Trams in Forest Gate: 1886 - 1940

Friday, 23 January 2015


We are deeply indebted to a group of tram enthusiasts for recollecting and recording, in detail, this fascinating part of Forest Gate's historic public transport past. See footnote at end for the sources of much of the information and how to get further details.


One of the earliest surviving photos of local trams.
It is of  horse drawn vehicles, from the 1880's
and was taken at the top of Red Post Lane,
in what is now Katherine Road. We are indebted
to local historian, Carol Price, for use of this rare
and unique photo.


Trams first came for East London in 1871, with a horse-drawn line running from Aldgate to Stratford, to provide cheap transport for East End City workers, for 1d per journey. The Manor Park to Stratford route - one of the most significant in the network - was added in 1886, after the completion of the Woodgrange estate, and other similar late-Victorian developments in the area.







Turn of century horse-drawn, open-top tram on Romford
Road. Note women using parasols, to keep off the sun

Each horse cost £8 per week to feed and stable. To cuts costs, experiments were tried, replacing them with steam-driven trams, compressed air locomotives and  battery driven vehicles, but these were all unsuccessful, at this time.

Trams became truly "public" transport in east London, from the late 1890s, when they became a local authority managed, operation, at a time when local councils played far more significant roles in shaping the life chances and social conditions of their communities than they are allowed today.

Tram outside Forest Gate Station c 1910

Civic pride soon featured and the trams were resplendent with highly polished wooden and brass exteriors, varnished paintwork, with local authority crests in evidence. The original colour scheme of the West Ham fleet was Munich Lake and pale cream, but was later changed to maroon and deep cream.

Incidentally, the first manager of the West Ham depot was Herbert Blain (later Sir Herbert), who was a founding member of NALGO - the former local government trade union.

Souvenir brochure, for the opening of the
West Ham Council tram depot, in Greengate
Street, Plaistow, 1906, built at a cost of £30,000

The life of a tram driver was not easy; they had to stand for all of their working hours, in all weathers. There were no windows on the front of the tram, so in summer they could get badly sunburned and in winter, snow and rain would beat into their faces as they drove the vehicles.

The drivers worked a 10-hour day, Monday to Saturday, and eight hours on Sundays. They were paid 7.25d (3p) per hour; and after a year's service, received 13 days holiday per annum.


Corner of Romford and Woodgrange Road (1905)

From the turn of the century the pressure was on the tram industry to replace the older horse-drawn trams with electricity driven, and so much faster and generally more reliable, vehicles. East Ham became the first local authority in London to adopt them.

West Ham Council entered the electrically-driven era in 1904 and trams were soon running from Wanstead Flats. In 1909 the Aldgate to Ilford route was opened; operated by three different authorities :the London County and West Ham and Leyton Borough Councils.


Tram outside Old Spotted Dog,
on its way to Wanstead Flats

West Ham Council ran trams 21 hours per day, starting at 3.30am, until 12.30am, every  day of the year. In 1912 the local transport department had 118 tram cars, operated on 11 routes and provided 41 million passenger journeys.


Plaistow to Wanstead Flats service, c 1910

By 1913, the following routes served different parts of Forest Gate:

• Route 4: Wanstead Flats to Victoria and Albert Docks
• Route 5: Wanstead Flats to Canning Town
• Route 8: Bakers Arms to Victoria and Albert Docks, via Forest Gate
• Route 10: Stratford Broadway to Boleyn via Forest Gate
• Route 63: Aldgate to Ilford

Trams became a vital transport link for those engaged locally in war work, between 1914 - 1918, travelling to and from the docks and munitions factories within the borough, and beyond.

Wanstead Flats tram terminus, 1905 in Woodford Road.
The trams stopped where the houses ended, just
at the borough boundary. The turning on the left
is Forest Road. When larger numbers of passengers began
to use the route, additional lengths of track were laid
in Forest Road and then to the western end of Capel Road

Women were employed on public transport to replace many of the men ("substitutionism" as it was often called)who enlisted or were taken up with other war work, both as "clippies" and, in a few cases, as drivers.
 
