With a gentle jolt it’s down you go, a vertiginous drop, from the top to the bottom in 34 seconds. The Central Tramway has been operating from St Nicholas Cliff to South Bay seafront for 136 years and while it might offer a practical way to negotiate Scarborough’s ups and downs, it’s also an important slice of the resort’s heritage.
This feat of engineering has been part of the town’s holiday culture since it was dubbed Queen of Spas in the late 1800s and is as much loved and used today as it was when it was first opened.
“We believe it is the busiest funicular in the country. We carried 470,000 people last year and hope to make it 500,000 this year,” says operations manager Andrew Martin. In August, the cliff lift carries 4,000 people a day.
It is certainly Britain’s oldest surviving cliff tramway company. Its custodians, Andrew and his team, are passionate about the historic funicular. Gordon Taylor, who worked for McCain for 27 years, has been there four years and appreciates his “job outside of an office”.
Alan Braidley is a general maintenance worker and has been a fixture for three years. He joined the Navy in 1959 and worked on fighter bombers aboard aircraft carriers. When he left the Navy in 1972 he settled in Scarborough and did everything from working for Bell Fruit to a stint in estate agency.
“It is interesting work. We’re very busy at times and we meet lots of people and the bosses are nice lads. This is a dream job with no pressures and a beautiful view,” he says.
There were five funiculars in Scarborough at one time – three on the south side, one halfway round Marine Drive and one on the north side. The Spa lift is the only other still in working order.
Central Tramway is a seven-day operation from February to the end of October and during the Christmas holiday period. The Central Tramway Company was formed by a group of local people who between them subscribed for £10,000 of shares (equivalent of £1m today). Among them was Charles Laughton, owner of the Victoria Hotel, whose son was to go on to be an Oscar-winning actor. The ledgers of accounts and share trades are on a shelf in Andrew’s office.
The first chairman was John Woodall, a fellow of the Royal Society, four times mayor of Scarborough, banker, marine environmentalist and benefactor. He lived in what is now Scarborough Town Hall, next to St Nicholas Cliff Gardens.
The construction and engineering work was done in six months, between the registering of the company on January 20, 1881 and its opening to the public on August 1 of the same year.
The tramway escaped any damage during the Scarborough Bombardment of 1914 when many of the visitor attractions in South Bay and homes and streets beyond were hit. The original steam engine that powered the tram was replaced by electric power in 1920. In 1932 Hudswell Clarke and Co of Leeds relaid the track and converted the electricity to AC drive with a 60-horsepower motor at the upper station.
At the same time, Scarborough coach building company Plaxton supplied new carriages. The new cars had a livery of red – which has changed over the years.
The Central Tramway Company is owned by the Purshouse family, of Rotherham. It took over the majority of shares in the company in 1967. Eric Purshouse became chairman and his son a director.
Eric and his wife Edith used to holiday at the Grand Hotel in Scarborough. When Eric noticed the company was established in the same year as his butcher’s business, he and his son began to acquire a majority shareholding in Tramway.
Throughout the second half of the 20th century the cliff lift underwent more changes. In 1975 a fire damaged the carriages and two new aluminium carriages were bought.
Its future was jeopardised in 1976 when pile driving at the nearby Olympia site caused subsidence under the track. It did not operate for a year while repairs were carried out.
Improvements have been made throughout the 21st century and in 2009 the company installed a fully automated drive system. Computers run the tramway, though, the original buttons – and emergency brake – still exist. Visitors are still counted by the turn of the turnstile at the entrance. On the wall of the top station is an original advertisement for Rowntree’s sweets.
In 2012, a major refurbishment of the stations and carriages was carried out and there was a return to the original livery of burgundy and cream.
In July of that year, the then mayor of Scarborough, Helen Mallory, unveiled a Heritage blue plaque acknowledging the contribution of the Central Tramway to Scarborough’s social and industrial heritage.