History of Trams in Southampton

In The Beginning:

The American entrepreneur George Francis Train is credited with introducing ‘street railways’ to Britain in 1860 where they had been established in the USA since the 1830s. By the early 1870s horse tramways were spreading to many towns and cities across the land and it was in 1872 that the first proposals surfaced in Southampton. The first scheme was subject to opposition from local traders and other influential residents and did not materialise, but by 1876 the town burghers realised they were falling behind other communities and a new proposal gained the approval of the local authority. Work on the first lines started in 1878 and it was passed by the inspecting officer and opened to the public on Saturday 3rd May 1879.

There were only two basic routes – a line starting in Portswood Road where the depot and works were built, that ran along Lodge Road down the Avenue via Above Bar through the Bargate into the High Street and terminating at the Floating Bridge via Oxford Street and Canute Road. The second route started in Shirley High Street, with a depot in Carlisle Road, which traversed Shirley Road and Commercial Road to join the other route at Prospect Place (later known as The Junction).

Southampton horse tramway system

The system was entirely single track with passing loops, a short branch later left the junction at Lodge road and was carried north up the Avenue terminating by the Cowherds public house. Plans for other extensions to the system came and went, but the company was loath to invest in the system knowing that their lease from the Corporation could be terminated in 1899. Under the terms of the 1870 Tramways Act the lease allowed the Corporation the right to buy out the company after 21 years, or every 7 years thereafter. This was the practice at the time whereby the 1870 Act allowed local authorities to build and own tramways, but not to operate them. The cars came from a variety of builders. The early cars came from Starbuck of Birkenhead, but latterly most were sourced from the North Metropolitan Tramways Co of Leyton in London.

A North Metropolitan tramways built car outside Portswood depot about 1899.

Ultimately, the Corporation exercised its right to buy out the company which took place in June 1898; however, predictably there was a dispute over the estimated value of the company. This dragged on for several months finally going to arbitration at which a price of £51,000 for the undertaking was agreed.
The Corporation Takes Over:
Despite much of the horse network track having been recently renewed, it all had to be replaced with heavier rails as part of the electrification process. The Corporation had already bought out the local power company and set about installing the underground cables, overhead lines and traction poles on the new system. The first section of track from Shirley to Prospect Place (the Junction) was ready to be opened with due ceremony on January 22nd 1900. By November that year two routes had been opened that largely followed the old horse system less the section on Canute Road. The routes operated from Shirley (short of the later terminus) to the dock station (Terminus Station) and from Portswood depot via Lodge Road to join the other route at what later became known as The Junction.

The opening of the Shirley route in January 1900

All the early electric cars were purchased from companies that specialised in tramcar or railway rolling stock construction. The first batch of cars was built by G F Mines & Co of Birkenhead, and were delivered, disassembled, by rail to Southampton and re-assembled in Portswood and Shirley depots. A later batch of cars came from Hurst Nelson & Co of Motherwell in 1903 and these cars later proved troublesome; because Hurst Nelson had little experience of tramcar design as their main business was railway rolling stock. Their design had only 3 side windows with narrow pillars to support the top deck; after only a few years in service they started to fall apart and the tramway department considered scrapping them. However, by this time Portswood had established sufficient engineering capacity to build new cars with bought in trucks and electrical equipment so it was decided to radically rebuild the Hurst Nelsons after which they gave no further trouble.

1903 Hurst Nelson car 42 in original condition

The route mileage of the electric system rapidly expanded up to the First World War, but the final extension up the Avenue from the Cowherds along Burgess Road to join up with the line at Swaythling only happened in 1930. Further extensions were planned, but not built and reference to the map will show that the tramways hardly penetrated the eastern side of the town with just a short line terminating at the end of Bullar Road. The Itchen River was the main obstruction to this, but it was not helped by the Northam Bridge being a toll bridge and unsuitable for trams, plus there was no fixed crossing further down river, travellers having to rely on the Corporation owned Floating Bridge.

The electric system at full extent

World War 1 & After:
During the First World War the tramway system came under great pressures – increased patronage due to war industries and the military port operations adding to the loss of many male members of staff who joined up. Portswood tramway works were in the midst of rebuilding the flawed Hurst Nelson cars which in some cases resulted in an almost new body so, with the loss of manpower and material shortages, there was little chance of building new cars. Some relief was gained by acquiring some second hand ex-LCC cars which arrived in 1918. These were standard 4 wheel cars with open platforms, but totally enclosed top decks, and the cars arrived and were put into service without modification on the St Marys Street route in August 1918.

Ladies served with distinction as clippies and were trained as drivers in some towns and cities.

