By Georgia Morley, Curator
We are starting the new year with a celebration of London’s tramways in our new Poster Parade on display at the Museum from 10 January to 26 March 2020.
The first horse trams in London were introduced in the 1860s, operated by private companies. Although banned from operating in the City and West End, which were still dominated by the omnibus, an extensive tram network developed across the rest of the city.
The arrival of the electric tram in the early 1900s brought cheap transport to the masses. Trams could carry twice as many people as motor buses, and in greater comfort. They were cheap to run, so fares were low, and they were quick and frequent. Despite competition from the first motor buses, the number of passengers using trams grew.
London United Tramways (LUT) began London’s first electric tram service in July 1901. They electrified lines between Shepherd’s Bush, Hammersmith, Acton and Kew Bridge. By 1906, ten municipal systems had been set up and by 1914 London operated the largest tram network in Europe. At their peak, over 3,000 trams carried a billion passengers a year over 366 miles of track.
After the First World War tramways began to decline as the motor bus competed for passengers. By the late 1920s, the new buses offered higher standards of comfort, while the pre-war trams were shabby and in need of modernisation.
When London Transport took over all bus, tram and Underground railway operation in the capital in 1933, a massive tram to trolleybus conversion programme began. The tram system was in poor condition with trams increasingly being seen as noisy, dangerous to road users and expensive.
Trolleybuses were cheaper to run and soon attracted more passengers than the trams. Within three years, over half of London’s tram routes had been converted.
Ironically, the Second World War brought a temporary reprieve for the tram, as the work on the trolleybus conversion was interrupted. Necessary repairs and maintenance were done to keep the tram system running to help the war effort.
After the war however, the remaining trams were replaced by diesel buses. In July 1952, the last tram left Woolwich for New Cross amidst scenes of great sadness. Many trams were scrapped, but some were sold to Leeds where they ran until 1959.
Trams were re-introduced into London in 2000, originally run by Tramlink but now owned by TfL. The tram network has 39 stops along 17 miles of track serving Croydon and surrounding areas of south London.
London’s tramways Poster Parade explores the history of trams in London and the rise and fall of the largest tram system in the world. Visit our Poster Parade, at the Museum from 10 January to 26 March 2020 to see our stunning posters up close.