Erith trams in the years before the Great War

by Richard Diment

 

In previous articles I have described the process by which electric trams reached Bexley, Dartford and Erith between 1903 and 1906. This article takes the story of the Erith’s trams forward to August 1914.

Before looking in detail at the Erith system between 1905 and 1914, attention should be paid to developments immediately to the west, in Woolwich, which were to play an important part in frustrating the ambition of Erith UDC for its trams.

 

Woolwich and Plumstead had been linked by a horse tramway run by the Woolwich and South East London Tramway Company since 1882. From its formation in 1889 the London County Council had sought to take over company tram systems within its area and had the W&SEL in its sights. The LCC realised that substantial work would be required to replace the narrow-gauge track between Greenwich and Plumstead as there was very limited space between the buildings on either side of the road. Nevertheless the LCC pursued in parallel its objectives of acquiring the W&SEL and securing Parliamentary approval for upgrading the track (and extending it through to Abbey Wood). Authority to widen the track, and run electric trams to Abbey Wood, was given in 1904 but haggling over the price meant that ownership of the W&SEL did not pass to the LCC until 1 June 1905.

 

Just under three months later Erith had started running its trams to Abbey Wood and the UDC was eager to see the link from there to Plumstead and Woolwich completed. Erith had Parliamentary Authority to build the link itself but only with the consent of the LCC which was unlikely given the powers the larger authority held. Over the next couple of years Erith UDC became increasingly frustrated at delays in progress by the LCC. Erith considered the possibility of running a motor bus service along the route and made clear that it wanted to use its powers to build and operate the tram line from Abbey Wood to Woolwich but this suggestion was blocked by the LCC. The LCC then suggested that it would build the track and lease it to Erith to operate, but the proposed access charges were too expensive for Erith to accept that option. During 1907 Erith started the process to introduce a new Bill to Parliament to obtain powers that the LCC could not veto, but in November 1907 the LCC finally announced its intention to start work on the line to Abbey Wood. Erith then withdrew its Bill.

 

In April 1908, almost three years after taking over the W&SEL, LCC started to run trams on a widened electrified line from Woolwich to Plumstead and on 26 July opened the line through to Abbey Wood when it also built a new tram depot adjacent to the railway station.

 

For reasons never totally explained the LCC stopped its tracks 80ft west of the LCC/Erith boundary, though the LCC claimed differences in street level as the prime cause. Without the physical connection Erith’s trams were never able to run through to Woolwich or further into London, though, as I shall explain later, an agreement to do so was nearly reached in 1914.

 

However the Woolwich to Abbey Wood trams remained isolated from the rest of the LCC tram system as the narrow roads west of Woolwich continued to make track widening and replacement of the horse trams between Woolwich and Greenwich technically challenging. The route was gradually improved but it was not until April 1914 that electric trams were able to run along the whole route from Central London to Abbey Wood. Once completed this would, of course, remain one of the last tram routes in London with cars continuing to run from Westminster to Abbey Wood until the very last of traditional tram operation in London on 5 July 1952.

 

After opening in August 1905 the Erith system had settled down to a main service from Northumberland Heath to Abbey Wood with a branch line running from Erith to Northend. The Northend line was severely loss making from the start and barely six months after opening, in early 1906, was reduced to a peak-hour service for workmen only. From May 1906 this was augmented by a 15-minute service in the afternoon and evenings. Erith’s Tramway Manager Mr Coveney was eager to find a solution. He had visited the nearby Gravesend & Northfleet Tramway Company to see how that operator had dealt with a similar problem by replacing double-deck trams on a lightly trafficked route with single-deck cars that could be operated with a driver only saving the cost of a conductor. Mr Coveney proposed that Erith UDC should do the same. The Council agreed and placed an order for two 20-seat cars at a cost of £1346. Referred to as ‘Demi-Cars’ these were delivered late in 1906 and given numbers 15 and 16. They entered service in January 1907 providing a service every ten minutes from 1.30pm between the Wheatley Arms and North End. This still failed to stop the losses and early in 1908 an attempt to increase traffic was made by extending the ‘demi-cars’ route from Erith to Belvedere Station. Success still eluded the Northend route and from the start of April 1908 the Northend service was reduced to a Friday and Saturday service only. The Friday service ran only until December 1908. The Saturday service ended the next month leaving the line unused for the next eighteen months. In the summer of 1910 an afternoon-only service was re-introduced but withdrawn on 31 August and the line to Northend was closed permanently. The ‘demi-cars’ were now surplus to requirements but remained with the Council until sold to Dartford (no 15) and Doncaster (no16) councils in 1915.

