In 1860, George Francis Train, an eccentric American rail magnate who seemed to be in the grip of some form of some form of nominative determinism, created London’s first tram: a horse-drawn route along Victoria Street. The following year, he was nicked, for “breaking and injuring” the Uxbridge Road.
That wasn’t enough to stop the rise of the tram, of course. In 1870 they were officially authorised by act of parliament, and for the next eighty years, they were a big part of London life.
But the last routes of that original network closed in 1952. Since then they’ve been erased so completely from our mental image of London that more than one person has acted surprised when I told them there were trams on the streets of south London today.
Part of the problem is that there was never a tram equivalent of the tube map, to lock them into the city’s cultural memory. On scattered corners of the internet you can find photographs of old maps, but they’re generally so tiny it’s all but impossible to see where the trams actually went.
Normally here we say click to expand, but not much point to be honest.
Luckily then, that somebody’s done it properly:
You can zoom into this on ShareMap.org, to check exactly which roads the trams served (though sadly, not which trams served which routes). But in case that sounds like a lot of effort, here are some thoughts.
Trams didn’t go to posh places
There are almost no trams in Westminster: one route down Vauxhall Bridge Road, another on the Embankment, but that’s about it. They’re even less of a factor in chichi Kensington which, best I can tell, had not a single inch of track.
This might have reflected lack of demand, due to private cars or the tube. Or it might simply be that the locals didn’t allow anyone to build the bloody things.
Trams barely went to the City
At Aldgate, Moorgate, the north ends of the bridges: time and again, the boundaries of the square mile mark the end of the line. Again, this might reflect the fact the tube was providing transport instead – but it’s hard to miss the whiff of NIMBYism to which the Corporation of London remained committed right up until around 2000, when it realised Canary Wharf was about to eat its lunch.
Trams didn’t go to Hampstead
I was going to suggest this might be because they didn’t cope well with hills, but they made it up to Highgate okay. Once again, I suspect the influence of posh residents is at work here.
Trams refresh the parts other transport modes cannot reach
Nonetheless, it’d be silly to ignore the influence of the Underground on the map of London’s tram network altogether.
By the 1930s, the tube was all but complete: no Victoria line, and no Jubilee (although the bit from Baker Street to Stanmore was already running, as part of the Bakerloo), but otherwise the map would have been pretty recognisable to the modern commuter. That means that, at the peak of the tram network, the tube was already showing its prominent north western bias.
And this, one suspects, is one reason the tram network was so much more extensive to the east and south of the city centre. Places like Lewisham, Brixton or Hackney weren’t on the tube – but that didn’t matter so much because they had trams instead.
At any rate, back in the day, north east London had a tram on almost every significant road:
If the big gap around Hackney Wick looks like a hole in the network, it’s worth remembering that, as recently as 10 years ago, that was still basically industrial wasteland.
Similarly, while the area round the Old Kent Road may have neither tube nor rail lines, it did at least have trams back in the day.
So it’s probably no coincidence that…
Trams served the parts of town now dependent on buses
…many of London’s busiest bus corridors are routes which were once served by tram. On this map, you can trace the route of the 38, all the way from Clapton Pond to Holborn, or the 53 from Plumstead to Westminster.
The Kingsway Tunnel was the Crossrail of its day
Okay not really, but it felt like a good tagline.
As noted a few paragraphs back, very few trams penetrated into either the City of Westminster. That meant that, just like their bigger, heavier train counterparts, very few trams could cross central London.
There was, however, a single line which ran from one side of London to the other, using which trams could travel from north London to south. At Southampton Row, just north of Holborn, trams would drop into a tunnel under Kingsway, serving two underground stops at Holborn and Aldwych, before emerging on the Embankment under Waterloo Bridge. From there, they would use Westminster or Blackfriars Bridges to continue their journey south. (I’d always assumed they’d cross the bridge, but turns out I assumed wrong).
The southern part of the tunnel is still in use, as the Strand Underpass – but now it is used entirely by cars. Which feels horribly fitting, somehow.
If you’d like to explore the map in greater detail, you can do so here.