Bexley and Dartford Trams in the years before the Great War

by Richard Diment

 

The Bexley system had opened in October 1903 but it soon became clear that the 12 cars bought for the opening could not maintain the service. The following year another four, of identical specification to the original batch, save that they were at 28ft 6in a foot longer, were put into service. They were given numbers 13 to 16 to follow on from those delivered in 1903. Also during 1904 Bexley’s original tramway manager Mr A. E. Barber left and Mr Charles Mittelhausen was appointed as his replacement.

 

I have previously written about the acquisition of the old horse-drawn trams system of the Woolwich and South East London Tram Company by the LCC in 1905. Widening of the gauge and a switch to electric traction was a priority of the LCC but this took three years to achieve. On 26 July 1908 the LCC was ready to run its electric trams from Woolwich to Abbey Wood, though the gap between Woolwich and Greenwich would still require horses for several more years. The opening of the LCC electric line to Abbey Wood provided an opportunity for Bexley UDC. As part of the LCC scheme about 150 yards of Bexley’s track in Plumstead High Street was taken over by the LCC. As well as payment for this short length of track, Bexley insisted on a deal that would allow it to run its trams through to Woolwich. This allowed Bexley to extend its tram route from Plumstead to Beresford Square on the day that the LCC had started running to Abbey Wood. For journeys starting or ending along the extended route the fares were ½d or 1d more than they had been to or from Plumstead. A ticket from Bexleyheath to Woolwich was 4d single or 7d return.

 

Erith was eager to get run its trams over the Bexley tracks between Northumberland Heath and Bexleyheath Market Place as it saw significant financial opportunities by reaching that point, as well as the benefits for passenger no longer needing to transfer between trams at Northumberland Heath. Bexley rebuffed approached from Erith during 1906 and early 1907 but an agreement was reached later that year to provide power for each other trams in the event of electrical failure. Bexley’s success in gaining access to the LCC tracks between Plumstead and Woolwich mellowed the Council’s views on through running and it agreed that Erith could use the tracks through to Bexleyheath from 26 July 1908.

 

However after 12 months of through running to Bexleyheath, Erith decided that the route was not as financially attractive as it had hoped and reverted to turning its cars at Northumberland Heath from July 1909, leaving the section from there to Bexleyheath solely to Bexley. A year later Erith had negotiated lower access charges and resumed through running to Bexleyheath from 26 July 1910. Charges on this length of track were to be a recurrent problem and Erith would withdraw it trams again between Northumberland Heath and Bexleyheath in July 1914.

 

An interesting development from 1910 was the introduction of the Bexley Tram Letter Box. Since 1875 Bexley had been part of the district served by the Head Post Office in Woolwich from where a late night post collection was made. A removable post box was attached to the last tram from Bexley to Woolwich each night which left the Market Place at 10.20pm. Passengers could post their mail for no additional charge but those who stopped the tram as it made its journey to Woolwich had to pay the conduction 1d for the service. On arrival in Woolwich a GPO official would empty the box and deliver post to the sorting office. A report from the Bexley Chamber of Commerce post-war suggests that the tram letter box was often filled to capacity. This service, similar to one operated in about 20 other locations around the country, continued until the end of the tram service in 1935. Most similar services had ceased by the outbreak of World War II but I’m aware of at least one similar service that operated in the Llandudno area of North Wales well into the 1960s.

 

In August 1911 Bexley made an application to the Board of Trade to increase the maximum running speed of its trams from 8mph to 12mph. This was rejected on the grounds of inadequate braking on the cars. The Tramway Manager had expressed concern to the Council that more efficient brakes were needed for the gradient on Wickham Lane but had not been given permission to undertake any upgrading. Two years later Mr Mittelhausen retired and was replaced by Mr Harry Stokes from Ilkeston Council, who secured agreement to spend £45 per car on new trucks with electro-mechanical brakes. Mr Stokes was able to report to the Council in December 1913 that all of the trams, except for No 9 which was out of service following an accident, had been fitted with the new trucks. The Council also considered spending £690 on fitting covered tops to six cars but decided to defer a decision pending the outcome of the discussions with the LCC on through running. A decision was never made and all of Bexley’s 16 original trams remained without roofs until scrapped by London Transport in the 1930s.

 

In a previous article about Erith’s trams I wrote about the desire of the LCC to seek agreements with other tram operators as the motor bus started to challenge its tram routes. In 1913 the LCC was unsuccessful in persuading Bexley to agree a plan for the two operators, and Erith, to run a joint service in both directions around the loop from Woolwich to Bexleyheath via Erith and returning via Welling.

