A Brief History Of London's Trams

A Brief History Of London's Trams

For an all-too-brief time, trams were king of the road in London. Here's a brief timeline of their fleeting existence... and 21st century comeback.

A festooned tram surrounded by onlookers including a chap in a bowler hat close up, looking at the camera
Electric trams took over London at the dawn of the 20th century. Here's the first electric tram on Kingston Bridge, in 1906. Image: public domain

1861: American entrepreneur George Francis Train begins running horse-drawn trams between Notting Hill Gate and Marble Arch (though the service never actually quite reached Marble Arch). A second line soon starts up, running along Victoria's Westminster Street; to celebrate this on 15 April, Train hosts a 'Yankee Breakfast' featuring 'dropped eggs' 'reindeer tongue' and 'Pig's Feet Saint Menehould' — delish! A third line opens from Westminster Bridge to Kennington Gate on 29 May 1861. Train is a hero. Trams in London are go!

1862: Except... they're not. All three of Train's tram lines are ripped up, and the man's denounced a failure. He later goes back to the States to run as President. He doesn't become President.

1870: London decides trams actually might've been a good idea after all, and companies start setting up lines — beginning with the Metropolitan Street Tramways Co Brixton to Kennington line, opening 2 May.

29 May 1884: London experiments with cable tramways, opening one at Highgate Hill. It's the first of its kind in Europe, and lasts a whole 25 years — not bad going at all.

A smartly dressed man in a beard poses for a photos, looking off to the side
George Francis Train: an under-appreciated pioneer of the tram. Image: public domain

1885: The North London Suburban Tramways Company launches what is to be London's only steam-powered tram. It's loud and clunky, and only lasts for six years.

1891: Plans for a tram between South Kensington station and the Royal Albert Hall are scrapped. To this day, Londoners could still do with that ruddy tram.

1900: By now London has built around 142 miles of tramways. Trams have ARRIVED, baby!

10 July 1901: London's first electric tram runs between Shepherd's Bush, Hammersmith, Acton and Kew Bridge. The capital isn't exactly pioneering in this regard — the country's first electric trams arrived in Blackpool in 1885. But, anyway, London's is a huge success, and by 1906, 10 municipal systems have been installed across the city.

24 February 1906: The Kingsway tram tunnel opens, running beneath the road from Holborn to Aldwych. Special non-flammable trams are built to avoid fires.

23 June 1906: A dark day in tram history, as a runaway tramcar in Archway hits a funeral procession, and another tram — killing three and injuring 20.

A cartoon of a tram chase, with shots being fired
The 'Tottenham Outrage' involved the hijacking of a tram by gunpoint. Image: David Fathers

23 January 1909: A tram chase ensues in north London between two thieves, who hijack a tram — forcing the conductor to drive it at gunpoint (the actual tram driver had already fled), and police, who commandeer another tram, to chase them. Known as the 'Tottenham Outrage', it comes to a messy conclusion.

1913: The three private tram systems are taken over by the Underground Group. Around the same time, London enjoys peak tram, with over 3,000 trams carrying a billion passengers per year.

Summer 1914: When the car of then-Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George breaks down en route to an important meeting in Westminster, he hops on the no. 15 tram, in order to make it in time. Unfortunately he hasn't got any money on him. Passengers chip in to pay his fare.

1914-18ish: A tram passing through Streatham inadvertently wrenches a clock face that's overhanging the street with its trolley pole, flinging the huge timepiece through an upper deck window of the vehicle. Luckily, no one is hurt, and for a while after, people tell the story of 'the clock that travelled by tram'.

1930s and 40s: Buses and trolleybuses begin taking over from trams, then war comes along — after which, investment in London's trams hits a new low. Their days are numbered.

29 June-5 July 1952: London's 'Last Tram Week' marks the end of trams in London. Banners are flown, souvenir tickets are punched, and lots of Londoners are (rightly) very emotional. The last ever tram in London (for the time being, anyway) goes from Woolwich to New Cross, and is driven by John Cliff, a deputy chairman of London Transport, who started out as a tram driver. London's fling with trams is already over.

November 1954: In a tardy doff of the cap to the now-demised trams, The Goon Show runs an episode called The Last Tram (From Clapham). In it, Neddie Seagoon (played by Harry Secombe) discovers tram driver Henry Crun hiding down the Kingsway tunnel in a 33 tram, who refuses to come out, until he has the full 'last tram' ceremony he's been promised. It's very funny, and you can listen to it on BBC Sounds.

1984: Singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock releases his wonderfully melancholy song Trams of Old London (listen above).

2000: As good as admitting it's made a terrible, terrible mistake, London gets its first trams back in almost half a century, thanks to Croydon Tramlink — which links up Beckenham/Addington/Elmers End with Wimbledon via Croydon and Mitcham. Other tram lines are subsequently mooted — including an Oxford Street tram, a 'Southwark Supertram' between Elephant & Castle and New Cross, and an extension of Croydon Tramlink to Crystal Palace. None of these become a reality.

March 2016: Geoff Marshall releases his Secrets of the Trams video for Londonist, revealing such nuggets as the fact the trip between Woodside and Blackhorse Lane can take just 42 seconds... the quickest journey between any two stops in London.

June 2016: Though it's already been around for six years, the lime green tram line is finally added to the official London Underground map, signalling the fact that trams are BACK, baby!

A green which and blue tram heading towards the camera, with two power station chimneys in the background
Tram are back in London once more... but not enough of them for our liking. Image: Londonist

9 November 2016: On the morning that Donald Trump is announced as the next President of the United States, a speeding tram overturns on the Sandilands junction in Croydon, killing seven people and injuring 51.

July 2021: TfL says it is opening up the Kingsway Tunnel to the public for special Hidden London tours.

April 2022: KenEx is announced — a tram that will run beneath the Thames between Kent and Essex. It's mooted to open in 2030.

Research sources include London's Trams by Paul Collins, The Tramways of South London and Croydon 1899-1949 by K.G. Harvie, and the British Newspaper Archive.

Last Updated 15 August 2023

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