Chatham Traction – the Company
After the rationalisation of various proposals, a statutory company was set up in 1899 to build and operate an electric tramway system in Chatham and Gillingham. The legislation was enacted under the new Light Railways Order of the same year. The company was promoted by the British Thomson-Houston electrical engineering concern, and was called the Chatham & District Light Railways Company.
The trams began running in 1902, and by 1908 the system had extended to Rainham, Borstal and Strood.
In 1927 BT-H sold its interest to the Maidstone & District Motor Services Ltd. who soon became the major shareholder. By this time the results of wartime difficulties and a depressed economy caused tramway operators throughout the country to consider major changes. Systems began to need major attention, and renewal of both fixed equipment and vehicles was becoming necessary. The fashionable answer was a move to the operation of motor buses.
The Light Railways company needed an Act of Parliament to authorise abandonment of the tramway and to obtain powers to run buses. Accordingly the Chatham and District Traction Company Act 1929 received the Royal Assent on 10th May of that year. The Act provided that "after the passing of this Act the name of the company shall be the Chatham and District Traction Company". Operation of buses was to begin on 1st October 1930. The name change therefore took effect over a year before the trams ceased to run although to the man in the Chatham street this may not have been obvious. Contemporary photographs suggest that the trams did not carry the new fleet name during their last 18 months of operation. Indeed so run down were the tramcars that a fleet name of any sort was no longer discernable!
Maidstone & District gained the majority stake in the company by August 1930, so Chatham & District had effectively become M&D’s subsidiary. However it was still, after the 1929-30 changes, legally the same independent company as that set up in 1899.
The 30th September 1930 date was important because the tramways in Rochester were owned by the Corporation and were leased to the Chatham company until 1945. The 1929 Act cancelled these leases and provided that the company were to pay to Rochester £2,500 a year for 12 years from the prescribed date in lieu. M&D took care to ensure that proper costings were put in place.
In addition the company was to pay the amount of profits (after depreciation) which exceeded a sum equivalent to 6% of the share capital (with a minimum of £375 p.a.) until such time as a total of £3750 had been paid or 10 years had elapsed.
The Act also provided that the Chatham company should have a monopoly of local bus services over the tramway routes. Also, the corporations of Chatham, Gillingham and Rochester had a right to purchase the bus undertaking in 1959 or every seven years thereafter. These were no doubt the two main reasons why the Chatham company was kept in being as the subsidiary company operator.
Maidstone & District would have held sway on the C&DTCo Board. Indeed its bus expertise was probably welcomed, together with the management services it provided, as records show (See note). There was also the facility to exchange vehicles with M&D as conditions demanded, an arrangement which was resorted to more than once during the Traction’s 25 year existence.
Late in 1954 M&D introduced proposals to merge Chatham Traction into their organisation. As a statutory company Chatham & District could not be wound up under the Companies Acts, and it was necessary to obtain a further Act of Parliament to do so. Although opposed by the local Councils the necessary parliamentary Bill proceeded and the merger was approved by Lords select committee on Wednesday 30th March 1955.
The petitioners admitted that the only reason the Bill had been raised was to head off the possibility of purchase of Chatham Traction by the Councils. For the promoters, Gerald Thesiger QC said although C&D was legally separate his clients, a much larger company, owned nearly all the shares. However there was no disputing the fact that M&D operated over 1400 route miles throughout mid-Kent, whilst Chatham Traction covered just 24, 18 of which were in parallel with M&D. In the background the bus industry nationally was in difficulty, with the rise of television and car ownership. The potential loss of revenue in what was easily its busiest area was not something M&D could contemplate.
The Chatham and District Traction Act 1955 received the Royal Assent on 27th July 1955. It explicitly provided that the company would be dissolved on 30th September 1955 on which date the assets were to be transferred to Maidstone and District. Chatham Traction therefore ceased to be a separate entity at midnight on Friday 30th September 1955 after running buses for exactly 25 years. Over that night Chatham Traction’s buses had the Maidstone & District scroll applied over their fleet names, the new owner’s device being specially printed on paper having Chatham Traction’s light green background.
Note: Separate Cost Office records exist for Chatham & District from 1st October 1930, set out in the exactly the same format as for Autocar and Hastings & District (which were other M&D subsidiaries). These are done up in their own ledger books and include transfers of asset values to and from Maidstone & District when vehicles changed hands – including the few M&D vehicles "rented" to C&D at set-up. These are all written in the same hand(s) as the M&D ledgers proper.
(Acknowledgments are due to Roger Davies and Peter Jaques for their assistance with the content of this page.)