 

Early in 1914 the potential of a direct challenge from the motor bus to Bexley’s and Dartford’s Trams came with a proposal from London General to run a service from Plumstead via Welling, Bexleyheath and Crayford to Dartford, with an extension on Sunday to Wilmington and Sutton-at-Hone. London General wrote to Dartford Council on 9 March seeking permission for 30 licences to enable it to run the service every 7 or 8 minutes on weekdays and every 10 minutes on Sundays. The application was considered by Dartford Council and rejected. London General was advised of this decision on 3 April and seems to have dropped the proposal without taking any further action. It is unclear whether an application was ever made to Bexley Council. It may have been that London General felt that Dartford would have been more likely to agree and simply left any application to Bexley, which it knew would be more difficult to persuade, until it had a positive response from Dartford. As far as I know no further attempt was ever made by the General to challenge the trams along that corridor and although buses reached Welling from the west in the early 1920s, apart from the Green Line Coaches which ran from 1930, passengers would have to change at Welling Corner until the end of Trolleybuses in 1959.

 

The LCC was not prepared to give up on the possibility of through running of its trams to Bexleyheath via Welling and made some progress with Bexley Council. From 1 July 1914 through ticketing was made available to passenger wishing to transfer between the LCC and Bexley systems at Wickham Lane Corner. From 11 July some Saturday afternoon and Sunday journeys (other sources refer to this operating only on Sundays) on LCC tram route 38, the main service of which ran from Embankment to Abbey Wood, were diverted at Plumstead to Bexleyheath. Modern, closed-top E/1 class cars with seating for 78 passengers were used on the service by the LCC presumably impressing passengers more used to Bexley’s antiquated 52-seat open top cars. For a very short period Bexleyheath Market Place became a point at which an observer might see the trams of no less than four tramway operators.

 

Whether this was a precursor of a daily through service will never be known. Within a month Britain was embroiled in the Great War. Although the extension to Bexleyheath continued for the rest of that summer, sources disagree as to whether it ran through the winter of 1914/15 but it was certainly running again in the early summer of 1915. However the pressures of the war, exacerbated by a strike of LCC tramway men in May 1915, led to the end of through working officially on 6 June 1915, though in practice it may have ceased slightly earlier. Through ticketing survived a little longer but that, too, was withdrawn in March 1917.

 

Although there were a few significant developments at Dartford during this period, none really impacted on the area that now covers Bexley so I will cover them very briefly.

 

Dartford had made the decision from the outset that it would not operate its trams directly but lease the system to a third party. After initially assigning the lease to JG White & Co, in January 1909 operation was passed to Balfour, Beatty & Co. To the observer and passenger this made no change. Dartford Council had hoped that a tramway link would eventually be built between the eastern end of its system at Horns Cross and the western end of the Gravesend Tramway system at Swanscombe. This was a gap of about 1½ miles. On 8 December 1909 Dartford Tramways started running a motor bus link between the two points. The magazine Commercial Motor reported in January 1910 that it was possible to travel by tram and motor bus from London to Gravesend but that ‘few persons have either the time or the hardihood for the undertaking of such a journey’. Although timetables for the service were published in local papers it was clearly not a success and the service ceased in April 1910.

 

Despite withdrawing the bus link Dartford was successful in 1912 in obtaining powers to extend its tramway to Swanscombe to meet, or possibly allow through running, with the Gravesend trams. Although this link was never built Dartford Council was very upset by a pre-emptive move from Gravesend Tramways in the summer of 1913 to start a through motor bus service from Gravesend to Dartford. From 22 August the bus ran between the two towns at 45 minute intervals from 9am to 9pm. However Gravesend Tramways, despite having made an application early in July, had not had licences issued by Dartford Council and the tramway company was prosecuted by the Council. By early September, although Balfour Beatty as operators of Dartford Tramways still objected, agreement had been reached to allow the Gravesend Tramway buses into Dartford albeit with picking up and setting gown restrictions within the town.

 

It was clearly the hope of Gravesend Tramways that they would soon be able to run their motor buses beyond Dartford into Crayford. Not only are there photographs showing Crayford on destination boards but the necessary approval was sought from the Metropolitan Police. The Police wrote in November 1913 that they had no objection to the service into Crayford provided sprag-gears were fitted to the buses to prevent any loss of control on the steep hills involved. There was however still concern from Dartford Council who received a letter from Gravesend Tramways in December 1913 that ‘in deference to the views expressed by some Members [of the Council] the company had ‘decided for the time being not to extend our services westward beyond Dartford’. Had the Tramway company appreciated the growth in demand for transport to Crayford that would occur over the next few years, as the number of munitions workers grew, it may perhaps have pushed its proposals with more rigour.

 

 

Suggested further reading:

 

The Tramways of Woolwich and South East London, “Southeastern”, The Light Railway Transport League, 1963

London County Council Tramways, E. R. Oakley, The London Tramways History Group, 1989

Motor Omnibus Routes in London, Vols 2 (1908 to 1912) and 3 (1913 to 1915), Omnibus Society, 1985 and 1991

Pioneering Buses of North West Kent, Richard Rosa, privately published, 2012

 

More information about the Bexley Tram Letter Box is in the Journal of Greenwich Industrial History, Vol 5 Issue 2, March 2002

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