Southend Corporation Transport
Trams 1900-42
This page has been adapted from Richard Delahoy's book, Southend Corporation Transport, Trams, Trackless and Buses. Copyright Richard Delahoy 1986.
This short history is split into five parts, Trams 1900-42, Early Buses 1914-16,
Trolleybuses 1925-54, Buses 1932-1953 and Co-Ordination 1954-55
Merely a poor hamlet of fishermans' huts was how the South End of the ancient parish of Prittlewell was described in 1760. Some nine years later however South End could boast no less than 13 cottages and one house! Development of the town did not really begin until the end of the eighteenth century, the impetus being the craze amongst the wealthy for sea bathing. The Terrace and Grand Hotel were erected on the cliffs at the top of what is now Pier Hill in 1791, some distance to the west of the original hamlet. They were renamed the Royal Terrace and Royal Hotel following the stay of Princess Caroline, wife of the Prince of Wales, in 1803.

The growth of Southend from a hamlet into a town in its own right was hampered by poor communications and despite the construction of a pier, the first section of which was opened in 1830, it was not until the arrival of the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway, whose Southend terminus (now Southend Central) opened on March 1st, 1856, that the town really began to grow; a second rail line, that of the Great Eastern Railway from Shenfield to Southend Victoria, reached Southend in 1889. The Southend Local Board was established in 1866 giving the first local administration to the town and confirming its supremacy over Prittlewell, which was eventually to be completely swallowed up by Southend's growth. Very rapid expansion followed, with the population rising from around 3,000 in the 1850's to over 47,000 in 1901; by 1921 it had reached 120,000. By Royal Charter of August 15th, 1892 the town acquired Borough status (being elevated to a County Borough on lst April 1914).

Municipal involvement in the town's transport began in 1875 when the Local Board took over the pier and in so doing acquired the horse tramway which had opened in 1846. Latterly this fell into disrepair, but in 1889 a new pier was built alongside the old one, and on August 2nd, 1890 a 3'6'' gauge electric tramway was opened on the pier, establishing Southend amongst the pioneers of electric traction.

The success of the electric railway on the pier led Southend Council to consider building an electric tramway to serve the rapidly growing town, and various routes were discussed at the end of the nineteenth century. Rather than obtaining the necessary authority by promoting an Act of Parliament, Southend took the unusual step of making an application for powers under the Light Railways Act of 1896. Following a public enquiry held in the Council Chambers in January 1899, a Light Railway Order was granted for the following routes:

  • from the High Street (Middleton Hotel) via Victoria Circus, Victoria Avenue, West Street and North Road to the London Road at the Cricketers;
  • from Leigh Church via Leigh Road, Leigh Road East (now the London Road), London Road, Victoria Circus and Southchurch Road to Southchurch, Holy Trinity Church (near the White Horse);
  • from a junction with the previous line via Southchurch Avenue to Marine Parade (the Minerva, adjacent to the Kursaal then called 'Luna Park').

    Work on the system began in February 1900 with all the lines being laid as single tracks with passing loops; the gauge was set at 3' 6", the same as on the pier, although consideration was given to a gauge of 4' at one stage. The contractor worked rather more slowly than the Corporation would have liked, but eventually the tracks were ready and the initial 14 cars, built by Brush on Brill trucks, were delivered, and the system was duly opened on July 19th, 1901.

    All the routes radiated from the High Street terminus, just north of the railway bridge (the LTSR line had been extended to Shoebury in 1884), running to Leigh, Southchurch, the Beach and Prittlewell (initially the latter was operated as a circular in both directions, but from May 1903 the service was altered to run via the Blue Boar to terminate at the Cricketers); an additional service from the Great Eastern Railway station to the Beach was also provided at certain times. [Jumping ahead somewhat, it should be noted that it was not until 1st May 1930 that the Leigh and Southchurch routes were permanently linked to give a cross town service].

    The initial choice of trams was to prove most unwise. Cars 1 to 10 were 4 wheel open top double deckers seating 38; 11 & 12 were larger bogie cars carrying 58; whilst 13 & 14 were 20 seat 4 wheel single deckers. Traffic far exceeded expectations and only the large bogie cars were really suitable. The two single deckers (which were renumbered 1 & 2 in 1904, when the former 1 & 2 became 11 & 12, and the original 11 & 12 became 13 & 14) saw little service except on the Prittlewell route, on which traffic was very light, and were later rebuilt as 44 seat double deckers. The 4 wheel double deckers were also too small, and were either rebuilt or replaced by new cars carrying the numbers of the ones they replaced. The original fourteen cars were joined by more new cars bought between 1902 and 1924, and finally seven secondhand cars were acquired in 1934.

    The success of the initial routes led to plans for expansion and the trams were extended from the Kursaal along the sea front to Bryant Avenue on 10th August 1908. This was as far as the promenade extended at this time and further construction had to await the completion of the road - thus the trams did not reach the Halfway House until November 16th, 1909, being extended finally to Thorpe Bay Corner on February 10th, 1912. Contraction had already begun elsewhere however, and as a result of the lack of traffic and the poor state of the track, the service along North Road between the Cricketers and the Nelson was withdrawn after January 22nd, 1912. This route was to be cut back even further, to the Blue Boar, from June lst, 1921.