After the war, Car Nos: 75-80 were taken into the works and the top deck covers were removed and the lower saloon height dropped by 7 inches to allow them to run anywhere on the system including the Bargate routes. After the end of the war the Corporation ordered a batch of ten standard enclosed double deck cars from United Electric Car Co of Preston later to become known as English Electric and these bore the numbers 82 to 91. They were always restricted to routes that did not pass through the Bargate.
One further odd car worth a mention is number 81 built by SCT at Portswood in March 1919; it was unique in having five windows in both saloons. The car was longer overall than other Southampton trams and speculation is that it was intended to test the use of bogie running gear in the town, but this never happened. 81 was originally constructed with a flat roof fully enclosed top cover, but this was later converted to the standard TCB pattern in 1929 which allowed the car to be used on Bargate routes.

A post war view of car 81 in Marsh Lane


The ‘Bargate’ Problem:

By the 1920s the Bargate was beginning to prove an obstacle to the free movement of traffic between the High Street and Above Bar, particularly with the rise in the number of motor vehicles, and this issue began to be a regular item on the council debating sheet. However, in lieu of any long term solution, the tramways department was equally anxious to provide a more consistent fleet of top covered cars to satisfy the travelling public. James Dobson designed a new type of car which, although still open top, was a distinct improvement on earlier models. The first car, numbered 2, had a fully enclosed lower saloon and platform with transverse garden seats on the upper deck.

Car 2 as originally built at Portswood in 1920

Only 5 cars of this design had been built when Percy Baker was appointed as acting Tramway Manager and Engineer in 1923. He took the Dobson design and re-worked it to incorporate a dome shaped top cover, together with a low height truck, small wheels and high speed motors. The prototype car 12 was rolled out for inspection later that year and his confirmed appointment as permanent tramways manager was assured when the car proved a great success. Over 50 more cars to a similar design – both new and converted from suitable open top cars - made these typify Southampton Tramways until closure. The earlier open top Dobson cars were subsequently modified by adding the dome roof and lowering the lower saloon by 4 inches. Now all the dome roof cars and original open toppers could go anywhere on the system and the only restricted cars were the ten UEC vehicle numbered 82 to 91.

Prototype car 12 posing for the press in 1923

The Bargate Problem Finally Solved:
Despite the new design of top covered car able to negotiate the medieval arch, the Bargate was still a traffic bottle neck. The council started buying up the properties either side of the archway in the 1930s until they could demolish enough buildings on the eastern side to create a bypass in 1932. The western bypass was finally opened in June 1938 when car 8 became the last tram to negotiate the arch, passing through on 4th June in that year.

The first tram round the Bargate western by-pass 5th June 1938

More New Cars:
The success of the Top Covered Bargate (TCB) tram in 1923 led to efforts to modernise the design as time went by. An improved version was introduced in the early 1930s and was nicknamed the ‘Pullman’ car due to its plush interior. Other changes were flush metal body sides that allowed 2 plus 2 seating in the lower saloon for the first time and upholstered seats on both decks. The last new ‘Pullman’ cars were built at Portswood between 1929 and 1931.

Pullman car 23 in as new condition about to enter the Avenue from Burgess Road in mid-1930s

Looking To The Future:
In common with many provincial towns and cities in the 1930s Southampton council was considering the future of the tramway system. Years of using the profits from the transport department to offset the rates meant that there was no sinking fund to cover the cost of major infrastructure renewal and, after over 30 years of use, the track was worn out. The transport industry of the day was looking towards the trolley bus as the way forward. Already on the South coast Bournemouth, Portsmouth and Brighton had made the decision to go down this route. It neatly allowed the continued use of cheap local power supplies, but without the need for costly and disruptive track renewals. Trolley bus design had benefited from the improvements in motor bus technology incorporating light alloy bodywork, comfortable seats and pneumatic tyres.
Deciding The Future:
By the mid 1930s the future of the tramway system was under review by the Council as it was clear that the state of the track was giving cause for concern. Much of the system needed significant investment in track renewals and other parts of the infrastructure to repair wear or update to modern standards and this would have to come out of the council coffers as there was no sinking fund to cover this. Thoughts turned to alternative options and the most favoured was conversion to trolleybus as had been done in Portsmouth, Bournemouth and Brighton during this period. And so the decision was made to abandon the system by 1940 and convert to trolleybus.
The first route affected was to Millbrook station which was closed to normal traffic in October 1935, although the line remained in use for workmen’s services. The following year the short route from Clock Tower to Northam was closed completely in June – this line had never realised its potential due to the obstruction of the toll bridge at Northam which prevented trams reaching Bitterne. However, before any more closures could take place events were overtaken by the outbreak of World War 2.
World War II:
With fuel rationing soon in place many bus services were cut back or curtailed and the trams had to take on increasing traffic and the Millbrook route was soon re-opened for all users. As we all know, Southampton was hit hard by the Blitz, but the tramway managed to escape major damage and only one car was completely destroyed (No 31) and another lost its roof in Shirley Road (car 13). However, the Tramways department was aware of the risk that a bombing raid could destroy Portswood or Shirley depots which would effectively wipe out half the fleet. So work was undertaken to lay two temporary sidings alongside the Avenue just below Burgess Road and these were used to park a number of older cars overnight to mitigate such an occurrence. (Bristol lost its tramways due to heavy raids and never re-opened)

Bernard Street and car 31 destroyed in the Blitz, November 1940

Post War Interlude:
After the war ended, conditions had changed and the pre-war decisions were looked at again and it was decided to opt for conversion to motor bus. Factors that influenced this decision were based on the rapid development of reliable and economic diesel engines (such as the Gardner series) and the nationalisation of the electricity generating industry which spelt the end of cheap local power for electric vehicles. Ironically this gave the tramway a stay of execution for almost four and a half years as it would take until 1949 – 50 for the bus industry to recover from war time service and make up back orders. The Corporation Transport Department looked at a number of manufacturers before deciding to buy a fleet of Guy Arab buses that were to serve the town well for many years.