Unfortunately, we have no details of how this significant opening up of a traditional male job preserve to women impacted on the diversification of employment opportunities in our area at this time.

War activity clearly took economic and practical precedence during this time and few improvements were made to the tram rolling stock or network, apart from essential maintenance, for the duration of the conflict.


Car 15 in Forest Road, looking towards
Wanstead Flats, 1927

Extensive fleet renovation and upgrading were therefore necessary at the end of the war, and were introduced, locally, in the 1920's. These included the replacement of open top trams as the main priority.  Motor buses soon emerged as serious competition for trams; and later, trolley buses joined the more mixed economy of local public transport.

In 1925 East Ham Council proposed to replace the tram service with a trolleybus route from Wanstead Flats to the Royal Docks. The transport authority, however,  soon backed off  after protests from service users, who feared the replacements would mean the end of cheap workman's fares. Both West and East Ham councils consequently refocused their transport development efforts into upgrading the tram rolling stock.


Route map for West Ham Corporation trams,
dated 1925. It gives the fares for the various
routes, expressed in route miles and yards covered

An integrated, co-ordinated,  London-wide public transport network was mooted in the late 1920's, and  the London Passenger Transport Board (London Transport) was created, as a result, in 1933.


Tram approaching Princess Alice on Romford Road,
about to cross, what is still a nightmare off-set
junction, into Upton Lane, in 1930s. The crossing
had previously featured a "grand union" curved
junction, much loved by tram enthusiasts!

The Board compulsorily purchased the rolling stock and routes of the West and East Ham corporation transport departments - with West Ham contributing 134 vehicles to the new company.

The new London Transport Board began to rationalise routes, and by 1934, the following tram services operated in the Forest Gate area:

• Route 10: Circular - Stratford, Forest Gate, Green Street, Plaistow
• Route 63: Ilford Broadway to Aldgate
• Route 73: Royal Docks to Wanstead Park
• Route 95: Canning Town to Wanstead Flats
• Route 95a: Upton Park, Boleyn, Wanstead Flats.


This is a former West Ham corporation tram,
shown resplendent in London Transport livery
- still working local routes - after the establishment
of the London-wide transport operation.
It was built for West Ham Corporation in 1900

In 1935 London Transport began to replace trams with trolley and motor buses, across the whole of the metropolis. As a consequence, by 1937 trams had disappeared from all local routes, except those that continued to run to Aldgate.


Car 211 by the ponds and trees of Wanstead Flats
- October 1936, waiting to leave one of the last 73
services. Unusually, this route was not converted
to trolleybus

By 1940, even those two routes - the 63 and 67 - were replaced by motor buses. The last trams trundled through West Ham in June 1940.



Model of car 119 on the Wanstead Flats to Canning Town
route. This model was exhibited at the Wembley Exhibition
in 1924, was at the Science Museum in Kensington and
later at the Old Station Museum, in North Woolwich,
until its sad closure

One or two of the old local trams survive today at the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden.  Most, however, were sent to the scrap yard in 1952.


Tram on Romford Road c 1936. The route was
replaced by a trolley bus the following year.
The tram is passing the West Ham Municipal baths,
recently demolished. The baths were opened
in 1934.

Trolleybuses, themselves, began to be withdrawn in 1959 and electric street transport finally ended in 1960, locally, with the closure of the West Ham Depot. This will be the focus of a later blog.


This old West Ham tram can still be seen
at the London Transport Museum, in Covent Garden

• Footnote. Further information on this topic can be found in East Ham and West Ham Tramways, by Robert J Harley.  The book is published by the Middleton Press and is available priced £17.95. Thanks also go to the Newham Story, and Robert Rogers, in particular, for memories and some fine photographs and images.

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