Monday, 12 November 2012

Leicester's First Electric Tram

With the large crowds of people and the fabulously decorated open-topped “bus”, you would be forgiven for thinking that this historic photograph shows a famous Leicester City victory. But on this occasion – May 18, 1904 – the reason the streets around Leicester’s Clock Tower were lined with hundreds of people is nothing to do with sport. The excited crowd was actually witnessing the maiden voyage of Leicester’s first electric tram.

Leicester's first electric tram - May 18, 1904
It may not seem important to us, but in early 20th-century Leicester, when public transport was used every day by just about everybody, the moment really is one never to be forgotten. Not only was the public transport system dramatically improved, but Leicester was entering into a new technological age of transportation, revolutionising everyday life for the common man. The story of Leicester’s tramways starts on Christmas Eve, 1874, when a second-hand vehicle was led by a horse down Leicester’s newly-laid tramline, from the Clock Tower to Belgrave. This was Leicester’s first operational tram service, offering the public a smooth and relatively fast ride, in an age when the streets were mainly cobbled and uneven.

Another view of Leicester's first tram
The unique travelling experience was hugely popular with the public and, as a business, was an early financial success story. Leicester Corporation, however, confident it could do a better job and not wanting to miss out on the huge potential profits, exercised its right to buy out the private owners of the tram when their lease expired. With no room to negotiate, the deal was made at a cost of £134,110 for 39 trams, 30 buses, 375 horses, nine miles of track and all associated buildings and equipment.

By 1900, the newly created Tramways Department compiled a report looking at every possible method of propulsion for the future of the tram. After much deliberation it was determined that, looking forward, the most cost-effective way to revolutionise the system was by using an electrified overhead wire system with new electric cars, a method adopted by most of England’s major cities around this time. The only problem was that the original horse tram tracks could not support this new heavier system, so between 1902 and 1904, the tracks had to be reconstructed. The overhead trolley system was then built, and a delivery of 58 tramcars was made to the borough. By May 18, 1904, the new electrified system was finally declared open.

Before electric trams we had horse trams
After a 2pm reception at the Town Hall, some 300 guests travelled in 12 horse trams to Painter Street, where the power was officially switched on. The party then transferred to three decorated electric trams and made ceremonial tours of Leicester. Leading the way was the number three (pictured above) which transported the mayor, councillors and tramway officials through Leicester towards Stoneygate, and back again. Hundreds of people turned out to witness the celebrations and, that evening at 7pm, the system was opened to the general public for the very first time.

All through the night until 11pm, when the service finished for the day, each and every tram was packed solid with excited passengers eager to experience the ride. Most of these passengers would be amazed if you told them that the whole complicated system would only last 45 years.

Throughout the early 20th century, the tram was very much “king of the road”, but as Leicester began to expand in the 1920s, the problems began to arise. More tracks were needed so that the newly built estates could link up with the system – but the Corporation could not afford it. Also, the amount of motor traffic began to steadily rise, making the old trams more and more of an obstruction. If two trams stopped opposite each other in Belgrave Road, for example, nothing larger than a push bike could get through. It could cause a major hold-up on increasingly busy streets.So, in 1938 it was decided that the main method of public transport – the tram – would eventually change over to the less-restricted “motor bus”.

A 15-year plan was drawn up, but as the intervening war caused major damage to the tramlines and, as the system had become greatly run down, the end came as early as 1949. Leicester’s last tram ran to Humberstone on November 9 that year, with the words “Buses take it from here” written on the side. The tracks were dumped on waste ground and the cars were mainly burnt, although a handful still survive in places such as the National Tramway Museum, near Matlock.

Today, more than 50 years since their demise, there’s only the odd clue that trams ever ran in Leicester. Just two of the old terminus buildings still stand, in Stoneygate and Narborough Road, and you can find many of the original tram shelters around the city – one stands outside Humberstone Park.

Tram at Humberstone, Leicester. The tram stop still remains today
But what Leicester lacks in terms of the physical remains, it makes up for with the numerous eyewitness accounts. “The ride wasn’t as smooth as you’d think,” recalls Norma Mackness, from Netherhall. “You had to hold on to children, the whole tram would rock from side to side. I saw so many people fall off their seats and on to the floor!” Norma’s husband, Don, encountered his own problems, not with the trams, but with the tracks.  “I came out of work at Castles Garage and got my bicycle tyre stuck in a tramline,” he said. “The road was so busy I had to follow the tramline all the way from Abbey Park to Argyle Street!’’ Other eyewitness accounts include a lorry crashing into a tram in Gallowtree Gate and numerous “illegal” races with the motor bus.

Today when cars have everything from a coffee warmer to satellite navigation, it seems hard to imagine the excitement and adrenaline caused by the “rickety old tram”.

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