by Richard Diment
Erith was the third of the local councils to get Parliamentary approval for a Tram system. The Erith Tramways and Improvement Act received Royal Assent on 14th August 1903; just over two years after Bexley had received approval and eighteen months after Dartford. As the title of the Act suggests Erith Council used the legislation for a range of matter beyond trams including new powers over sanitation, public health and street lighting.
In 1901 Erith UDC had appointed Mr W.C.C. Hawtayne as Consulting Electrical Engineer. He was responsible for the construction of an electrical generating station for the council that opened in January 1903. While supervising that work Mr Hawtayne had also drawn up tramway plans for the Council. Early in 1902 it was agreed to seek approval for five sections of line, which, if built, would have made Erith’s network rather more complex than those in Bexley and Dartford. The proposed lines were:
• From the terminus of the Bexley scheme in Northumberland Heath to North End via Bexley Road, Queens Road and South Road
• Along Pier Road, High Street and Crayford Road to join the line to North End
• Along High Street, West Street, Lower Road and Abbey Road to Abbey Wood Station
• Along Fraser Road, through Upper Belvedere to Bostall Heath
• From Belvedere Station via Picardy Road to Upper Belvedere.
In promoting its Bill to authorise the building of the tramway Erith UDC was very keen to see its trams linked with those of the London County Council, which was expected to take over the Woolwich and South East London Trams within a year or two.
To enable a link into the LCC system Erith sought a commitment from the LCC that it would run electric trams to Abbey Wood. From that point the UDC saw the opportunities of running trams through to central London. The LCC was reluctant to commit. Although it took over the W&SEL in 1905, electrified the line from Woolwich to Plumstead in 1908 and extended to Abbey later the same year, it wasn’t able to complete electrification across Woolwich and run through trams from central London to Abbey Wood until April 1914. Despite the endeavours of the council over nearly 30 years the UDC’s vision of through trams to London was never realised and the Erith cars never ran west of Abbey Wood.
Erith’s other idea was to extend their tram system from Bostall Heath down Bostall Hill to link with the W&SEL horse trams (which the UDC hoped would soon be electrified), and the proposed Bexley electric trams, in Plumstead to provide a second route to London.
The 1903 Act authorised less than Erith had wanted. The proposals to link Lower and Upper Belvedere via Picardy Road and the line down Bostall Hill to Plumstead were rejected as too steep for safe working. Any line from Erith towards Bostall Heath had to be end about 300 yards west of the junction with Albert Road.
Permission, however, was given for Erith to build from Abbey Wood to Plumstead should the LCC decide not to do so but these powers were quickly superseded by the LCC obtaining powers to build a Woolwich to Abbey Wood line under the London County Council Act of 1904. Furthermore several sections, although authorised by the Erith Act, were never built. The powers lapsed in 1910 and Erith never sought to renew them. As a result trams never ran along the High Street, Queens Road or along Fraser Road towards, and just beyond, Upper Belvedere.
Priority for construction was given to the route from Abbey Wood to Northumberland Heath, where agreement was reached with Bexley Council for an end-to-end junction, though not as yet through running. In contrast to the Bexley and Dartford schemes much of the route was built with twin tracks. Only the sections along Pier Road, on the lines from Erith town centre to North End, and along Bexley Road to Northumberland Heath were single track, albeit with loops to allow trams to pass in opposite directions.
Erith built a depot on the west side of Walnut Tree Road, opposite the Power Station, with capacity to park and maintain 16 cars. An order was placed for 14 double-deck cars. Seven were open-topped with seats for 52 passengers and the balance had covered tops with open balconies but seated only 48. The lower seating capacity on the covered top cars may have been to meet gross weight restrictions given the extra weight of the roof. They were painted in colour scheme described as Apple Green and Primrose with ‘ERITH COUNCIL TRAMWAYS’ in green and gold on the lower panels and given the numbers 1 to 14. The open and closed cars were mixed with numbers 1 to 6 and 9 having no roof and numbers 7, 8 and 10 to 14 having covered tops. The cars had cost Erith Council £9222. A further £626 was spent on a works car, given the number 20, for cleaning and watering the tracks and carrying maintenance equipment.
As work on the permanent way was nearing completion in the early summer of 1905 Mr Arthur Coveney was recruited from Ashton-under-Lyne Tramways as Tramway Engineer and Manager on a salary of £250 per annum. Following a successful inspection by the Board of Trade on 21stAugust, Erith tramways were formally opened on Saturday 26th August. This was just two years after the passing of the Act and enabled Erith to be the second of the three councils to start its service, six months ahead of the Dartford scheme.
Erith initially ran their service as two routes- North End to Abbey Wood and North End to Northumberland Heath. Within three weeks of opening this pattern was seen as inappropriate. From 18th September the main service became Abbey Wood to Northumberland Heath, on which cars ran at 10-15 minute intervals from early morning until late into the evening. The service to North End was reduced to a shuttle starting from Erith Station but within months it was seen to be running at a loss and immediate action needed to be taken. From January 1906 Trams to North End were reduced to workmen’s cars only, running just in the morning and evening peaks and at lunchtimes. The North End service would continue to be a problem to the UDC for several years to come.
Suggested further reading:
The Tramways of Woolwich and South East London, “Southeastern”, The Light Railway Transport League, 1963
Greenwich and Dartford Tramways, Robert J Harley, Middleton Press, 1993
North Kent Tramways, Robert J Harley, Middleton Press, 1994