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Florence Cole as a child

Public transport on roads
in the early 1900s

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When I was a child in London in the early 1900s, almost all commercial deliveries were by horse and cart, but passengers could travel on the roads by horse-drawn bus, horse-drawn tram or electric tram which received its power from overhead cables.

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Horse-drawn tram in Edmonton, north London, c1900

Horse-drawn tram in Edmonton, c 1900. Note the rails in the road and the open top. Photo from the effects of Ena Cole.

Trams ran on rails / tracks set into the road. Consequently they were not at all manoeuvrable: The driver couldn't steer them and other road users had to keep a constant look-out to get out of their way. Trams were particularly hazardous for cyclists because their wheels could easily get caught in the channels on either side of the rails unless the cyclists made a point of riding across them rather than along them. Fortunately, as it was expensive to lay the tracks, trams ran on relatively few routes.

My Aunt Em was one of the many women who was drafted in to work on the trams during World War One, when so many men were away fighting (or dead or injured). She often let us children have a free ride.

The horses who pulled the trams

Double deck trams were usually drawn by two horses, as the photo shows. Single deck ones were usually drawn by a one horse. Horse-drawn trams were expensive to operate due to the required frequent changes of horse as well as stables, feeding, grooms etc.

What happened to the London trams

The tram in the above image belonged to the then North Metropolitan Tramways. This company later became part of Metropolitan Electric Tramways and the former horse tram routes were electrified before becoming part of London Transport at the latter's formation in 1933. With the exception of three tram routes using the Kingsway Subway, all of North London's trams had gone by WWII and were replaced in the main by trolleybuses. London's remaining trams finally bowed out in July 1952, leaving London tram-less until the modern Croydon-based system appeared. During the last week of London's trams, many cars (as trams were called by staff) carried the announcement "Last tram week. On July 5th we say goodbye to London".

Darren Kitson

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Trolley bus 1910

Tram in Fore Street, Edmonton, 1910. Note the overhead wires. Detail from a larger photograph in the effects of Ena Cole.

Trolley buses, which ran on wheels rather than rails were some­what more manoeuv­rable. They got their power from overhead electric cables.

I loved trolley buses. They were comfortable, quick and quiet, and they seemed to be fitted with particularly comfortable suspension. We would often let a couple of double-deckers pass if we knew a trolleybus would soon be along.

When the trams were phased out, their overhead systems went with them, together with the trolleybuses that also depended upon them for power. I think the last trolleybuses ran in the early 1960s.

Chris Ferne

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Old open top bus and trolley bus in Fore Street, Edmonton, in the early 1900s 

Open top public transport in Fore Street, Edmonton, in the early 1900s. A tram, powered by an overhead electric cable is on the left and bus is on the right. Tram rails can be seen in the middle of the road. (A detail from a larger photo found in the effects of Ena Cole.)

Waterproof covers for passengers on the top deck of a bus or tram in the early 1900s, for use in the rain

Waterproof covers which could be unhitched in the rain for covering knees and laps. Photographed in the London Transport Museum.

Buses and trams had open tops, and it was fun to sit on the top deck to see the scenery as it passed by. It could be cold though, particularly in a strong wind. Fortunately there were waterproof covers for passengers on the top deck for use in the rain. They were attached to the seat in front and could be unhitched to go across our knees.

Covered top buses and trams came into service sometime during the 1920s.

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.