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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Swish, Rattle and Clang!

Swish, Rattle and Clang! - the story of Norwich's trams

Norwich City Tram Route Sketch

By the late nineteenth century Norwich was an industrial city whose factories made goods for the world. The workforce was drawn from the city's rapidly expanding population, much of it attracted from the surrounding rural area. As the population grew - by the census of 1901 it had tripled during the previous century to over 100,000 - a means of transporting workers around the City became imperative. The horse drawn bus service operated by the Norwich Omnibus Company since 1879 was no longer adequate, so in 1897, following an act of Parliament, the Norwich City Council approved the construction of an electric tram service by the Norwich Electric Tramways Company. Work began the following year and took almost two years to complete. The directors of the company included the merchant banker Baron Emile Beaumont d'Erlanger, Francis Pavy, Theodore Matesdorf and Edmund Hopkins. Of these d'Erlanger was perhaps the most interesting. He was a French financier, involved in the development of railways and mining across in Africa, America and elsewhere. Pavy was an engineer with the Westinghouse Company who supplied the power plants for the trams. On 30th July 1900 crowds lined the streets to watch the first trams open for business, heralding an innovative transport concept for twentieth century Norwich.


Interviewee Peter Ward
Peter Ward

Norwich was still essentially a medieval city of narrow streets with sharp bends and steep inclines which the new tram cars would not be able to negotiate. In order to lay the three foot six inch (1066 mm) gauge track with sufficient clearance some buildings met an untimely end to make way for the new transport infrastructure. As 86-year-old tram enthusiast and former teacher Peter Ward recalls,

"To get the trams from the Royal Hotel to Dereham Road they knocked down a whole lot of buildings in Redwell Street. They also knocked down buildings where there's a fork with St Benedicts one side and Westwick Street the other side. Now on that corner, there was a huge pub right across called The Three Pigeons and that was demolished to get the trams through because St Benedicts Street was only about ten feet wide. They rebuilt The Three Pigeons on the other side of the street and its now called the Hog In Armour."


The redevelopment of The Three Pidgeons pub and St Benedict's Street


The City Arms, on the corner of St Andrews Street and St Andrews Hill, opposite what is now Delaney's pub, was also demolished to straighten the road for the trams. The area of yards and small streets around Orford Place was virtually obliterated to provide a large triangular space which became the hub of the new tram network. In 1904 the Orford Place track layout was revised for ease of operation and in 1928 a ticket office, and a shelter for passengers was erected.

Tram Depot on Silver Road
Tram Depot on Silver Road

A tram depot, including maintenance workshops, was built at the northern end of Silver Road. This consisted of a two storey office block facing onto Sprowston Road, almost opposite Denmark Road. Access to the two four-road sheds at the Silver Road depot was via the Magdalen Road service which terminated in Denmark Road, with a spur crossing Sprowston Road into the sheds. The workshops comprised a forge and a wheel lathe.

Electrical power for the system was provided by a generating station in Duke Street which fed the overhead wires. By 1998 twenty-five power line suspension poles and wall mounted rosettes were to be found in the City, including one attached to the Guildhall on Gaol Hill.


The Deck plans for a Norwich Tram
1900 British Tram Interior. Maximum Capacity: 52

Fifty open-top, fifty-two seat cars were provided with ten unpowered trailers which seated an additional forty passengers. Peter Ward again


The unpowered trailers were not a success due to the sharp curves and gradients in the City, some as much as 1:14, so the tow bars on the power cars were removed. By 1906 some trailers were converted to power operation and were utilised mainly on the twisty Aylsham Road route to which their shorter length was more suited. One former trailer was converted as a track gang van and the rest cannibalised for spare parts. Another conversion, after a particularly heavy snow fall in 1906, was that of a plough fitted to the front of car 47. Every winter thereafter it was on standby as a snow plough but never called upon.

Coachwork bodies were of a Brush Electrical Engineering Company of Loughborough design, powered by Westinghouse 25 horse power (hp) motors and short wheelbase (6ft) Peckham cantilever wheel assemblies with 30inch diameter wheels.


Tram Conductors' Rules

A Conductor was paid 3d an hour while the Motor-men did a little better at 4d an hour with no guaranteed weekly hours nor holiday pay. Ticket Inspectors were known to deal harshly with fare dodgers and would countenance no excuses. Peter Ward explains,

"We had a prominent Alderman in Norwich called Alderman Green and he had a large gent's outfitters and drapery in the Haymarket. Well he got on a tram one day and up stepped Inspector Hunt with,

"Tickets please?"

