Travel by Tram – In the Old-Fashioned Way

Travel by Tram – in the Old-Fashioned Way

The old trams. Lots of old photographs of our towns show trams or tramlines in the streets. So here is a chance for me to write what I know. I wonder if it will help anybody to imagine what travel used to be like? And is travel by tram the same now? Have we made any progress?

Trams were Smooth

Yes they were. They ran on rails embedded in the street. The remainder of the surface of the street was nearly always granite setts. The surface of the street was referred to as “settled” or “cobbled”. As in the sentence “the street was cobbled” or “the surface was settled”, sometimes “the surface was setted”.

At the time the electric trams came in (in the 1890s-1900s), the wheels of other road-going vehicles were wooden and tyres were rings of iron. Of course, they skidded easily on the setts and were pretty unstable.

Speeds were very much slower back then. A horse and cart might make about 6mph and often less. A bicycle about the same. An electric tram going full speed might make 12mph. Now, that changes things, doesn’t it?

Trams were Cars, Cars were Motors

Electric Trams were also called Tramcars. Nearly everybody used the phrase “going on the car”. That meant travelling by tram. The few motor cars were called “Motors” and because hardly anybody ever saw one and nearly nobody owned one, they were only referred to when they were seen. “Mind that motor” people would say; meaning “beware of the traffic”. What we call a “Car accident” would be called a “motor accident” back then.

Let’s go for a ride on the car!

From Middleton to Manchester. It’s easily one hundred years ago. The car belongs to Manchester Corporation Tramways. It is painted in a livery of Red and White. It’s a wet day, so we go inside. (That’s downstairs). If we go upstairs, or on top of the car, that’s outside. The car (or tram) has no roof. The seats are wooden. The car moves quickly from its standing start. But no sooner has it moved, than it stops. Somebody wants to get on. The Guard rings the bell twice and off we go again. No sooner has it started than it stops again. Somebody else wants to get on – or off. The Guard rings the bell twice and off we go again.

The pattern of travel

The pattern of travel is unlike today. It is “Stop;Start.” On the bus today, the stops are a lot further apart. In 1902, there were many stops. The number of stops was first reduced in the 1914-1918 war. This was because the starting of the car uses the most electricity. So the number of stops was reduced to save coal at the power station. The number of stops would be reduced again in the 1930s and again during the 1939-1945 war.

The only time you get a long run in the car is if it passes through a district with few houses. Then you will notice other sounds. The car accelerates quickly and the motors make a deep growling noise which gets higher in pitch. Then, there is a change in the sound of the motors and after a gap, they get higher pitched still and then, the sound suddenly stops and the tram keeps moving. It is coasting – or free-wheeling. There is a slight left to right movement, like a ship at sea. That is called jazzing. That only happens going downhill or on the level.

Speed is of the essence

But how fast is this? Well, it is about 12mph. That makes the journey to Manchester from Middleton take about 40 minutes. Does it get faster? Er – No. Around a corner and over a set of points (where one line joins another) you can only go at 4mph. Why is this?

Too Many Wheels

Not only are there four (or eight) wheels on rails (and these wheels must stay in and on the rails) but there is another wheel. It is in the trolley. The trolley is the tram’s electrical pick-up arm that runs on the overhead wire.
It stays against the wire by means of a hidden and very powerful set of springs. It also stays there because the current is DC – not AC. The wheel runs under the wire and the electricity runs down the pole and into the electrical part of the tram. The wire hisses as the tram runs. This noise is made by the wheel on the wire. If the tram goes too fast, the trolley might come off the wire. Then the tram stops. The Guard has to fix the trolley wheel back under the wire. There is a rope hanging from the trolley to assist in this work.

Some Noises Are Useful Noises

Trams are sometimes noisy. Any vehicle makes a noise. The motors of a tram growl and hum. The gears chunner. Then the trolley wheel hisses on the wire. You can tell if a tram is within half-a-mile of you too! Every time the trolley wheel passes under one of the wire clamps on the overhead wire, the hiss changes. So you know if the tram is getting closer.

Some Noises Are Too Loud and Upsetting

Sometimes, trams get “flats” on the tyre of their wheels. Not all wheels get them at the same time though; usually just one. The wheels of the tram are made of steel. There is a flange that goes into the groove in the rail. That steers the tram. The tyre of the wheel sits on the flat part of the rail. If the tram brakes on wet or greasy rails, the wheels can lock. Then the tram might slide a few yards. This causes a flat on the wheel tyre. You can always tell if a tram has a flat on a wheel tyre. As it goes along the line, you will hear the flat part of the wheel hit the rail. It sounds like somebody using a hammer to hit a nail – very quick and very loud. Early morning trams which had “flats” would annoy people living along the line.

