Brompton Tram Crash: 30th October 1902
The Medway tram system was in operation from 17 June 1902 to 30 September 1930, and was operated by the Chatham and District Light Railway Co. The first tram services were wholly within Chatham and Gillingham, but after initial opposition from Rochester, were extended there and to Strood by 1905. The final extension to Rainham occurred in 1906, giving almost 15 miles of track throughout the Medway Towns.
Of the first four routes started in June 1902, two passed through Brompton: Luton to Pembroke Gate via Dock Road and St. Mary’s Vale; and Chatham Station to Victoria Bridge, Gillingham, via Westcourt Street. By 1908 the original routes had been changed slightly and expanded with five of the eight new routes going via Brompton:
- Frindsbury to Gillingham Green via Rochester, Chatham Town Hall and Brompton.
- Strood Hill to Gillingham Green via Rochester, Chatham Town Hall and Brompton.
- Borstal to Gillingham Victoria Bridge via the Delce, Rochester, Chatham Town Hall and Brompton.
- Chatham Cemetery to Gillingham Victoria Bridge via Chatham Town Hall and Brompton.
- Chatham Railway Station to Brompton via Chatham Town Hall.
Service frequencies were 10-15 minutes but published time-tables showed only the beginning and end points of the route and the departure time at the start of the journey - it paid to know your local geography back then!
In 1927 the British Thompson-Houston Co sold its interest in the Chatham and District Light Railway Co to Maidstone & District. An Act of Parliament in 1929 authorised C&DLRC to run buses and to change its name to Chatham and District Traction Co. Buses could run over the existing tram routes and, with the council’s approval, anywhere within 12 miles of Chatham Town Hall. There would be protection from competition provided the company ran “adequate satisfactory services”. As a separate issue, the Road Traffic Act of 1930 created Traffic Areas in which Traffic Commissioners would regulate bus services. Thus Chatham & District’s bus services began on 1st October 1930, and the trams were consigned to the scrap heap.
The Chatham livery until 1927 was light grass green with ivory window panels and rocker panels. The green areas were lined in gold and the ivory areas were lined in green. In 1927 the livery was simplified. Cars were repainted in an unlined plain green and ivory livery, with fleet number appearing in a dull yellow instead of gold shaded blue.
From The Gillingham Chronicles, by Ronald A. Baldwin:
"At Westcourt Street two pilots were responsible for keeping the rails clean and sanded, and for driving the tram down the hill, ensuring the motorman obeyed the very strict speed limit of 3mph. However on 30 October 1902 the early morning tram left Gillingham Green loaded with dockyard workers bound for the Main Gate.
It was licensed to carry 50 people but that day there were about 70 passengers and the number standing on the top deck meant the vehicle was top heavy. It stopped at the top of Westcourt Street as usual, but there was no sign of the pilot. It had been raining very hard and the track was very greasy, but the workers, anxious to avoid delay, urged the driver to take the car downhill without the pilot. He set off, but was unable to control the speed and when they reached the left-hand turn of the track, the car overturned and crashed sideways into the wall of the dockyard police headquarters.
Police and sappers assisted in the rescue work but one youth was killed outright and three men died shortly after they reached hospital and, of the 64 men injured, 54 were detained in Melville Hospital, almost opposite the scene. Mr Lewington, a Labour councillor, opened a fund for the victims and their dependents; four months later he reported that the remaining balance of the fund would be shared between the widows and four men still seriously injured.
The Board of Trade enquiry attributed the accident largely to the driver’s lack of skill. Contrary to the regulations he had applied hand-operated wheel brakes which had locked the wheels; the track also had not been cleared and sanded by the pilot, but no fault was attributable to him as he did not officially start work until 6.40 a.m.
Apart from the overcrowding, it was discovered that the curve at the foot of the hill should have had a radius of 60 feet, but in fact was only 36 feet, and the outer rail was incorrectly lower than the inner. As a result, the track here was taken up and re-laid in Middle Street. A pair of heavy duty rubber gloves was placed in the sentry box at the Wood Street entrance to Brompton Barracks so that would-be rescuers in any subsequent accident could avoid the risk of electrocution. It is said that, many years after the tram era, gloves were still handed over at the change of sentry."
The truck and electrical equipment from the tram involved in the crash was re-used in the “Tram Depot Works Car” that was used for maintenance work on the tram system, having been constructed at the Luton (Chatham) Depot.