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The day of the runaway tram; REMEMBER When''s RAY MARSHALL takes a look at the tramcar disaster of 1916.

THE days of the tramcar trundling along the lines through our towns and cities has long gone. They inspire a yearning in the mind of a time when things were more gentle and happened at a much slower pace.

But despite our memories, things could get a little heated on those old trams and arguments could boil over into fights which could lead to injury and even death.

This was what happened on Saturday, February 5, 1916 on the steep Bensham Bank in Gateshead.

It was about 7.30pm and a small 28-seat tram of the Gateshead and District Tramways Company, car No.7, had left the terminus at Bensham and was waiting for the tram coming in the opposite direction at the last loop on Saltwell Road.

Getting tired of waiting, the young motorman, aged 20, decided to move on down the line towards Bensham Road and then up the steep hill towards the Sidney Grove loop.

Peering ahead he got a glimpse of the lights of the other car. Someone coming towards him told him a fight had broken out on the other tram.

The young motorman could hear a gong which was the signal that the other tram was in need of assistance, so he applied his hand-brake and walked up the bank to the other tram.

There were 12 passengers on the tram when he left, but quickly this was increased to 35, giving the tram a great deal of extra weight.

The motorman hadn't told the conductress what he was doing and that he had left the car and he had only walked a few yards when he turned and saw the lights of his own tram had disappeared.

The extra weight was too much for the tram and it started to run backwards down the hill. It careered 200 yards and overturned on the curve at the end of Saltwell Road killing a soldier and a family-of-three, who were crossing the road at the time.

The conductress and 10 of the passengers were injured, three of them most seriously.

A passenger on the tram later said: "I was on my way to a dance at the Masonic Hall in Jackson Street that evening. We lived in Rayleigh Grove at the time and as I walked down the street I realised I had left without my dancing slippers so I turned back to get them.

"Being a superstitious person, I thought to myself it was unlucky to turn back!" I went down the street as the car passed the bottom and I had to run nearly to Whitehall Road to catch it. We got to the top just above Sidney Grove, when the driver got off to look for the down tram leaving the St Cuthbert's Church loop.

"People crowded on to the tram and, in my opinion, the brakes hadn't been applied strongly enough, so that the tram eased away.

"The extra weight, no doubt, being too much for the brakes to hold. As we gathered speed, I remarked to a man sitting next to me; 'we are away to the sports'', as I felt the tram was sure to overturn when it hit the points at Saltwell Road end.

"The screams and sound of glass breaking is something I shall never forget. Eventually we scrambled through the floorboards between the wheels. I remember dashing into Ted Masons's, the barber's, to see if I was all right before going on to the dance.

"I had lost my hat and the dance shoes in the tram, but recovered them from the Police Station in Askew Road West on the Sunday morning.

"The tramway company gave me pounds 3 compensation for the damage to my coat and hat caused by the broken glass."

At the inquest, the motorman, who had only been driving for three months, said he had seen motormen leave their cars before to go to the assistance of other drivers but that he should have told the conductress he was leaving.

The brakes were examined and found to be in good order. Although there was no rule to say the driver could leave the cab, the inquest heard it was a question of judgement and in this case the motorman should not have left the car.

The jury returned a verdict that "the deceased were accidentally crushed through the overturning of a tramcar which ran away, owing to the additional weight of passengers, during the temporary and wrongful absence of the driver'.

The next day the motorman was remanded on bail charged with causing the death of four persons in accident, but a month later the charge was thrown out by the Grand Jury at the Durham Quarter Sessions.

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TRAM DEATHS Gateshead tram smash where four people died when a tram went backwards down a bank in Bensham in 1916
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Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 13, 2010
Words:809
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