The Wantage Tramway Company was the first steam powered passenger tram in the UK.
It was created in 1875 to carry passengers and goods between the Wantage and Wantage Road Station on the Great Western Railway (nearby to The Volunteer).
Except for a short break during the Second World War it was in operation for seventy years, and was the most successful of the few rural lines that operated in England.
At first the Tramway’s two passenger cars were drawn by horses, but the Company soon purchased a Grantham Steam Car and made history as the first regular passenger service using mechanical traction.
Thereafter the Tramway’s timetable was arranged so that a car was available to meet every passenger train which stopped at Wantage Road Station.
The search for rolling stock suitable for goods work was hampered by the fact that goods engines were not generally available for use on tramways. Fortunately the Wantage Tramway was of the standard gauge and the Company solved the problem by investing in ordinary steam locomotives.
The first goods vehicle was a George England well-tank engine which was purchased for £350 from the L & N.W. Railway in 1878. Captain W. Peel, her first owner, had named her “Shannon” when she was built in 1857, but she was Engine No 5 on the tramway records, and soon became known as “Jane”.
The tramway soon became a familiar sight in the landscape and, although the Company was involved in the normal ups and downs of business, life on the line was fairly routine. The Company paid regular dividends to its shareholders and throughout its life time it was controlled by local people. This was undoubtedly the secret of its success.
Fares on the Wantage Tramway were always higher than those of urban tramways, but luggage was carried free of charge on the platform at the end of each tramcar. In addition the Company undertook to deliver or collect luggage in Wantage on payment of a few Pence.
A bus service which included the route between Wantage Road Station and Wantage was introduced by the GWR in 1924.
On the consequent decline in revenue the Company decided to close down the passenger service and to concentrate on goods traffic. In this capacity it served the town for a further twenty years.
Trade fell off considerably during the 1930′s. It picked up again during the Second world war due to the shortage of petrol, but the line had to close between November 1943 and February 1944 because of mud on the track, churned up by lorries from the American base at Grove.
The tramway did not fully recover from this set-back; the rolling stock was dilapidated and it closed permanently on 21 December 1945 a little over seventy years after the first horse-drawn trip on the line.
At the auction Which followed the closure, “Jane” was purchased for £100 by the GWR. After a light overhaul at the Swindon Works the little engine was placed in a special enclosure on the down platform at Wantage Road Station in April, 1948.
Seventeen years later Dr. Beeching closed the station and a new home had to be found for “Jane”. In November 1966 she was transported to the Wantage Radiation Laboratory at Grove. The Wantage Urban District Council had agreed to renovate the engine and place her on display in the town, but a public appeal for the necessary cash fell on deaf ears and the idea was abandoned.
Fate took a hand in 1968 when three young employees of the UKAEA, who were also members of the Great Western Society, began to take an interest in “Jane”. They persuaded the Wantage UDC to allow them to move the engine to the Society’s depot at Didcot and then they set about restoring her.
Occasionally in steam at the Didcot Railway Centre, “Jane” is thought to be the oldest working locomotive in existence, and will always be remembered with affection by those who travelled on the Wantage Tramway.
The Wantage Tramway by Nicholas de Courtais (Wild Swan Publications)
The Wantage Tramway by Reg Wilkinsonl(The Oakwood Press)