On this day in history : 23rd March 1861 – Horse-drawn tramcars begin operating on London’s streets for the first time…. They were introduced by an American, Mr. George Train….

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George Francis Train. Image credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington DC

America had been introduced to tramcars (streetcars) by George Francis Train some thirty years before he brought them to Britain…. The very first line he opened here was at Birkenhead in 1860…. Three demonstration lines were then installed in London; one along the Bayswater Road between Marble Arch and Porchester Terrace, another at Victoria and a further one between Westminster Bridge and Kennington….

The trams proved popular with many; thousands attracted by their novelty came to see them and ride upon them…. However, not everybody was happy….

Train had chosen fashionable, elite parts of London to trial his trams…. The wealthy residents had no need for public transport, as most owned their own carriages…. They complained of the crowds who got in their way, the noise and having to share the roads with this new form of transport…. Then there was the problem with the actual rails, which stood proud to the road surface causing difficulties for other road vehicles….

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London United Tramways tram in front of its tram-shed, Kew Road, Richmond – Public domain

The ‘sticking-up’ rail – or ‘step-rail’ – was actually designed in a way (with a wide bottom plate some 5 inches wide) to take any width of carriage wheel….which at the time came in several different gauges…. The idea was that they could accommodate all vehicles, not just Train’s trams…. Unfortunately many carriages had accidents trying to use them…..numerous complaints were made to the transport commissioners, so that eventually on the 4th of October 1861, after six months in operation, Train was told to remove his tramway….

The advantages of the tramway had not gone unnoticed by the planners…. Nine years later, in 1870, the first tram service began between Brixton and Kennington…. This time the steel rails lay flush to the road surface….

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Public domain

Being on rails meant the tramcars were easier than the omnibuses for the horses to pull…. This in turn meant more passengers could be carried at one time using the same amount of horses…. As a result the fare, which worked out at 1d per mile, was cheaper than that of the buses…. With the addition of the railways’ cheaper early morning workers’ tickets public transport became accessible to everyone…. Another advantage was that the tram travelled slightly faster at 6mph, compared to the bus at 4mph…. Workers began to travel further to work, many moved out of the crowded city to the suburbs…. The tramway network had grown considerably, connecting new housing developments on the outskirts to the city centre….

Initially tram services were operated by private companies, such as the Pimlico, Peckham and Greenwich Street Tramways or the North Metropolitan Tramways…. London County Council could see the social benefits of the system, the cheap fares, accessibility and reliability…. The council saw it as an important part of their policy and during the 1890s made compulsory purchases on many of the horse tram routes….

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Croydon Horse Tram in London Road, Broad Green c.1890 – Public domain

The tramways still had their problems; the installation and maintenance of the lines caused disruption, derailments were a hazard….and then there was the horse poo….

A single bus or tram needed a team of twelve horses to keep it on the road for twelve hours a day…. Horses were rotated every 3-4 hours….they needed stabling, feeding, watering, veterinary and blacksmith services…. 55% of the operators’ fees went on the cost of caring for the horses – an average of £20,000 was collectively spent per year on horseshoes alone…. 50,000 horses were used to keep the public transport system going on London’s streets….horses that ate the equivalent of a quarter of a million acres worth of foodstuff and produced 1,000 tonnes of droppings per year…. Much of this was collected up and dumped in poorer areas of the city….

London Omnibus
Description: “Photograph of omnibus marked C.H. waiting for passengers with conductor on steps.” Photograph by RL Sirus. Date: 1884  http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk

Eventually the electrification of trams and the arrival of the motor bus just before World War I meant the demand for the working horse became less and less…. The last horse-drawn trams were withdrawn in 1915….

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1882 Stephenson horse-drawn tram. Taken at the London Transport Museum at Covent Garden, London. Image credit: sv1ambo via Flickr

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