Car 8 waits for the traffic lights to change at Foys Corner in 1949 & The crew of Pullman car 21 pose for the camera at Floating Bridge terminus in 1949


Enthusiast Tours:

There was a growing interest in tramways by enthusiasts with the formation before the war of the Light Rail Transport League (LRTL), which was a pressure group to promote the retention and modernisation of tramways before the war. Within this group many enthusiasts arranged visits to photograph and ride on systems threatened with closure and these even continued to some extent during the war. By 1945 Southampton was the last tramway system operating along the south coast and also the last in the country to regularly still use open top cars in every day service. As such it became a favourite destination for many tour groups, notably the LRTL and Southern Counties Touring Society.

Car 81 (on left) in Bellevue Terrace on an enthusiast tour in 1947

On one such tour in 1948 some members, knowing of the imminent demise of the system, suggested an attempt should be made to preserve one of the open top cars for posterity. Later an approach to the Transport department resulted in an offer of car 45 repainted and overhauled for the princely sum of £10! Thus a Southampton tram became the very first to be preserved by amateurs in this country and went on to become the basis for the founding of the National Tramway Museum, now located at Crich in Derbyshire.
The Last Rites:
Route closures began in earnest in 1948 when the delivery of replacement buses at last began in useful numbers. The last route to remain in operation was Shirley to Floating Bridge, although the line to Portswood remained operational for car movements. On the very last day, December 31st 1949, car 9 was decorated with flags and lights as the special ‘last car’. When normal service ended that evening, car 9 started from Floating Bridge at 10.57pm with special guests and made its final journey to Shirley depot arriving amidst great crowds just before midnight. And that was the end – car 9 was stripped of any portable components as New Year's celebrations got under way. This was not quite the last tram movement – depot transfers continued between Shirley and Portswood until February when the overhead was taken down and the track started to be taken up by workmen.
Most of the redundant older cars ended up in Harris’s scrap yard in Bevois Valley where metal parts were recycled and the wooden bodies were burnt, but it was well into the mid 1950s before all the bodies had gone. Other cars were resold to Southern Engineering at the bottom of Shirley and ended up as workshops, chicken houses and holiday homes. The Corporation sold many of the newer dome roof cars to Leeds where a few saw further service for up to 3 years. A number of the later ‘Pullman’ TCB cars were sold to Leeds who were short of cars after the war. These were soon followed by many more of the older style TCBs which were immediately diverted to a scrap yard on the outskirts of the city as they were deemed entirely unsuitable by the Leeds transport department. Apparently, the Leeds council deputation to inspect and approved cars for purchase from Southampton did not include a transport engineer and thus it is implied that Southampton took advantage of this to dispose of life expired cars at a good price, when they were only fit for scrap.

Leeds 290 ex Southampton 108 & Open top cars are broken up in Harris’s scrapyard in Bevois Valley

A small number of the former ‘Pullman’ cars entered service in Leeds, but none lasted more than 3 years before withdrawal. When the London system closed in July 1952 it unlocked the supply of many superior Feltham class cars which went north to Leeds and allowed the other second hand cars to be scrapped. The ex-Southampton cars were unpopular with the Leeds travelling public and the transport department due to the lack of upper deck headroom and air brakes.

An enthusiast tour of the remaining Southampton system by the LRTL in August 1948, led to a proposal to preserve a complete open top car. By this time Southampton was about the last place in the UK still using open top cars in every day service, however, before this time no amateur group had preserved a tramcar.

Southampton car 45 at the National Tramway Museum in Crich, Derbyshire

After an approach to the transport department the group was offered car 45 for £10.00 including the cost of a repaint and minor truck overhaul! Car 45 led a very peripatetic life staying at Leeds, Blackpool and eventually the Motor Museum at Beaulieu, until the newly formed Tramway Museum Society found a permanent home for their growing collection at Crich in Derbyshire. So it is fair to say that preserving a Southampton tram was responsible for the founding of the subsequent (enthusiast driven) tramway preservation movement.

Prospect Place now known as ‘The Junction’ circa 1905, looking towards London Road and An early view of car 43 in original condition opposite the Cowherds public house about 1905.

History of Southampton Corporation Transport can be found Here.

Thanks to Nigel Smith for providing this information about Southampton Trams.
(All photos credited to Southampton Tram Group unless otherwise credited)