Journey Time

Nowadays, from Middleton to Manchester – about 6 miles – using the bus takes between 18 and 35 minutes depending on what time of day you travel. In 1902, the journey took 40 minutes. The train was faster but dearer. Also, the railway station was not in the centre of the town.

In 1923, the tram journey from Middleton to Manchester took 31 minutes. In 1930, the tram journey from Middleton to Manchester took 29 minutes.

“Last Trams” – usually the last departure of the night (on any system) would guarantee you a fast run, so there may have been possibilities of the journey being done much more quickly. We cannot know for sure now.

How Did Journeys Get Faster?

Firstly, some stops were cut out of the route. Then the motors of the trams were changed for more powerful ones. These more powerful motors meant that there could be higher speeds on uphill sections of the route – like from Middleton going up Manchester New Road; or from Blackley Tram Office to Victoria Avenue. They also meant that acceleration was faster.

Was that enough?

Well no, not really. Braking systems were not as developed as the motors. The Manchester trams that came to Middleton mostly only had a handbrake, working on the wheels. That meant that the top speed of the trams was restricted to about 20mph. In 1930, Manchester put some new trams on the route with “Magnetic track brakes”. These went faster – up to about 30mph. Unfortunately, they were not very comfortable and were given to “jazzing”.

Sadly, the trolley and its wheel also caused the trams to be slow. The wheels are not good at speed – they can jump the wire. In the summer, in high temperatures, the wires would lose tension and get pushed up higher by the trolley!

However, in the 1930s, a new type of collector shoe was made and that meant that some trams could go faster. In some places, notably Leeds, Sunderland and Glasgow, a new type of electrical collector altogether was used and that speeded up the services considerably. The city of Liverpool probably had the fastest trams running that used the trolley wheel. Speeds which were unheard of on many systems were daily occurrences there!

What was the speed limit in those days?

In 1902, the speed limit for all traffic was 12mph. In the 1920s it was raised to 20mph and then in the 1930s to 30mph in built-up areas. Lorries were restricted to 20mph until well after the 1939-1945 war. All traffic would break the speed limit from time to time. The Police would stop people for doing this. Drivers would be prosecuted for exceeding the speed limit – even Bus Drivers!

How did you get on a Tram?

The tram lines ran in the middle of the road. There would be a set of tram lines for travel in each direction – a double track. When you saw the tram coming, you signalled to the driver. He would pull up at the stop. As he was stopping, you would walk out to the middle of the road in a group to the tram. Any motor cars or lorries which were following the tram were supposed to stop too.  They did not always stop though. There were sometimes accidents through impatience.

Trams were high off the ground. First, you climbed on to a step between 12 and 18 inches off the ground. Then you would have to climb about the same again on to the platform. The Guard would help old people and children. He would shout “Hold Tight Please”. The platform had lots of rails that you could hold on to. Parents and grandparents would also tell children to “Stick hold!”

If you were going inside (or downstairs), you went to the left as you got on. If you were going upstairs (or on top, or outside) then you climbed up the winding stairs. Upstairs was really for the smokers.

The Guard would collect your fare.  He would tell you how much it was from where you got on. You would tell him where you wanted to get off the tram. He would ring the bell for you – especially if you could not reach it yourself!

Comforts? Not Always! – but always At Your Service

Trams did not have any heaters before 1930s. Manchester trams never had heaters. In the autumn and winter and on wet days, the trams could be very stuffy. There were vents down the sides of the trams that changed the air during the journey. Upstairs was the preserve of the smokers. The upstairs of a tram could be really awful. Sometimes all 40 seats could be occupied and each person might be smoking a pipe or cigarette. The windows would be shut. Until the 1930s, most trams had wooden seats, upstairs and down. Still, the ride was not bumpy.

Sometimes, the downstairs seats were very long seats that went down each side of the tram. All the passengers faced each other. If the seats were facing forward, the backs could be moved to face the other way. This was because nearly all tram routes finished at a dead end. But they could be driven from each end! So when you got to the terminus, the backs of the seats could be moved over and they faced the other way! If you were with your friends, you could sometimes sit in a group of four and face each other. (But only if the Guard let you!).

Most of the trams were less than 7 foot wide. That means that travel was often cramped by today’s more generous standards.

You could also post a letter on the tram! In the evenings, from 1923, one Middleton to Manchester tram carried a Post Box. You could post your letter at the tram stop if there were people getting on, but if you stopped the tram especially to post the letter, you had to pay a penny. The Guard would give you a penny ticket in return! This service was available on many tram routes around the country too.

Horns and Bells, Directions and Windscreens

The tram had a gong. Not a bell like an American railway train, but a really mournful and not very resonant bell. It clanged its presence. That was its warning. A sort of friendly noise but really a warning. Trams did not have horns or hooters until much later.

