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Creating a Tramway
1898 to 1900

The 1890s marked the beginning of a golden age for East London. Everything was on the up-and-up. It was time to embark on major innovations: electric lighting, a town hall and, of course, the establishment of a tramway.

The Council agreed that the town was large enough to support a tram service but the councillors couldn't decide on the method to propel the cars. The most logical was electricity but might it not prove expensive? In any case, the town hadn't yet procured electricity.

There was a sizeable lobby which wanted the tried-and-trusted horse-drawn trams but the idea was eventually rejected. Nevertheless, some years had to pass while the Council negotiated the establishment of electric lighting for the town.

In 1898 a contract was signed with a Johannesburg firm -- Hubert Davies and Spain -- for the supply of rails and just three cars at the sum of £11,535. The price included laying the entire track. Construction began in April 1899.

Double-decker tramcars were shipped from England in finished form. Each was capable of seating fifteen passengers downstairs and another eighteen on the open upper deck. Inside were cane reversible seats, with wooden seats up top where they would get wet when it rained.

The cars had plate-glass windows, each with a horse-hair blind and wooden blinds fixed on the outside to shield from the sun without obstructing the view. These could be pulled right down on rainy days. The lights were of cut glass, and the car inner walls were panelled in wood.

Three services were planned. The first was from the Market Square to the Beach: along Fleet Street -- which had to be constructed -- and down Inverleith Terrace to a terminus alongside the Beach Pavilion which today houses the Aquarium. There was no Esplanade as yet.

The second was from the Market Square to Park Avenue via Oxford Street, then on to the Queen's Park. The third ran from the Market Square to Southernwood, with its terminus in St George's Road at Gordon Street. The trams would run at 20 minute intervals from 05h50 until 22h30.

Track construction proceeded so rapidly that trial runs commenced in January 1900. It was an event, the Daily Dispatch reported, that caused "open-mouthed astonishment" at vehicles "that moved without horses".

The service was formally opened by the Deputy Mayor on 25 January 1900 and the tramcars proved very popular -- until wear-and-tear set in and a number of worrisome accidents began to occur. Indeed, as early as 1904 it had already become urgent that major alterations be made.

Keith Tankard
14 October 2009

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