip down to Croydon, but we must keep to the tram lines, so we will mount again. Soon we are gliding quickly down the hill, which tests the strength of the brakes of the car. Here we are again at the working-station. Let us get down. We are armed with an order which Mr. Baker, the courteous manager of the London County Council Tramways Department, has given me, and so we can walk in. We mount the slope, up and down which the cars are run by a special cable. We are met by the engineer, who is good enough to show us over.(1) We arrive at the shed where about twenty cars are standing ready to be used. At the end of the shed is a platform on to which the cars are run, and then by means of a mechanical lift are raised to a floor above, where a further supply of cars can be stored. At this depot thirty-nine cars are kept, twenty-eight are stored elsewhere, so that when in full work sixty-seven cars are on the line running from Streatham to London. In the busy part of the day the service to any one of the three London termini, i. e. Westminster, Blackfriars, or Lord Wellington, is every two minutes, at other times three minutes. The cars run in the following order: yellow to Lord Wellington, blue to Blackfriars, red to Westminster. They carry forty-four or forty-eight persons each, according as they are built on the old or new pattern. The latter have the end walls placed diagonally to the sides, and so get much more platform space and greater seating room. It will thus be seen that 3000 passengers could be carried at one time all the way. As the car takes about two hours to go to its destination and back, and runs for about sixteen hours, the total number of passengers would be 24,000 if the cars were always full and if the passengers travelled all the way. The number getting in and out on the journey far exceeds the empty places, so that the actual number travelling is about 37,000 a day or 13,500,000 in the year.
Our guide takes us to the engine-room, where four double-furnace water-tube boilers are placed, three of which are at work producing steam to drive the engines in the shed hard by. Light and spacious this is. In the centre revolve the enormous wheels which carry the power to the steel ropes. The wheels are worked by an engine of 600 horse-power. Another engine of the same power stands idle on the other side of the shed ready for use. On the left of the building, running over several wheels, is the London cable. It is 30,000 feet long, 1 1/8 inch in diameter, and weighs five tons to the mile. It takes forty minutes to accomplish its journey to Kennington and back, or, in other words, its speed is eight miles an hour. The cables run in a conduit about two feet deep made under the two lines.
When going on the straight they pass over vertical pulleys or sheaves twelve inches in diameter, and about fifty feet apart. When turning curves they run round horizontal pulleys of the same diameter, and at intervals in proportion to the curves. Near this cable stands a second ready for use if the other should break. The life of a cable varies, sometimes its work is over in eighteen months. One cable lasted as long as two years and five months. This one rope must have hauled some 24,500,000 passengers. The chief danger is that a strand of the rope breaks, the gripper through which it passes then causing it to pucker up, and soon, of course, the car comes to a standstill. What happens is similar to the unravelling of a piece of string, with a result that the tube gets choked up by the unravelled portion being carried forward by the gripper. The replacing of an old cable is effected in a very simple manner. The old rope is cut; the new one is spliced to it, and for the last time the old one goes on its journey, dragging its successor after it. When the end of the new cable appears it is spliced on to the other end, and thus takes up its burden of work in place of the old one which has been run off on to a drum. This change is effected in a night. It is not always necessary to replace the whole of a cable when the damaged or worn portion is only small; the damaged portion is cut out, and a piece of spare cable is spliced in its place.
The Streatham cable is of the same thickness as the London cable, but is only about 10,000 feet in length. The total length of the two cables is seven and a half miles, and they weigh forty tons. Near where the London cable finds its way out into the street is an ingenious arrangement to regulate the pressure on the rope. It consists of a weight equal to four tons attached to one of the wheels over which the rope runs, and it keeps that rope taut, and thus counterbalances any slackness there may be upon the rope at any given time, by reason of fewer cars happening to be upon it. "Would you like to go below? " asks our guide.
"Yes, certainly, we should like to see all there is to see." So we descend some steps. "Take care, stoop."
You are passing under the Streatham cable, and it runs close beside you as you walk along a narrow passage. You turn aside under one or two arches, and arrive at the pit built under the road in front of the working-station. This pit is eighty-one feet long, twelve feet broad, and eight feet high. It is lit with electricity. In it are large pulleys about twenty-eight feet in periphery, or 9.3 in diameter, which carry the ropes round into the road to begin their work. As the grippers have here to be transferred from one cable to the other, the cables overlap for a short distance. The London rope runs round a wheel at the south end of the pit, while the Streatham runs over a wheel at the north end. When a car arrives at this point it stops. The gripper is opened, and the rope hitherto used is released and the other one is pulled up into the place it occupied, and the car goes on its way. We could see this process at work from underneath, the car being directly over our heads.
We will now turn back; but be careful, for if you touched the rope running so steadily by you, you would receive a terrible wound.
At the gate we saw one of the grippers lying against the wall. The gripper when at work runs in the slot which extends the whole length of the line. The part above ground consists of a carriage which is thrust beneath the car, and fits under its centre, together with a long arm which is attached to the platform of the car, and is worked by a wheel. When the wheel is turned one way the jaws of the gripper are opened downwards, leaving a space of two inches, into which the rope is drawn. By moving it the other way the driver tightens the gripper upon the rope, and so the car is drawn smoothly on. Sometimes a second or two elapses before the rope is actually gripped, and the racing of the rope through the gripper causes a vibration which is very noticeable. The employment of these grippers in place of the old gripper cars which, fastened to the front of the cars, dragged them along, has had the effect of reducing the rolling-stock by one half, and in consequence has reduced the straining upon the rope, and the amount of wear and tear upon the permanent way.
We thank our guide who has so kindly shown us over, and stepping out into the road, we watch the cars with an interest all the greater, because we now have some idea of the great force and skill which are needed to send them along their smooth and pleasant way. Let us mount again and go as far as Vassal Road. The road is shaded on both sides with beautiful trees, and you will, I think, admit that from Vassal Road to the terminus at Streatham Library you have been carried pleasantly along as pretty a bit of road as you will find on any of the highways which lead out of London. Tall, stately trees standing in the gardens of pleasant-looking houses overhang the road nearly all the way. Others think so too. For on sunny days many persons who cannot afford a carriage drive -- and some who can -- will climb up to the top of a Streatham Hill tramcar and will go all the way to the terminus, and keeping their seats, will ride back, for the sake of the air, and the pleasant scenery, and the outing, and will feel themselves well repaid for the little outlay they have made.
Note.-- Since the above was put into type considerable advance has been made in the direction of the use of electricity. That motive power is now in full working order on the Tooting tram roads. And the line has been electrified as far as Handforth Road on the Brixton Road. At this point a new wheel as large as that at the powerstation at Streatham Hill has been set up to carry the cable. Probably by the time this article is issued new cars to hold fifty-six passengers will be running, with electricity as their motive power, from the London termini as far as Handforth Road, thence propelled by the cable southward. The Streatham end of the line is still unconnected with the electric line to Croydon.
(1) A good deal of the information in this paper is from the lips of the engineer; other figures are taken from The Railway World for 1896, kindly lent by the editor. The whole has passed under the eye of the manager of the L. C. C. Tramways Department, who has given every facility to obtain information.
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