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Sunday, June 16, 2024

The fall and rise of Britain’s tramways

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Colin Garratt Director of Milepost 92½ Reports… 

The golden age of British trams represents a glorious phase in transport history.

It was a time when towns and cities across Britain were provided with rapid efficient transport second to none. The tragedy of their removal is made all the more poignant when one considers that they have been replaced by millions of motor cars which have settled on our society like a plague of flies.

Tramways proliferated across Britain from the late Victorian period and by World War One they were universal throughout the country. Many of the systems were enormous.

At its peak Glasgow had 1,200 vehicles operating 133 miles of track whilst the maximum extent nationwide was 14,481 cars running over 2,554 route miles of track and 184 local authorities owned tram systems. The graceful infrastructure of the tramways was an endless fascination. Ornamental trampoles, spider’s webs of complex wiring and track formations all laced by a vast array of ornate signage.

The principal tram builders were Dick Kerr of Preston and Brush of Loughborough although some municipalities built their own. The integration of trams with the society they served is evidenced by the fact that many systems carried mail and parcels and Manchester had a special fleet of vehicles for this purpose.


The tramways appealed to people because their tracks formed the stitches which bound the nation’s principal industrial, commercial and residential conurbations together. Activity was grouped around these tentacles; the system was easy to relate to and disciplined in its structure.

Quite apart from the sheer good sense of moving people effectively, trams were aesthetically pleasing and friendly; a whole folk lore has sprung up around them captured so magnificently in Ian Yearsley’s classic book ‘The Manchester Tram’ (The Advertiser Press, 1962).

An opening passage reads: “Sometimes waking in bed and terrified by a nightmare, I would hear in the distance a familiar hum as a late tram sailed downhill past the end of our road. Reassured, I repeated to myself … ‘now it’s stopping at Wilbraham Road, … now it’s going up to the station, … now he’s spinning round the tap thing – Rachael Ryan ‘A Biography of Manchester’ (Methuen, London 1937)”.

Vivid memories

My father, who is 99 this year, has vivid memories of Leicester’s trams. He lived in the city and when courting my mother, who lived in Oadby, regularly went home on the last late night tram from nearby Stoneygate.

Invariably he would be the only passenger. The roads would be deserted and all the crew were interested in was getting home. My dad describes how they went down the London Road through Stoneygate ‘like a bat out of hell’.

Vibrating and lurching over un-even sections of track, released lateral forces which threatened to overturn the car. “Hold tight” was an understatement. On certain occasions Dad was terrified and he was not a person to be easily frightened – he went on to become a squadron leader in the forthcoming war.

My father also recalls the cheap, efficient transport which the tram provided and in years of travelling over the system he never remembers one breaking down. He recalled what colourful characters the conductors were and when a tram stopped outside Leicester’s departmental store, C&A Modes, one character would shout “Coats and ‘Ats!”.

‘Always a tram in sight’

Trams flourished amid a world of city centres, factories, corner shops, tenement housing, residential estates, horses and hand carts and unrestricted cigarette advertising and the few motor cars which were seen were usually painted black.

It was a world where people could cross the road diagonally or even pause for a chat. The adage ‘always a tram in sight’ was vigorously attempted – a watchword on the pulse of the city.

Many tramways joined up with neighbouring ones to create widespread integration in areas of high population. An excellent example of the joining up of different municipal systems occurred in Manchester where the tramways of Salford, Oldham, Hyde, Bury, Rochdale, Ashton under Lyne, Stockport, Middleton, Stalybridge and Altrincham were all connected.

An increasing burden

As the twenties developed, maintenance of the tramways became an increasing burden specially when competition from rival buses was taken into account. This competition saw closures as early as the 1930s as track and equipment wore out. Trolley buses became the obvious successor.

Newcastle and Portsmouth were among the early closures and by the mid 1950s most systems had vanished. But error is seldom universal and the tragedy of Britain’s lost tramway networks was not repeated by other European countries.

Neither was it in Hong Kong where the congestion busting system covers nineteen miles on six different routes. Hong Kong’s trams carry almost a quarter of a million people every day – this is ‘people moving personified’. They are the last double decker trams left in world service and predictably are British built.

A national tragedy

The dismantling of the nation’s tramway network was a national tragedy. The disembodiment of the close knit social, commercial and structured fabric of British cities. No sooner had the trams gone – the last system being Glasgow in 1962 – the iniquitous Beeching era commenced the decimation of the railway network which, despite some historic competition with the tram network, interfaced with them; a smooth transition from heavy to light rail. Only Blackpool retained its trams and primarily as a visitor attraction.

In an ideal world one would make a case for the return of the trams as they once were but a tangible rebirth is now in evidence following the lead of Croydon, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Sheffield and Manchester. Nottingham and Edinburgh can be added to the list.

The glory of Britain’s tramway heritage continues unabated at the National Tramway Museum in Crich, Derbyshire, with its period street and working trams. Crich is a must to visit; it is one of Britain’s finest visitor attractions, albeit that the running speed of the working trams is infinitely more sedate than was the late night tram from Stoneygate back to Leicester.


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