THE LIVERPOOL OVERHEAD RAILWAY
Our June 2014 talk - reviewed by Mike Chitty
Mike Murphy paid us a return visit on 2nd June. His topic this time was the Liverpool Overhead Railway - the 'Dockers' Umbrella'. Why was it built? How was it built? Why was it removed?
Mike explained the problems that emerged during the 19th century as Liverpool's dock system was extended both north and south of the Pier Head and the road alongside it became more and more congested. The Dock Board's engineer had been sent to New York City to look at the elevated railroad which had opened in 1870, but the influential shipowner Alfred Holt was not keen. It was William Forwood who in 1889 was instrumental in obtaining a private Act of Parliament to allow a 5½ mile overhead railway to be built.
Building the railway was not easy. Disruption to the port had to be minimised, and it took 3½ years in all. Although largely overhead, it had to be at ground level at one point (the 'Bramley Moore Switchback') as there was already a high-level coal line in place. There were 15 stations originally - some of them only 300 yds apart - their facilities being dependent on the type of person expected to use them. Only a few were heated. Similarly the trains offered upholstered seats to the 1st class passengers but wooden benches to those in the 3rd class carriages.
The trains travelled at the 'breakneck speed' of 14mph. They were electrically powered - to avoid the danger of sparks from steam engines igniting nearby cargoes - and the signalling system was so efficient that there was no interruption to the service even in the thickest of fogs. By 1897 the line had been extended to Seaforth in the north and Dingle (an underground station) in the south. Only one serious accident was recorded: a fire in the Dingle tunnel in 1901.
Colourful 'birds eye view' posters promoted the line as a tourist attraction as well as a means of transporting dockers to their places of work. At weekends, visitors could combine their ride with a ferry trip or a Huskisson Dock liner tour. All in all, the L.O.R. Company was regarded as a 'vast commercial success'.
It was the Second World War that marked a turning point in the line's fortunes. The railway was hit 12 times during the blitz, four of the incidents being regarded as 'major'. The structure was repaired promptly, but not always well. In 1954 an inspection revealed that £2 million needed to be spent. An appeal for funds was not well received; the shipowners were reluctant to help and the City Council refused to put money into a private company (which had continued to pay a dividend to its shareholders in spite of the need for major repair work). A public appeal raised the princely sum of £43, and in 1956 it was announced that the line was to close at the end of the year. Despite the outcry that resulted, there was no revival of the service. Demolition took place during 4 months in 1958, and today the only reminders are a few iron pillars left in the dock wall.
Mike's impressive selection of photographs and other images (tickets, posters, etc.) brought back fond memories to some members of the audience. The Overhead Railway had, he said, been 'famous, unique, practical ... and delightful'.