 

Erith’s main route (from Abbey Wood to Northumberland Heath) was more successful but passengers still had to change cars at Northumberland Heath beyond which point the track was owned, and services provided, by Bexley UDC. Erith was eager to reach the potentially lucrative destination of Bexleyheath. During 1906 and 1907 the council sought an agreement with Bexley. The initial proposal, in September 1906, for Erith cars to run through was rejected by Bexley as impractical but some progress had been made by the spring of 1907 when the two councils agreed to supply power to each other in the event of an emergency and for Bexley to run cars through to Erith Station if Erith’s power supply failed. Early in 1908 Erith again raised the possibility of through running. Bexley responded by proposing that it could lease the track from Bexleyheath to Northumberland Heath to Erith. Erith did not accept this offer. However a couple of months later Bexley Council, having reached agreement for its own cars to run through to Woolwich over the new LCC tracks, agreed that Erith cars could run to Bexleyheath. This also started on 26 July 1908.

 

Meanwhile after 12 months of through running to Bexleyheath, Erith decided that the route was not as financially lucrative as it had hoped and reverted to running its cars only as far as Northumberland Heath from July 1909. A year later Erith had negotiated less expensive access charges and resumed through running to Bexleyheath from 26 July 1910.

 

Erith’s powers, under the 1903 legislation, to build further tramways lapsed in 1910 and no attempt was made to renew them, although the Tramway Manager had recommended in 1906 that the line along Queen’s Road to Upper Belvedere should be built. Also in 1910 the council had sought again to get agreement with the LCC to link the tracks at Abbey Wood to allow through running from Erith to Woolwich. Once more the proposal was rebuffed. However by 1913 the LCC’s response had altered. It was becoming increasingly concerned by competition on its tram routes from the London General Omnibus Company.

 

As horse bus service had developed in London in the middle years of the 19th century, Woolwich had developed as the outer terminus of a number of routes into central London. The development of the horse-tram network in the 1870s had seen most of these horse bus routes disappear as they could not compete with the trams. One local horse bus operator that did continue was Murray of Cross Street, Woolwich. As late as 1908 he was still running horse buses from Woolwich to the Standard Public House at Blackheath and to the Royal Military Academy. He was also trying to complete with Bexley’s Tram by running a horse bus service from Woolwich to Bexleyheath every forty minutes, though this service ended during 1909.

 

As the new decade started motor buses spread into parts of south east London in which the LCCs trams had previously enjoyed exclusivity. London General’s buses reached New Cross, via the Old Kent Road, in December 1911. Woolwich saw its first motor buses exactly a year later when Thomas Tilling started a service from there to Croydon via Blackheath and Catford. As an orbital route this did not compete directly with the LCC’s trams but the challenge was fast approaching. During 1913 the General introduced two radial trunk routes into the area. The first arrived in May running from Maida Vale to Plumstead via the West End, Westminster, New Cross and Blackheath, the second in October from Highgate to Plumstead via the City, New Cross and Greenwich. Both competed directly with the trams.

 

LCC decided it was time to rethink its approach to Bexley and Erith. It had successfully negotiated through running agreements with the local authorities running trams in outer east London and now hoped to be able to negotiate a similar arrangements south of the river. It proposed that the three operators should create a pool to run services in both directions around a loop from Woolwich to Bexleyheath via Abbey Wood and Erith returning to Woolwich via Welling. Erith, not surprisingly, was eager to agree but Bexley would only agree to the southern half of the service arguing that its line from Bexleyheath to Northumberland was unsuitable for such a service. The loop service idea was dropped though I will describe in the next article how a limited through service to Bexleyheath via Welling was agreed between Bexley and the LCC. Erith’s trams would never reach Woolwich and through running across Abbey Wood would have to await the replacement of trams by trolleybuses by LondonTransport in late 1935.

 

The only other development of note in those last days of peace was a further row between Bexley and Erith over access charges for the Erith trams to run over Bexley’s track from Northumberland Heath to Bexleyheath. Agreement could not be reached and Erith again withdrew through running from 25 July 1914. Bexley responded by running through cars from Woolwich to Northumberland Heath where passengers had once to change to complete a journey to Erith or Abbey Wood.

 

 

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

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