Naughty schoolboys would fly down the stairs of the tram and land on the gong pedal. My father told me that the Guards used to get very shouty about this and words would be said that you might not have quite expected from public servants…all in good humour and fun though!

If the tram was turning, there would be no signal. You were expected to know the route. Drivers were sometimes caught out.

Early trams had no windscreens or canopies. The driver was in the open all the time. Wet days and snow would be impossible but the men who drove the trams just carried on. They wore extremely thick woollen coats, with mittens and gauntlets. For foggy days, they might also be given a pair of goggles.

The Tram Driver – properly called “The Motorman”

The tram driver did not sit down to drive. He stood up all day. He had to. The tram was made to go and stop by rotating handles. With his foot, the driver would stamp on the warning bell, stamp of the sand pedal which would help the tram to slow down. (The sand went on the rails and allowed the wheels to slow down without skidding). He also used his right foot to help keep the brake wound on. The tram could be driven from either end too.

The motorman also had to watch out for children animals and people in the road. If anybody was unfortunate enough to fall under the tram, they would activate a lifeguard, which was a very sensitive swinging gate which caused a wooden tray to fall and scoop up the person or object on the lines, before they might be run over by 15 tons of tramcar…

The Tram Guard

The Guard was in charge of the safety of the passengers. He made sure that the tram did not move off until all the passengers were safely on the tram. He also collected the money from passengers for fares. When you paid your fare, he gave you a ticket in return. The ticket said where you got on and the amount showed where you should get off. If you went past your stop, you had to pay again. The Guard could take copper or silver money for fares but not gold. If a passenger did not have coins but had stamps, those could also be paid to the Guard for a ticket.

The Guard also called out the names of the stops. He would ring the bell once for you, if you wished to get off. He was not to talk to the driver as he drove the tram. He could however communicate with the driver by means of bell signals.

The Trolley Boy

As the services got busier, Trolley Boys were employed. They had a reputation for being cheeky but they did a very useful job. They helped the Guard by turning the trolley when necessary. They helped passenger on and off the tram. They called out the names of the stops as the journey progressed.

The Inspector

The Inspector made sure that the trams ran to time. Up and down the line, were Inspectors and time-clocks. Inspectors would check tickets. That was to make sure that nobody was cheating. If you were caught cheating – or the Guard was – then you were in trouble – big time. These men were powerful individuals back then.

Difficulties for Drivers, Guards and Inspectors

Hat pins before the 1914-18 war caused lots of problems for Guards. Ladies would wear enormous hat pins to keep their hats in place. Sometimes, these would cause injuries to the faces of Guards (and other passengers too).

Drunken passengers might fall asleep or become violent when awoken. These would often be on late trams.

Arguments about tickets and misunderstandings about stopping places would cause trouble.

Timekeeping was a perennial problem, especially as motor traffic increased.

Fog ice and snow; children running in the road and stray animals were all problems for the driver. Horse drawn traffic was also a problem and sometimes, carts were very large, slow and heavy. Carters would often drive with one wheel on the tram lines. The tram would have to sound its presence by its bell. Sometimes the Carter might not hear the tram and so the service would slow down. A great number of accidents involving trams and Carters; trams and children occurred in the earlier days. Many ended in fatalities.


Would you have gone by tram then? Well of course you would. There was no other way – Shanks’ Pony was the only other way to get anywhere for most people. Was the tram slow? No, the tram was not slow. It was fast for the time. Look at the journey times above – in 114 years, we are not much better off.

Speed was not the problem back then – no, it was the cost. Would you be able to afford the fare? Perhaps you would make yourself afford the fare. What is certain is this: You would have had to walk a very long way to save a penny on the fare. In those days, a penny would take you a very long way indeed…

Tickets please! Pass right down the car please! Hold tight Please! Plenty of seats inside! Only five more on top! Next stop Terminus! Terminus; All Change! Ting Ting!…
Travel by Tram – in the Old-Fashioned Way
Perhaps you might like to try a ride on an old-fashioned tram at the Tramway Museum at Crich in Derbyshire link here ; or Seaton in Devon link here ; or Heaton Park, Manchester link here; or Beamish Museum, County Durham link here; or at Carlton Colville, near Lowestoft, Suffolk link here; or on one of the special days at Blackpool, Lancashire link here ; or at Birkenhead, across the water from Liverpool link here. Any or all of these make a great day out!

Our modern trams are much faster and quieter; but we travel a lot further on them than people used to many years ago! Many cities in the world still have trams and they provide up-to-date fast travel for their citizens and visitors alike.

When you visit the museums, remember that what you are seeing was once the last word in modernity too – the old trams were not old-fashioned when they were made, they were the latest means of travel – and possibly the fastest that many people experienced without going on a train!

Travel by Tram – in the Old-Fashioned Way


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