There was a motley collection of transportation in Swansea in the 30s – trams, trains and buses were all in competition for patronage, but most have long vanished.
TRAINS AND RAILWAYS
Excluding the Mumbles Train, there were three main railway terminals, serving all parts of Great Britain. The following is a synopsis of their role.
THE GREAT WESTERN RAILWAY (GWR), had its main line station at High Street, where it is today, although much reconstructed. As the name implies, it served travellers bound for the west or south coasts and London. Visiting the station was always and experience to savour. The hissing noise of expelled steam and belching smoke from the high steam engines, which unlike their modern rivals, bore their own name. Passengers had a choice of first, second or third class compartments, which you chose depending on what you were prepared to pay. The station platform hummed with activity, porters carrying luggage, push along trolleys going clank and wheel tappers sounding out the under carriages for possible faults. When the main line trains were about to set off on their journey there would be the station master, complete with his yards of gold braid, and sometimes his top hat. There were chocolate machines in long rows, and attendants visited the coaches, plying their soft drinks or light snacks from trays, while newspaper boys scurried about selling the Evening Post or daily papers. Looking out of the cab would be the engine driver and fireman, the latter with muscular arms. Through the shovelling of tons of coal, his face would be stained with sweat and dust. The train would creep out of the station yard towards Landore, over the viaduct spanning the River Tawe, and on to Skewen, Port Talbot, Bridgend, Cardiff and all points east. From High Street Station, a special treat for summer was the excursion that ran to Kenfig Hill and onwards to the fun palace of Porthcawl. How slowly this train moved on those days, leaving behind in its wake the stack strewn works that dominated the lower sections of Swansea Valley, and the multitude of rusting tin buildings, onwards to the promised land of sand and sea.
THE MIDLANDS RAILWAY commenced at St. Thomas’ Station, just opposite the main entrance to Swansea Docks. There was little to get excited over on this line, where the railway stock always appeared inferior and the stations the train called at shoddy. At one time the line extended to Brecon, but for various reasons, including lack of patronage, its route finally finished at Ystalyfera, with freight trains progressing to the main goods yard at Gurnos. Leaving St. Thomas, a stop would be made at Upper Bank, which served the Llansamlet area, to a line running alongside the River Tawe and its dirty aspect. Onwards to Morriston and the High Forest Tinplate Works, then Clydach, the station overlooking the Mond nickel works. From there on the scenic beauties of the route improved, through wooded landscape and gentle hills towards Pontardawe, where, in the background, could be seen the sprawling mass of the Richard, Thomas and Baldwin tinplate empire. Then the line climbed upwards towards journey’s end at Ystalyfera. It was a line that shone during summer months, when late on Saturday nights visitors from Swansea Valley wended their way homewards.
THE LONDON MIDLAND AND SCOTTISH RAILWAY operated from Victoria Station, now the site of the Leisure Centre, and, as its name suggested, ran the entire length of Central Wales and the Midlands, finishing at York, where connections could be made for Scotland. By any standards the station was small, its glass-covered roof spanning three lines. The station yard was the home of Trumans, Allsops and Worthing brewers, the latter housed in small caverns under an overhead railway line at the rear of the station, where there were also various small firms and a large building where Fyffes bananas were stored. Deliveries hers, as in other stations, were undertaken by horse drawn vans and motor vehicles. Departing from Victoria Station, the train would have to climb a steep gradient, passed the carriage sheds, until level ground was attained overlooking the docks area. There it would move along past the busy beach shunting yard and engine shed, under Victoria Bridge. It would pass Swansea slip that led onto the sands were the crossing gates, which were closed to all at this time, until it reached Swansea Bay Station. With its own weighbridge in the yard, used extensively by coal hauliers, and bridge for crossing platforms, in the day time this was a busy venue. Onwards went the train along the seafront, with the sweep of the bay towards the left, across the stone built bridge spanning the main road into Blackpill Station. From here the train wended its way through Clyne Valley towards Killay, then Dunvant. This was followed by Gowerton, which also had another station operated by GWR, at the lower end of town. On it went past the tinplate works towards Gorseinon, then Pontardulais and Central Wales. This was a pleasant, attractive trip through various forms of terrain, unlike the early stages of a journey out of Swansea High Street.
ON windy days, teams of men could be seen scooping sand off the lines, blown there from the beach. At odd intervals, the heavy thud of signals would make themselves heard. There were little wooden huts for platelayers and gangers along the line, and all the while the steam engine snorted and puffed as it pulled along its heavy cargo of coaches.
In comparison with other modes of transport, railway fares were always more expensive, with the possible exception of excursions. Although in old money, four shillings and two pence for a return trip to Cardiff, or 16/9 return to London seem attractive propositions by today’s standards.
THE MUMBLES RAILWAY
Millions of words have been written about the Mumbles Railway. Suffice it to say that, despite its constant swaying motion, rock and roll progression, it was undoubtedly the most punctual mode of transport in Swansea. People could set their watches by the train times. Rarely did it miss a trip, and then only in severe weather, when icing would freeze certain key points, until they thawed out. The electric trains, of which I write, had superseded horse drawn transport and small steam locomotives over the years, and had several advantages.
