Memories of Bristol's Trams


Bristol's modern-day on-off tram system looks as if it might get back on the rails after all.
But it won't ever compete with the system that Bristol once had - and scrapped.

In the years following the Great War, Bristol a pioneer of the electric tram - had the largest fleet of open-topped trains in the world.

That wasn't such a blessing as it might seems -open-topped trains were just that, and passengers and drivers had no protection against rain or extreme temperatures. So why did Bristol carry on using these old fashioned tramcars when other places had public transport with roofs and windows ?

That was due to one of those curious agreements under which the corporation was happy to let Bristol Tramways run the system but kept the option to consider buying the entire undertaking every seven years. With that threat hanging over the company, no wonder it was unwilling to update its cars.

image above: 1900 Bristol bound tram picture taken on the Wells Road

The tram system really began in the 1870's when there was no public transport apart from Hackney carriages which were beyond the means of ordinary folk.

So the Corporation decided to build a tramway and set up Bristol Tramways to run it. The first line was along Whiteladies Road to Perry Road - a move which generated fierce opposition from Clifton folk who feared trains would bring hordes of working class people into their leafy suburbs.

The churches were also strongly opposed to public transport on the grounds that it would encourage workers to seek sinful pleasures, while local shopkeepers were equally unhappy that trains would enable people to shop in the city centre instead of with them.

But the Tramways company forged ahead, and the first horse drawn tram ran from King David's Hotel in Perry Road to St John's church, Redland, on August 9 1875. It attracted the biggest crowds seen in Bristol since the opening of the Suspension Bridge, and 115,000 passengers were carried in the first month.

image above: The former St.George's Tramway Depot in 1938

By the end of the year, the line reached St Augustine's Parade which became known as the Tramway Centre, a name still used by older Bristolians. More lines followed to east Bristol and beyond, and out to Horfield and Brislington. Bristol Tramways experimented with steam hauled trains but they were so smelly and smoky that they were soon withdrawn.

Then, in 1895, Bristol became one of the first cities to adopt electric trains, on the line between Old Market and Kingswood. There were huge celebrations including a mighty free meal for 1,200 -elderly and deserving poor. They were a huge success and on one August Bank Holiday alone, some 30,000 passengers were carried.

By 1908, the network of 31 miles within Bristol and South Gloucestershire was complete.

It was one of the best public transport systems in Britain. It was flexible too - in 1913 the Royal Show was held on The Downs and 225 trains were diverted to take 1 .5 million people to it.

image above: 1921 Bristol Tram and crew

Women were first used as conductors, or "clippies" as they were nicknamed, during the Great War which led to a sex battle when the men returned. The clippies refused to give up their jobs and new freedom, and in April 1920 there was a near riot on the Centre where a crowd of 2,000 gathered to support 13 unemployed ex-soldiers. Around 30 trains were damaged and the Tramway Company caved in.

The clippies were all sacked, offered £5 to go away and their jobs were given back to the men.

image above: 1930's A Brislington bound tram passing under Clifton Suspension Bridge

An express tramway was planned down the new Portway to Avonmouth and space was reserved alongside the road. But buses were already taking over from trains and the idea was dropped. Then in 1937, the Corporation finally took up its option to buy the Tramway Company, and paid £1.5 million.

By then trains were being blamed for adding to road congestion, and the new owners pledged to replace all trains with motor buses within two years.

image above: 1930's A Bristol tram driver as seen from the front seat on the top deck

Some were so vandalised they had to be towed home, and most were burned at the Kingswood depot in Hill Street.

The few remaining lines won a reprieve in 1939 when war broke out although there were real feats that they were a magnet for bombers because of the very visible electric sparks given off by the overhead connectors.

The service was severely handicapped by bombing raids that brought down wires and poles, and the Bedminster and Ashton services were halted forever in January 1941 when Bedminster depot was hit.

image above: 1930's Bristol Bridge

image above: Hanham bound Bristol Tram with one of the first lady "clippies" 1917

image above: 1917 Elise Shepstone was employed by the Bristol Tramways and Carriage Company women and girls took the place of men during the First World War

image above: "1938 The Last Tram ride out of the city" this tram was the last ever to leave Bristol bound for Brislington Bristol trams were phased out - and replaced by motor buses

image above: "The End of the Tram in Bristol" - Kingswood Depot breaking up the trams in 1938

Then the terrible Good Friday raid of 1941, which set central Bristol on fire, ended 46 years of Bristol trains. A bomb hit Counterslip bridge, St Philips, next to the generating centre, and severed the tram power supply. A final tram from Old Market to Kingswood was given a push by passers-by and freewheeled its way into the depot.

All of Bristol's trains were scrapped and not one has been preserved for future generations.

Apart from the odd fitment still surviving, the main memorial to an unrivalled public transport system is a length of tram track still embedded in St Mary Redcliffe churchyard where it was blown by a bomb...