In the first quarter of the 20th century there were well over a hundred electric tramways across England, from Newcastle in the North East to Exeter in the South West, and others existed in Scotland and Wales. In Belfast electric trams ran from 1905 until 1954. Norwich was no exception; here the trams did not run on standard gauge track but on the narrower gauge of 3ft 6in that would fit our narrow streets. The system only operated for less than 40 years – the coming of the internal combustion engined motor bus sealed its fate here as it did elsewhere in Britain. Only the Isle of Man and Blackpool retained trams throughout the lean years when this form of transport seemed to be a thing of the past. The last tramway in the UK to close down was in Glasgow, where the final tram ran in 1962. I rode the Glasgow trams in the last weeks of their operation. Health and Safety were completely unknown in those days (especially in Glasgow), and the trams didn’t stop for passengers to get on and off; they just slowed down a little. Of course I didn’t know this, and waited for my tram to stop; this led to much cursing and swearing from the conductor!
The tramways in Norwich were a relatively late introduction, and consequently they were always electric; there were no horse-drawn trams. The generating station was in Duke Street. The first trams ran in July 1900. To get the tram track into the street a pub called the Three Pigeons in St Benedicts was demolished and for the same reason so too were a number of buildings in Redwell Street and by the Bell Hotel. The routes mostly ran radially and the hub of the system was in Orford Place. There was a hut beside the road where the staff were changed and where conductors could obtain extra tickets when their supplies ran low.
The most common fare for travel into the city centre was a penny. Longer journeys could cost up to three pence. School children could purchase a book of twelve tickets for sixpence – a ha’penny each. The service was very popular among the workers who poured in to the factories from their recently built terraced houses that they rented in the outskirts of Norwich. These modern dwellings and the up-to-date trams that served them provided the growing population with rapidly improving conditions of life as the 20th century dawned.
When my father went to school at the recently opened City of Norwich School he would have caught the tram from his home just off Bracondale. Rather than follow the tramlines down to Orford Place he would have changed to the line down Unthank Road. From tram terminus at the junction with Judges Walk it was but a short distance to the school.
In 1933 the tramway was purchased by the Eastern Omnibus Company who proceeded to close the system down and replace it with motor buses. The last remaining route was from Newmarket Road to Barrack Street, and the closure of this in 1935 brought the short life of Norwich Tramways to an end. My great-grandfather saw the tram stop arrive by Trowse station (near where he lived) in 1920, and by the end of his life the trams had gone. At one time you could spot an insulator from the trams’ overhead power supply here, and a short length of track there, but now there is nothing left in situ to remind you of the short history of Norwich trams.
Electric trams now seem a very green way of transporting people around the city, compared to the pollution caused by diesel engines, but such thoughts never entered the heads of people eighty years ago. Unlike the cities of Sheffield and Manchester, where trams are again part of the transport mix, I can see little prospect of trams ever returning to Norwich. The obvious place for a tramway here was along the former M&GN to City Station, which would have brought passengers directly into the City centre from Thorpe Marriott, which will inevitably grow in population as demand for housing increases. All the infrastructure was still in place in 1970, but the short-sighted planners could not see the growth in demand for clean transport that was coming. Subsequent bridge demolitions and the creation of Marriott’s Way footpath have destroyed this possibility, so we must forget about reusing closed railways. But what about the railways we still have? Why is not development concentrated on those places that still have railway stations? Never mind planners being short-sighted; they are blind.