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Take a ride on Scarborough’s Victorian Funicular Tramway

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In this blog post, we’ll look at the Central Tramway Company and how it has become integral to Scarborough’s identity.

The Central Tramway Company is a Victorian cliff railway on the Yorkshire coast. It has transported visitors up and down the cliff since the late 19th century. In the South Bay area of Scarborough, between the Grand Hotel and St Nicholas Gardens. Here’s all you need to know about the Central Tramway Company, Scarborough.


What is the Central Tramway Company, Scarborough

The Central Tramway Company is the oldest surviving Tramway Company in the UK. The funicular railway, built in just six months between January and August 1881, became the third cliff railway to operate in the borough.

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Victorian Tramway Top Entrance.

The burgundy and cream carriages are pretty distinctive and travel up and down the 248-foot (76 m) track between the bottom station on Foreshore Road, near the beach and arcades, and the top station on Marine Parade, close to the town centre.


Scarborough became a spa town

During the 18th and 19th centuries, Scarborough transformed from a fishing town into a spa town and tourist destination. After acidic water in the South Bay was discovered by Thomasin Farrer in the 17th century. It was believed to have health benefits. 

Scarborough Became A Spa Town.

With tourists attracted to Scarborough for the therapeutic effects of the spa water, the fresh sea air, and the opportunity for swimming. As a result, entertainment flourished in the form of music and performances.


History of the Central Tramway Company, Scarborough

After the railway line and central station were built in 1845, the number of wealthy visitors to Scarborough increased. The Grand Hotel was completed in 1867. Interestingly, the hotel was famously saved from German bombs during World War II because Hitler selected it as his future home and base after the war.

Funicular Victorian Tramway in Scarborough

Many newly developed hotels were situated atop the cliff. As a result, the Spa, beach, and entertainment could only be found at the bottom of the hill, which was a long and awkward walk, made even more challenging by the clothing of the period.

The Cliff Lift in Scarborough is known for being the first cliff railway to be built in Great Britain.

Scarborough's Funicular Tramway

The South Cliff Tramway was constructed in 1875 and was the first of five funiculars built in Scarborough between 1875 and 1930. The company’s founding members included a group of local business owners, led by Mr Hunt of the Prince of Wales Hotel, who collectively invested £4,500 in starting capital through shares sold in the company.

Despite eventually costing £8000, the tramway was an instant success after its opening on 6 July 1875, with 1,400 passengers travelling on its first day.

The South Cliff Tramway’s design could have been inspired by the Pickering to Whitby railway line’s counterbalance railway, which used wheeled water tanks to descend steep stretches. The success of the South Cliff Tramway led to the development of another funicular in 1878 on the North Bay.

What’s operating today?

Only the Central Tramway and the Spa Cliff Lift are operating today.

The Queens Parade Cliff Lift faced accidents and erosion issues, leading to its permanent closure in 1887. The St Nicholas Cliff Lift in 1929 and the North Cliff Lift in 1930 were subsequently constructed in Scarborough. Only the Central Tramway and the Spa Cliff Lift are operating today.

John Woodall Woodall, a successful businessman, was the first Chairman of the Central Tramway Company. The company followed the financial model of the South Cliff Tramway Company and sold £10,000 worth of shares to individuals, including Robert Laughton of the Victoria Hotel.


Construction of the Central Tramway Company, Scarborough

George Wood from Hull was the contractor for the project, Charles Augustus Bury was the architect, and Thomas Feaster Morgan was the chief engineer.

The track gauge is 4 ft 8+1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) with a length of 248 ft (76 m). The iron track was built on a lattice girder framework supported by iron columns. The top station was initially designed by Charles Augustus Bury, who designed the Unitarian Church on Westborough. It had a waiting room that could be accessed by passing through two shops, with the photographic studio above.

Initially, the railway was steam-powered. An engine house was built 20 yards (18 m) from the top station beneath the tracks. The original plans reveal that a 12-inch (300 mm) smoke flue was constructed from the engine house to allow the smoke from the burning coal to be expelled from the top station. The flue ran underground to Granby House, the home of the 18th-century historian Thomas Hinderwell.

Construction of the Central Tramway Company, Scarborough.

The bottom station used to be a larger building about 27 feet (8.2 m) in length. However, it was later reduced when the Foreshore Road was widened after 1949. The engine house mechanism was unique. It used a colliery-type indicator and chalk marks on the winch to inform the winding engineer about the arrival of cars at the station.

As a result, the winding engineer did not have a view of the track, which was a new concept at the time. In 1875, the South Cliff Tramway was operated by a hydraulic water balance system. Two Crossley gas engines initially pumped sea water, later replaced by coal-powered steam pumps in 1879. In 1878, the short-lived Queen’s Parade Lift also used a similar water balance system with steam powering the water pumps.


Operations of the Central Tramway Company, Scarborough

Steam operation continued until 1920, when it was converted to electric power. From 1931 to 1932, the system was converted to AC power by installing a new motor and rebuilding the carriage frames.

Sign At The Scarborough Tramway.

In 1975, a fire damaged one of the carriages and tracks, and in 1976, pile driving at the new Olympia Amusement site caused damage to the concrete foundation supporting the track.

In 2009, the company installed a fully automated drive system, and in 2016, a new hydraulic disc brake was installed. Between 2012 and 2020, the Central Tramway underwent significant refurbishment.

It was acknowledged by the Scarborough Civic Society Heritage Blue Plaque in 2012.


Can I ride the Victorian Cliff Railway today?

Yes! Children aged five and under can travel for free. Additionally, registered carers can travel free with their carer, provided they present their carer ID.

The Central Tramway Company, Scarborough.

They also welcome dogs on board at no extra charge. There is no need to reserve your seats in advance. Pay for your fare at the top station before boarding.

The service runs frequently and on-demand throughout the day, you can find further information here.

Location: Upper Station, 1 Marine Parade, 2 St Nicholas Cliff, Scarborough YO11 2ER


A fun and educational experience for children

Younger visitors have a great experience at Central Tramway. They can spot the cute wooden mice at the stations and on the carriages. You can also download and print their free activity and fact sheets. There are plenty of information boards to learn from at the top station, too.

Tom and the Tram is a lovely children’s book. It narrates a little boy’s first ride on the tramway with his grandad. You can buy it here.


Scarborough’s Victorian Tramway, The Central Tramway Company, has such magic. We love to take a trip on it when we visit. We hope you have found this helpful; please let us know in the comments.

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