When trams ruled the streets of Norwich
PUBLISHED: 12:18 25 January 2017
Their ‘reign’ only last a few decades, but Norwich’s trams helped shape the city centre street scene we see today, as local historian CHRIS WESTON explains.
In the heart of a Fine City the bus and the car are still king. But 100 years ago it was very different, as Norwich was in the heyday of the Tram Age.
The electric-powered trams replaced the former horse-drawn bus service which had been operated by the Norwich Omnibus Company from 1879 onwards. The bright new Norwich Tramway system opened on Monday July 30, 1900, when crowds lined the streets to watch the first trams herald the arrival of the city’s new transport concept.
The initial 15-mile network was later expanded into the suburbs, to provide 17.5 miles of tram connections. The 3ft 6inch gauge track enabled the Loughborough-built tram cars of maroon and ivory livery to reach most parts of the city, and the noise they created brought them the nickname “Swish, Rattle and Clang”.
Similar to lines on the London Underground (and today’s key city centre bus routes) Norwich’s seven main routes were identified by colours. These were White, Red, Green, Blue, Orange, Red & Blue and Yellow & Red. The Green route connected Newmarket Road with the Cavalry Barracks, with an extended summer service to Mousehold Heath, terminating at the Fountain, by the Pavilion.
Part of the city’s medieval street plan was affected by the new transport system. Two examples were at Orford Hill, where the row of shops next to the Bell Hotel were demolished, and the road was widened at St Andrew’s Hill.
Most lines were of single operation, with loops at appropriate points for oncoming trams to pass. In 1904, the track layout at Orford Place (the hub of the network) was revised for ease of operations. Later, in 1928, a ticket office, passengers’ shelter and a timekeeper’s office were built there, for a total cost of £650.
A tram depot with maintenance workshops - complete with its own forge and a wheel lathe - was built at the Sprowston Road end of Silver Road. This otherwise two-storey office block still stands today, having served various purposes in recent decades. To reach the site with its two four-road sheds, trams travelled along Magdalen Street towards Denmark Road, where a spur gave direct access. Electrical power via overhead wires for the whole network was provided by a generating station built in Duke Street.
When the First World War broke out, the trams played their part too. Ammunition made at factories on Salhouse Road was transported along a light railway track through Mousehold Heath, to link up with the tramway network.
Track for a temporary ‘works route’ was laid in 1918 to transport armaments and aircraft parts from what was then Mousehold Heath airfield, to Norwich (Thorpe) GER railway station. Some rails laid for this purpose were recycled from the disused King Street tram route and differed in construction by using wooden sleepers.
To operate their movements, the Mousehold Light Railway used some of the existing Newmarket Road to Cavalry Barracks tram route with an extension through the Heath. Passing slightly east of the Pavilion (now Zaks) on Gurney Road, this continued towards today’s ring road. It finally crossed this, before continuing into Roundtree Way and the factory sites.
Travelling towards the Norwich end, the Light Railway left the passenger tram route at the southern end of Riverside Road, crossed Thorpe Road east of Foundry Bridge to enter Thorpe station by a spur line. This continued alongside the main terminus building to a siding which effectively served as Platform 7, where goods were off-loaded on to suitable main line rolling stock for onward transmission.
Wagons used for local movements were hauled by two Government-owned electric tractors with BTH controllers and 38hp motors, since loads were often heavy. At the end of the war, the line was discontinued and the tractors passed on to the Norwich Electric Tramcar Company who converted them for tram use. Due to their former wartime role, these were known as Dreadnoughts.
But the rails and sleepers remained in place until the 1930s and careful study of the area across Mousehold Heath will still reveal evidence of the railway’s former course through the woods. On one of my visits, I even found some of the original track ballast. After that, remnants of the rails could still be seen until the early years of the current century, in the station area close to Thorpe Road.
As for the tramway system proper, the Eastern Counties Omnibus Company bought it in 1933 and gradually began closing it down, to replace it with buses.
The final tram swished, rattled and clanged on the night of Tuesday December 10 1935, amid scenes of cheering crowds singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and church bells ringing out in perhaps mournful celebration. It reached the Silver Road depot at 11pm after which both crowds and staff joined hands for a final rendition of that traditional song.
After closure, tram car bodies could be purchased for £5 each and by 1955, the only remaining sections of track in the city were at the Silver Road depot and in the yard at Thorpe station.
But the street scene changes survive as a reminder of the tram system’s brief life.