    Work had begun in 1911 on what has proved to be the most lasting memorial to the trams - Southchurch and Thorpe Hall Boulevards, wide dual carriageway roads with the trams running down the tree lined central reservations, representing a bold and imaginative step in town planning. Southchurch Boulevard was opened to the trams on July 30th, 1913, with the cars running as far as Bournes Green; work on widening the railway bridge delayed the opening of the Thorpe Hall Boulevard line until July 16th 1914. The tracks joined up with the existing sea front line, giving a circular route which was to be exploited for tours. The system was now almost complete, with the only additions being the track onto the Corporation loading pier and a loop around Warrior Square, which opened on 14th May 1921 and was eventually to replace the High Street terminus, cars working around the square instead.

    Doubling the track to eliminate the original single line with its passing loops, which severely restricted the frequency of service that could be operated, had begun in 1907 and was finally completed in 1920. Only the Prittlewell route was not converted and instead, in order to increase the service frequency, the High Street to Blue Boar tram service was augmented from October 16th, 1925 by trolleybuses running from Victoria Circus to the Blue Boar. The poor condition of the track in Victoria Avenue and the success of the trolleys led to the complete closure of the Prittlewell route on December 18th, 1928.

    The history of Southend's tramway is unfortunately dominated by indecision and a lack of clear direction. Even before the first cars had run extensions to the system were being discussed, but despite the many plans which were formulated, relatively little became of the ambitious plans which would have seen the trams serving more of the town and extending out to Hadleigh, Rayleigh, Rochford, Wakering and Shoebury. Even the much-praised boulevards were to prove a mixed blessing, as they attracted low density, high quality housing which did not generate substantial traffic for the trams. Lack of finance and local opposition by residents who lived on some of the proposed routes were partly to blame, but it was perhaps the Council's lack of consistent faith in the transport undertaking that was to blame.

    Whatever the reason, the trams did not keep pace with the growth of the town. The early bus services were not a great success and by the time that the decision was taken to pursue trolleybus operations and motorbus operations in the late 20's and early 30's, much of the town and its surroundings was already well served by the private buses of Westcliff Sea Motor Services, Edwards Hall Motors, Rochford & District Motor Services, Shoeburyness Motor Services, Borough Services, Thundersley, Hadleigh & District Motors, and others, serving the new housing estates well away from the tram routes.

    The tramway also suffered from often having insufficient cars to cope with the traffic on offer and from the failure to modernise the trams quickly enough to match the new standards of comfort offered by the competing buses. The first double decker with a covered top deck did not enter service until 1921 and open toppers still ran until 1939; driver's windscreens were not fitted until 1928, following experiments on car 51 the year before, while passengers had to wait until 1929 for the first car to have upholstered seats throughout!

    The tide really began to turn against the trams in late 1920's. The viability of trolleybus operation had been proved on the Prittlewell route and it was apparent that it would be much cheaper to extend the trackless route than to lay new tram tracks. Thus in the early 1930's the trolleybus network was expanded. The town had by now grown far beyond the original tram routes, and it has been noted already that the private bus companies were not slow to exploit this shortcoming. The last new trams had been bought in 1924, and the majority of the fleet dated back to before the Great War. Top covers were eventually fitted to most cars, and many received new electrical equipment and higher powered motors but only five were fitted with upholstered seats throughout before the onset of the depression brought that aspect of modernisation to a halt. Various changes to service patterns were made to reduce costs, and maintenance was reduced to the minimum necessary, with the result that the cars became noisy and uncomfortable.

    From 1933 on serious thoughts were given to replacement of all routes by either trolley or motor buses. The inflexibility of municipal accounting caused attention to focus on the boulevard and sea front routes first: the transport department had to bear virtually all the costs involved in constructing and maintaining the boulevards - roads and all, the reconstruction of the railway bridge in Thorpe Hall Boulevard in 1914 when the road was widened, and the cost of constructing the sea wall and promenade from the Halfway House to Thorpe Bay Corner. It was realised that if these tram routes were closed the financial position of the undertaking would improve, although of course the costs would still have to be borne by the Council as a whole. This plan was initially thwarted by the Corporation's failure to obtain road service licences for replacement bus services, due to opposition from the established private bus companies, but a policy of closure by stealth followed, and in the end the boulevards had to be closed due to the poor condition of the track; motor buses replaced the boulevard trams from July 7th 1938 and the trams then ran from Leigh to the White Horse or Thorpe Bay Corner only. The seafront line was cut back to the Kursaal after 3rd June 1939 with trolleybuses providing the service to Thorpe Bay.

    With the onset of the Second World War traffic slumped dramatically and at first some buses and trolleys were loaned to other towns; when these were returned the Ministry was persuaded to allow them to be used to replace the trams completely. Accordingly the section of the route in Southchurch Road east of Southchurch Avenue was closed on January 7th, 1942 and three months later complete closure followed on April 8th, 1942. Car 61 operated a token farewell run from Porters, the Civic House, to the depot, driven by the Transport Committee Chairman, Cllr. Selby. Then with almost undue haste a start was made on removing the tracks - some rails were sold to Blackburn Corporation for the sum of 252 3s and 11d. All the remaining cars went for scrap.

  • Continue with Part 2, Early Buses 1914-16

    Click for full size photo Many thanks to Richard Delahoy for his kind permission to include textual extracts from his book in this site.

    ©1986-2007 Richard Delahoy and ©1961-2007 SCT61 Pages. All Rights Reserved.

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