The trams reach Dartford

by Richard Diment


Before recording the arrival of public tram services in Dartford in 1905 two earlier schemes in the town need to be noted. The first was a proposal that was never built. The second opened but was never available for general use and I suspect that most people would not have wanted to travel on it anyway.


Darent Valley Tramway

As far back as 1873 the local newspapers reported that powers were to be sought to build the ‘Darent Valley Tramway’ between Dartford Creek, Dartford Station, Wilmington, Farningham and Eynsford for the carriageway of farm produce. It is not clear from the limited documentation whether it would have been, at least initially, steam or horse-powered, but it came to nothing.


The Joyce Green Hospital Tramway

Attempts in the second half of the nineteenth century to control smallpox and other infectious diseases had resulted in patients being sent to old ships moored in the Thames, initially off Greenwich but since 1881 downriver at Dartford. Concerns about this approach to treatment led to a decision in 1893 to replace these hulks with a new facility on-shore. Consequently the new isolation hospitals, Long Reach, Orchard and Joyce Green, were built on the marshes between Dartford and the River Thames. It was planned that when the new hospitals opened, most patients would continue to arrive by river and were to be transported from the riverside to the various parts of the site by horse-drawn tram. No Parliamentary approval was required for the scheme as it was all on land owned by the Metropolitan Asylums Board.


Although the first section of track was opened in May 1897, the system wasn’t used until the smallpox epidemic in the winter of 1901-1902 when the Long Reach site was opened in February 1902. Two second-hand horse tramcars were acquired from the Harrow Road and Paddington Tramway Company. Four more, rather larger, used cars were then bought from Burnley and Huddersfield but were too heavy for the horses, so two further cars, suitable for use with the horses, had to be purchased.


In 1904 four purpose-built ambulance cars were ordered and a subsequent order for four more was made in 1908. The decline of smallpox after 1910 meant that the site was often unused or used for other infectious diseases. During the 1914-1918 war the Orchard site was used as a military hospital but the tramway link to it was not required.


In 1924 a successful test resulted in the horses being replaced by motor ambulances pulling the old horse cars as trailers but the need for the tramway was passing. In 1930, the hospitals passed to the control of the LCC who decided to move patients to the hospital by road. The tramway was little used thereafter and it ceased to operate in 1936. The tracks were removed in 1940 as part of the wartime drive to collect scrap metal, though the tram sheds and the rails remained into the 1960s.


Dartford UDC’s Tramway

Dartford UDC and Dartford RDC (which covered the Crayford area) had hoped to obtain joint powers under the Tramways Act 1870 with Bexley UDC for a scheme to run from Plumstead through Welling, Bexleyheath and Crayford to Dartford. Although Bexley UDC obtained approval for its sections in July 1901, complications arose because the law of 1870 did not permit the granting of Tramway powers to an RDC. The proposed solution was to obtain powers under the Light Railways Act 1896 but this caused further complications as the scheme was objected to by the South Eastern & Dover & Chatham Railway and then apportionment of the costs for the section through Crayford caused a dispute among the parishes that made up Dartford RDC. The disagreements over the Crayford and Dartford section took some months to resolve which meant that Parliamentary approval was not given until February 1902.


The authorised scheme was for a main line from the Bexley UDC boundary at the junction with Gravel Hill, ie where the Plumstead to Bexleyheath track ended, to Dartford. Two branch lines were also authorised. The first was from the Bull Public House in the High Street, past Dartford Station, to a depot situated just beyond the junction of Victoria Road and Burnham Road. The second ran along Lowfield Road to the Orange Tree Public House in Wilmington.


Further planning had barely started when Dartford UDC made two applications to extend the scheme. The first was to take the main route beyond Dartford to Craylands Lane, the boundary between Stone and Northfleet, where it would link up with the western end of the Gravesend and Northfleet Tramway. This would, in theory, have allowed through running from Denton, east of Gravesend, to Plumstead and eventually, once electrification was complete, central London. Again the railway objected and it was agreed that the Dartford scheme could be extended to Horns Cross, leaving a gap of about one and half miles, from there to the western end of the Gravesend and Northfleet tracks. At the time it was hoped that eventually the missing section would be completed.


The second application was to extend the Wilmington branch to Bexley Hospital and to Farningham Road Station. None of that was approved.


Dartford UDC had made an early decision that it did not want to run the system but to let it on a fixed term lease to a firm prepared to build and operate it. An agreement was reached with JG White and Co Ltd to take on this role, with White operating the system, for either five, ten or fifteen years at the council’s option once it was completed. The contract meant that the Council would share any profits, as well as receiving rent from White, but White would bear any loss.


Construction of the track started at the Bexleyheath end on 12th July 1905. An early frustration was the refusal of Bexley UDC to permit the tracks to be joined for through running, a point I will return to later. The depot in Dartford was built with space for 16 cars, though only 12 were ordered, adjacent to the council’s power station that had been built several years earlier and was now upgraded to provide the additional generating capacity needed for the trams. As in Bexley, most of the track was single line with passing loops at regular intervals.


Twelve open-top double-deck trams were ordered from the United Electric Car Company of Preston. Each seated 54 passengers and was fairly conventional save that it was fitted with magnetic track brakes for the steep hills into and out of Dartford Town Centre. They were painted maroon and yellow and carried the name ‘Dartford Council Tramway’.


Following a successful inspection by the Board of Trade the Dartford Trams were officially opened on 14th February 1906. Two services were provided: Gravel Hill to Horns Cross and Victoria Road to Wilmington. Bexley Council remained firmly opposed to linking the tracks and it was cause of great frustration to passengers that they had to walk from Gravel Hill to the Market Place if they wanted to connect between the two tram lines. Later in 1906 the issue of extending from Horns Cross to Northfleet came up again but there was no progress. More successful was the campaign to persuade Bexley UDC to relent in its opposition to join the tracks at Bexleyheath. From 27th August 1906 Dartford trams were able to run through to Bexleyheath Market Place and passengers had only a few yards to walk if they wanted to continue their journey. Through running would eventually be possible but that was some years in the future and would require catastrophic events to make it happen.



Suggested further reading:

The Tramways of Woolwich and South East London, Light Railway Transport League, 1962


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