by Richard Diment
In the first decade of the 20th century more than 150 electric tram systems started operating in the UK. Some of had previously run with horses or steam-power but most were new. Among the councils opening new tram systems during this period were Bexley (1903), Erith (1905) and Dartford (1906).
The Woolwich and South East London Tramway Company (W&SEL) had opened a narrow gauge horse drawn service from Woolwich to the Plume of Feathers Public House in Plumstead High Street in June 1881. An extension west to Greenwich was operating from November 1882, from where a connection could be made with the trams that ran to central London. The W&SEL had no desire to run trams into Bexley, though it did run horse buses from the terminus in Plumstead to Belvedere and Bexleyheath. A Mr Murray of Plumstead also developed a horse bus route from Plumstead to Bexleyheath to link with the trams.
Some discussions took place about the possibility of a Bexley Council sponsored scheme for a horse tram from Plumstead to Bexley Village but this came to nothing. Later proposals included a jointly promoted route from Plumstead to Dartford via Welling, Bexleyheath and Crayford. In the event Bexley UDC went forward alone. It sought, and obtained in July 1901, Parliamentary approval to build a tram route from Plumstead via Welling to a point just inside the UDC boundary at the junction of the Broadway and Gravel Hill, with a branch line from Bexleyheath Market Place to the boundary with Erith UDC at Northumberland Heath (Colyers Lane). The scheme had a route length of 5.3 miles. The extension to Crayford and Dartford would be left to the Dartford councils.
12 open-top double-deck trams, numbered 1 to 12 and each seating 52 passengers, were ordered by Bexley. A depot, with capacity for 18 cars, was constructed on a site adjacent to the Council Offices in Bexleyheath, roughly on the site of today’s Highland Road. A power plant was built in Bexley Village adjacent to the railway line at the point where it crosses the River Cray enabling delivery of coal by rail and access to water. The power plant was used to supply direct current for the trams and alternating current for street lighting in Bexley. The main feeder cables, laid in conduit under the pavement, went up Gravel Hill to a point near the depot and along Bexley High Street and Upton Road to a join the tram line in Crook Log. Unlike the elaborate tramway buildings often specified by other councils, Bexley insisted that both buildings should be built to as basic a design as possible.
Meanwhile the tracks were laid and overhead wiring installed. Although the Bexley tracks abutted the W&SEL lines in Plumstead, there was no possibility of through running, as the Bexley tracks were built to standard gauge and there was, as yet, no power provided west of Plumstead. A double track was put down in Plumstead High Street and the first few yards of Wickham Lane but the rest of the route, together with the branch to Northumberland Heath, was single track with passing loops. In 1903 Mr A. E. Barber was appointed as Tramway Manager by the council and construction was sufficiently complete for car no 5, in the maroon and cream colours adopted for Bexley’s Trams, to make a trial run on 5th September. The system was inspected by the Board of Trade on 30th September and declared fit to open. On the following day there was a ceremonial opening performed by Mr W. Crooks, the MP for Woolwich, an ardent supporter of tramways. That day three cars ran along the line to show off the new trams to local people. However as the stage carriage licences had not yet arrived, public services could not start until 3rd October. Contemporary reports record that Mr Murray tried to disrupt the trams with his horse bus but whether that was on the formal opening day or at the start of the public service is unclear.
Trams had arrived in Bexley and were to run for the next 32 years.
Suggested further reading:
The Tramways of Woolwich and South East London, Light Railway Transport League, 1962
For more on the uniforms issued by Bexley UDC tramways see British Tramway Company Badges and Buttons.