And he approached Alderman Green and asked him for his ticket and he said he'd,

"... dropped it on the floor while giving his seat to a Lady."

So the Inspectors says,

"Well you'd better find it then."

And Alderman Green says he's,

" ... not going to grovel on the floor looking for a ticket," and he expected the Inspector to "take his word as a gentleman that," as he had, in fact, paid his fare.

But no, the Inspector pressed charges and Alderman Green was duly fined five pounds. Which is about £250 in modern money. After that Alderman Green bought a cane and every time he passed a tram stand he used to hit it."


During the course of their service the cars underwent a number of modifications which included track brakes, life guards, head and tail lights and upper deck cladding. Initially, the upper deck sides were clad in netting but in 1904 'modesty screens' were installed to save the blushes of ladies riding on the upper deck. To save weight there was no roof, covers or screens on the cars due to the short wheel base and long upper deck overhangs. The company colours were dark maroon and ivory with the company name above the windows.


In 1906 five cars were converted to Mountain & Gibson radial wheel assemblies which were designed to allow for a longer wheelbase to deal with the sharp curves on the network but were not deemed a success. They were eventually sent to Coventry. Literally - being sold to the Coventry tram system.


The tram tracks were light weight, of Belgian manufacture having been shipped to Great Yarmouth by tug. A 65lb rail was used on the straights and 90lb on the curves. The joints were welded together, using the Falk process, by the R.H. Blackwell Company. Welding the track lengths was lighter and less expensive than bolting fishplates together. However, once welded, this lighter track was difficult to handle when layout alterations were required and the welding system was later discontinued.


A diagram of the workings of a Tram Passing Loop


The majority of the lines on the network were of single operation with loops to allow oncoming trams to pass. The points on the passing loops had two blades, instead of the more usual single blade utilised by street trams, fabricated from Vignole rail in place of the normal British Standard grooved rail. The initial fifteen mile network was later expanded into the suburbs with a total of seventeen and a half miles of tram track.

The planned routes, according to Peter Ward, were:

"The Norwich tram cars had seven routes and they had boards on the front of the cars, different colours to indicate the routes;

The white route was Unthank Road and Denmark Road, the red route was Earlham Road and Thorpe Road, the green route was Newmarket Road and Cavalry Barracks with an extension to Mousehold Heath in the summer months.  Theorange route was Orford Place to Trowse. The yellow and red route was Orford Place to City Road, the red and blue route Aylsham Road to the Royal Hotel and the blue route started at the Royal Hotel and went all the way through to the top of the hill on Dereham Road, near Merton Road."


A route was built from Orford Place, which ran the full length of King Street, to Trowse Station but due to operating difficulties was discontinued and replaced by the Yellow route via Queen's Road and Bracondale, after 1914.  Peter Ward remembers,

"There was one tramway which had a tremendous alteration. Where they ran trams to Trowse, the tram line went from Prince of Wales Road, the entire length of King Street until you got to Bracondale, all the way to Trowse. They found King Street impossible, it seemed to be too narrow, so they re-routed the service from Orford Place, that ran along Queens Road to take it to Trowse that way."


Non-passenger service routes were laid in Magpie Road and Heigham Road to get trams to & from the depot to their starting points, with further routes along Chapel Field Road and Theatre Street via Rampant Horse Street as a bypass when Orford Place was grid locked during busy times of the day. All of these routes had been discontinued by 1924.

A temporary 'works' route was laid down in 1918 to transport armaments and aircraft parts from the factories around the now long defunct Mousehold Heath airfield to Thorpe mainline station. The Mousehold Light Railway used the Newmarket Road / Cavalry Barracks line with an extension through the Heath, a short way east of the Pavilion (now Zaks) on Gurney Road to near the junction with what is now Roundtree Way. The rails for this line were recycled from the disused King Street route and differed in construction from the other routes by using wooden sleepers.

Mousehold Light Railway route map

This Light Railway departed from the Green route at the south end of Riverside Road, crossed the Thorpe road junction east of Foundry Bridge and entered the station forecourt by means of a spur line which ran up the northern side of the terminus from where goods were off-loaded onto the main line.  The goods wagons were hauled by two Government owned electric tractors, with BTH controllers and powerful 38hp motors, to pull the heavy loads across Mousehold Heath. At the war's end this line was discontinued and the tractors passed into the possession of Norwich Electric Tramcar Company who converted them to tram use, where they were known affectionately by the Motor-men as 'Dreadnoughts' due to their wartime role. The rails and sleepers were not taken up until the 1930's but evidence of the course of the disused railway, cuttings and curves through the wooded Heath, is still to be found. 


