Anniversary of the silver rails

By the 1860s, Bristol was growing fast. New factories were springing up around the city, but, faced with a lack of adequate public transport, those who worked in them had to live within walking distance. This was a problem not only for the factory owners, who needed to recruit workers at short notice, but also for their employees, who often had to put up with hastily-built or inadequate accommodation. The obvious answer, as far as many Bristolians were concerned, was to do what several other cities had already done, and build a network of street tramways.

Eventually, in 1871, the corporation bowed to pressure and agreed to build a line from Perry Road, along Park Row and Queen’s Road and up Whiteladies Road as far as Apsley Road – a distance of a mile and a third. Track laying began in July 1873 and work was completed the following spring, at which point the corporation needed to find someone to operate the route.
Step forward the newly-formed Bristol Tramways Company, which was granted a 21-year lease in October 1874. Having acquired seven tramcars and 70 horses to pull them, the company commenced operations on 9 August 1875. In the first year almost 1.4M journeys were made and new lines were soon planned. Before long, the network covered 16 miles, the fleet of tramcars had grown to 109, and the number of horses to 678.

Horsepower imposed severe restrictions, however. Tramcars had to be small and their top speed was around eight miles an hour. Generally they were pulled by two horses, but trace horses had to be added to climb even modest inclines. But how wonderful it must have been, sitting on the top deck of a tram climbing to College Green pulled by a team of four horses, the only sounds the rattling of the wheels and the clip-clopping of hooves.

The company was desperate to find a new source of motive power. Steam engines were tried for a time in the late 1870s, but they proved unpopular and were soon abandoned. The breakthrough came in 1895 when a new line opened to St George, powered by electricity. Within four years, the entire network had been converted to electricity, and the generating station at Finzel’s Reach which the company built to power its trams towered above the river like a portent of the century that was about to dawn.

The new trams climbed the hills with ease and swayed back down them at an invigorating lick. They opened up the suburbs and facilitated an extraordinary expansion of the city. People who worked in the city centre no longer had to put up with living in squalid back-to-backs and tenements nearby but could escape to the suburbs. Bristol’s electric trams epitomised the spirit of optimism with which the city greeted the new century.

By 1901, the network covered over 30 route miles. A vast new depot and maintenance complex was built at Brislington. The main interchange point between the various routes, at St Augustine’s Parade, became known as the Tramways Centre, and was one of the busiest places in the city.

Yet the heyday of the trams was all too brief. Once electrification was complete, many of the horses were redeployed to operate bus routes further out, but by 1906 petrol-driven buses started to be used instead. New tram lines continued to be laid – in 1908 an extension was opened from the Downs to Westbury on Trym – but after the First World War, as motor transport improved, the tramways were starved of investment. The trams were not updated and increasingly came to be seen as outmoded. The entire fleet was open-topped, and, while that wasn’t so much of a problem in the warmer months, sitting on the top deck in the teeth of a wintry blizzard would have been grim in the extreme.

Under the Tramways Act of 1870, Bristol Corporation had the option of purchasing the system in 1915 and at seven-year intervals thereafter. Faced with this uncertainty, the company had little incentive to invest or modernise, and, when the corporation did eventually exercise its option to take over the network in 1936, it was with a view to closing it down. In the event, the end came sooner than planned. In the 1941 Good Friday raid, a bomb destroyed St Philip’s Bridge, severing power lines from the generating station. It was a sad end to an enterprise that had promised – and achieved – so much.

Today, it seems inexplicable – and deeply to be lamented – that Bristol, like everywhere else in England, except Blackpool, got rid of its trams. Elsewhere, it was a different story. Scores of cities – such as Melbourne, Brussels, Vienna, Antwerp, Lisbon, Gothenburg, Dresden – hung onto them, not as museum pieces but as part of mass transit systems we can but envy. Many UK cities have recognised that consigning their tram networks to the scrapyard was a mistake and have built new ones. Bristol, though, despite several promising schemes having been proposed over the years, has yet to see trams return. Perhaps one day, though, Bristolians will once again be able to ride the silver rails through the city’s streets.