Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Story of the British Tram (1) : Horse drawn

This new series will track the story of the British tram from horse drawn to electric trams, their downfall and rebirth in the modern day.

The use of rails or tracks for transportation purposes dates back to the Classical World as we saw in the series on the Earliest Railways. In the late 18th and early 19th century mineral carrying railways or tramroads (as they were often called) often unofficially carried passengers, usually just by letting them hitch a ride and sitting atop the coal or other mineral in the horse drawn wagon!

In 1807 the Swansea & Mumbles Railway became the first to officially carry passengers, these were carried in a horse drawn horsecar or tram. The tram owed much to contemporary stagecoach practice. Despite this early start the horse tram service closed in 1827 (it was restarted later) and it was not until 1860 before another horse tram service began in Birkenhead.

Many horse tram networks followed, they competed with the horse bus. The smoother ride offered by using rails giving them an advantage. By the late 19th century there were scores of systems across the country. However, the use of horse power carried a number of disadvantages in terms of expense, operational difficulties and time wasted. Horses needed to be changed regularly, as many as ten horses were needed for each tram car. Horse manure was also a problem, the tram companies being responsible for cleaning it up!

The advent of alternative propulsion systems for trams, most notably electric, saw the quick demise of the horse tram though some remained in service until the 1910s. The last horse tram in regular service remained in use in Northern Ireland until 1957 but nowadays they can only be seen as heritage tourist attractions.
Horse bus and horse tram at the LT Museum, notice the similarities

A Leamington & Warwick Tramway horse tram, they later switched to electric

Chesterfield Tramways Company Number 8