After two decades of valiant service the ageing Brush cars were replaced in 1924 by a Metropolitan English Electric Company design. As testament to the rugged construction of the cars, Peter Ward recalls,

"When we were little, every year there was a big schools sports day up at Newmarket Road. After the sports was over there'd be three or four trams waiting on Newmarket Road to take all the children back to the City. It was quite unbelievable the number of people they'd get on a tram. They reckoned they could get well over a hundred people on a tram car."


The Norwich Electric Tramcar Company had a good safety record with few noteworthy accidents; in 1925 an Unthank Road tram ran off the rails and crashed into a wall near St Giles Gate with no casualties; in the same year two Dereham Road trams crashed head-on in thick fog, injuring a motor-man. In two unrelated incidents, involving men who insisted on standing on the top deck, they fell over the side rail and onto the road below although thankfully without serious injury. Peter Ward recalls incidents from his childhood

"The tram tracks were getting in a very bad condition. I remember on Magdalen Road there was a loop where Sprowston Road joins Magdalen Road, opposite Albany Road, and the points there were in a very bad condition. Frequently the tram used to go up the wrong side of the loop.

My sister was attending a dancing class on Unthank Road, just before you got to Park Lane, and I was with my mother and my grandmother and we were going up to this place to pick my sister up from her dancing class. The car was travelling along when all of a sudden there was a funny noise, the tram sort of heaved a bit, and it went off the lines.

And the conductor said,

"Oh keep your seats ladies and gentlemen, we'll soon be on the tracks again." (Laughs)

So the driver went to the other end to operate the engine to come in the other direction. There were a few lumps and bumps and we were back on the lines again. But some of the lines were in a very bad condition."


But the end of the trams was nigh; in April 1925 the route from Aylsham Road to the Royal Hotel was closed and replaced by a bus service.  In March 1930 the Orford Place / Trowse Station route was closed. The 1897 Act which led to the establishment of the city's tram network gave the Norwich City Council power to compulsorily purchase the system. In 1932 it decided to do so but such was the extent of public opposition that a public poll was held to consider the proposal.


A poll was organised for 10th January 1933. Despite the 90,000 leaflets distributed throughout the City only 29% of the City's population voted resulting in 11,033 against the purchase and 7,775 for. In December 1933 it became known that the Eastern Counties Omnibus Company had purchased the controlling interest in The Norwich Electric Tramcar Company and would be replacing the trams with buses.


The final tram swished, rattled and clanged through the City on the night of December 10th 1935 amid wild scenes of cheering crowds singing 'Auld Lang Syne' and City church bells ringing out. Car 10, driven by the company's longest serving motor-man George Hill and their youngest conductor, Bernard Fisher, ran from Newmarket Road, packed with passengers, with cars and cyclists following along behind and reached the Silver Road depot at 11pm.


At the depot shed, the crowds and staff joined hands around the tram and sang 'Auld Lang Syne' for the final time.


After closure the tramcar bodies were available for purchase at £5 each. One is known to have ended its days as a garden shed in Norwich but Peter Wards tells of the fate of a Lowestoft tram,

"In 1957 all the people who were interested in trams got together and formed a Tram Club. There was some gentleman at Carlton Coalville who was going to get this tram car from on the cliffs somewhere not far from Lowestoft. We all went over there and dug the whole thing out, got it all jacked up, put it on a trailer and they took it to Carlton Coalville. Then the boys got to work on it and restored it and that was the last remaining Lowestoft tram. I think its still at Carlton Coalville and they run it on rails now, don't they."


Years later, George Hill's funeral cortege followed the route of his last tram journey from Newmarket Road via Orford Place and the Silver Road depot.


With grateful thanks to Peter Ward who supplied tram memorabilia, car plans, photos, maps and his personal memories and to John Crampton who allowed his early prints of the City to used in this article.


Recommended reading & places to visit:

  • Norwich Tramways by David Mackley, published by Middleton Press, 2000
  • Lost Tramways of East Anglia by Leslie Oppitz, published by Countryside Book, 2004
  • East Anglia Transport Museum, Chapel Road, Carlton Colville, Lowestoft, Suffolk NR22 8BL - (01502) 518459


Al Stokes

November 2011


To see additional video content on Youtube, please click on the following links

Norwich Trams 1

Norwich Trams 2

(These are external links, and as such Norwich HEART are not responsible for the content of these pages)