It would pull two, three or even four cars at one time. Everyone was inside, away from the elements, and it could transport literally thousands of people from Swansea to Mumbles in a very short space of time. The main booking office and departure point was in Rutland Street, where the Leisure Centre now stands, a stone’s throw from Victoria Railway Station. Here, the cars, as the electric trains were termed, would be housed in a great galvanized building, where they would be cleaned and polished until their red painted bodywork sparkled, such was the sense of pride in those days. From Rutland Street it would proceed along its narrow lines, with, at certain stages, secondary lines adjacent, to enable other trains from the opposite direction to pass, until Trafalgar Arch was reached. Next stop was the Slip, where access was gained to Swansea beach, proceeding to St. Helen’s, opposite the entrance to Singleton Park, Ashleigh Road, Blackpill, West Cross, Norton Road, Oystermouth, Southend and ultimately Mumbles Pier. The trip cost coppers, but provided a highly invigorating ride, presenting splendid panoramic views of the bay. The earliest origins of the line made it the first passenger carrying railway in the world, and even today it is recalled with fond pleasure by those fortunate enough to have braved the journey and survived its terrors. There was also a small branch line at Clyne Valley, which the electric train sometimes used for keeping spare cars in readiness. The old railway line at Clyne Valley had expired years previously, when mineral deposits and bricks were produced inside its confines. Over the passage of time, most of the small gauge line had vanished, but this small section had been adapted by the Mumbles railway, and in cases of emergency, breakdown or heavy summer trade, proved its worth.
Since the latter part of the 19th century, public trams had been running in Swansea, and, as their popularity grew, so did the area covered. The tram lines and overhead power arms stretched as far as Morriston in one direction, to St. Thomas towards the east and Brynmill and Sketty in the west. These, for many years, provided the main form of transport for all workers. The journeys started in the early hours of the morning and continued throughout the day until late at night, when they returned to their depot opposite the Guildhall, or conveniently parked at the end of the line ready to resume the next day. Most trams had two decks, sometimes the top floor was open to the skies. On other vehicles the entire coach was covered. They clanked non-stop, as they made their journey through the town centre. The driver stood at the front of the compartment operating events with a small handle. The rate of progress was slow, but it did reach its destination in the end. Inside, the wooden seats were hard and uncomfortable. A perpetual draught weaved its passage down the length of the compartment, making life for the ticket collector none too comfortable. One good thing about a tram was that it was fairly easy to catch up with, by breaking into a good sprint, if you missed it at the stop. The sides of the vehicle were plastered with advertisements, and its uneasy gait, as it negotiated a corner, always made one wonder if it was going to topple over. Sometimes it would slip off the tram lines, blocking a main road, but the delay was seldom long. As careful manhandling pushed it back on course. Sitting on the top deck a new vision of the town appeared, to be enjoyed in slow motion, if nothing else. Eventually the need, or desire, for greater speed proved its downfall. The trams were replaced by sleeker, faster, more comfortable buses, which, unfortunately failed to retain the degree of friendliness that had been a feature of the Swansea scene for so long.
Ignoring the small bus companies, of which there were a considerable number, Swansea was ultimately swamped by the South Wales Transport Company. This concern offered an extended horizon for the traveller, eventually covering not only the worn and suburban areas, but also broadening its scope to take in the neighbouring townships. One of the busiest sections operated by this company was that covering Townhill and Mayhill. The bus stops were in Dynevor Place. Admittedly, the small street gave easy access to the tortuous climb of Mount Pleasant Hill, but the terminus itself left a lot to be desired. Dynevor Place was narrow, short in length and dirty. On one side stood Dynevor School, opposite were houses built at the same time as Noah’s Ark. They were three or four storeys in height, crumbling away by the hour. The residences held a colony of mixed nationalities, who knew little of the Welsh way of life and cared even less. Brawls and bad language were frequent, amusing or frightening for the passengers waiting for buses. But amidst this squalor, at the end of the street, stood an Italian owned cafe, where the most delicious ice cream was made, a small oasis in the bus terminus wilderness. For those who wanted to taste the attractions of Pennard and Pobbles Bay, it was a case of catching the Swans bus, a double decker that purred its way into the Gower of wooded lanes, sandy beaches and clean, clean water.
The Swan was almost certainly the best bus line operating. The conductors were friendlier, the transport was cleaner and there was the promise of better things ahead on these journeys.
There were authorised bus stops, but once Bishopston Common had been reached, there were many times when the vehicle would halt en route to pick up a passenger between stops, or let someone off earlier, to save them unnecessary walking. It was more like a private outing than a public concern. How that image has changed. As the trams vanished from the picture, so buses took control. Unlike today they did not cover such extensive routes. Many of the large housing estates in Penlan, Blaenymaes and Bonymaen were not in existence then. They gradually became a central feature of town life. The lifeline that tool toilers to earn their daily bread had a more personal style than that of trams. They remain with us today, acting in much the same manner, modernised and comfortable, more restrictive, but less reliable.
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