THEY revolutionised life in our burgeoning town – helping to bridge the gulf both physically and psychologically between the old market settlement-on-the-hill and the industrialised community below… but they only lasted 25 years before being discarded for a younger, fitter model.

Today, it is virtually impossible to find any trace of Swindon’s tram system which was the smallest in the country, the only one in Wiltshire, but which with its modest three-and-a-half miles of track, became a vital cog in the wheel of everyday life during the Edwardian era and the decade after World War One.

Swindon was two distinctive, separate communities – Old Town and New Town – when plans for a tram system were first mooted in 1883. All that trudging or pedalling up and down the hill, especially if you lived in OId Town and worked at the GWR, was a wearisome daily grind.

The world’s first electric tramway was introduced in Brighton that year. But such cutting edge technology was a definite “no no” without the essential component of electricity – and back then Swindon was still lighting up by gas.

So a steam system was proposed before being dropped in favour of the horse powered variety, which was also dismissed – partly due to the prodigious mountains of dung the scheme would generate. Hardly ‘clean energy,’ a phrase often trotted out when referring to the trams of today.

Nope, the key was electricity which eventually lit up the town in 1903, thus paving the way for the Age of the Tram the following year.

An ambitious eight-mile scheme was drawn up before making way for a more realistic network of just under half that distance.

These were heady days for the town whose population has spiralled to more than 45,000 from less than 2,000 a century earlier as a result of the GWR.

Old and New Swindon had also in 1900 become a single entity following a royal charter signed by Queen Victoria – one of her final official acts before expiring, aged 81.

The joint arrival of electricity and trams was the first major initiative of the newly-formed Swindon Corporation, which erected an electricity plant just off Corporation Street.

The tramway did not only constitute an ultra-modern means of traversing our ever expanding town but was also a status symbol – a declaration that Swindon, once of little significance, had arrived as a town of substance.

Imagine the upheaval then – and some fine photos exist to help us along – as the town’s main thoroughfares were torn-up by rugged-looking navvies with pickaxes before the tram-lines were laid… mimicking the arrival in Swindon of the Wilts and Berks Canal almost exactly 100 years earlier.

A section of the network “doubled-up” so that trams could run side-by-side in opposite directions. They operated on tracks 3ft 6ins wide – the smallest gauge in the country – in order to negotiate the narrowest sections of Regent Street.

Swindon’s nine tramcars – later increased to 12 and then 13 – were painted a becoming cream and ‘lake crimson’ (maroon) and installed with a varnished oak interior. They seated 26 inside and 28 uncovered on top while overhead cables hung from decorative dark green painted poles that now lined the town.

There was a bit of a hoo-ha over whether advertisements should adorn our shiny new mode of public transport.

But hard cash – as it invariably does – soon triumphed as photographs of the era showing tram hoardings extolling the virtues of Haskins Boots and Butler’s Furniture (‘cheapest and best’) graphically illustrate.

The town was naturally rammed to the gills for the grand opening on Thursday, September 22, 1904 – the same year similar electric networks materialised on the streets of Bath and Gloucester.

Following a celebratory lunch, the Mayor of Swindon, Alderman James Hinton, mounted Tramcar Number One at Swindon’s GWR railway station, leading a cavalcade of iron horses triumphantly around town.

Somewhat embarrassingly, the lead car took the corner of Bridge Street and Fleet Street a little too enthusiastically and crunched to a halt with a broken trolley-head, prompting a swift change of tramcar for VIPs.

Afterwards the mayor proclaimed: “I am sure the tramways will prove a great boon to Swindon.”

The Swindon Advertiser hailed it as the start of “an important epoch in the remarkable commercial and industrial growth of the town.”

The cost – £40,000… which according to This Is Money’s historic cash calculator is the equivalent to just over £4 million today.

The engineering firm behind the scheme added: “We do not know any corporation tramways on which the works have been carried out at such low figures per mile as those in Swindon.”

Meanwhile, Swindon’s crew of conductors and tram drivers – or motormen, as they were known – attained almost celebrity-like status as some of the best known faces in town as several thousand passengers hopped on and off our tiny tramway every day.

  • ONE of Swindon’s blackest days – June 1, 1906 – was the result of a tram plunging down steep Victoria Road after a brake failure.
    Tramcar 11 was heaving with passengers following the Bath and West and Southern Counties Shows at Broome Manor Farm off today’s Marlborough Road.
    As it made its way in the rain towards the bottom of the hill it suddenly hurtled out of control, prompting some passengers to leap for their lives.
    It crashed onto its side outside Queens Theatre (later The Empire) at the junction with Groundwell Road.
    Theatre manager Alfred Manners told the Advertiser: “The car came over with a terrific crash and the passengers were all more or less badly hurt – some, in their bewilderment, doing themselves serious injury amongst broken glass.
    “The cries were awful.”
    Four people died at the scene and a fifth some weeks later while 30 were injured.
  •  QUARTER of a century after Swindon’s gleaming fleet of streetcars first paraded proudly through the town centre, a lone tram trundled solemnly towards Rodbourne. It was Tramcar One, which led the opening procession 25 years earlier. But on Thursday, July 11, 1929, its journey would be the very last made in earnest by a Swindon tram. One of the tramway’s longest serving drivers, George Cathcart, was at the wheel of the vehicle which, as on so many auspicious occasions before, was “gaily decorated in bunting”. A banner on the side declared: “1904-1929. Success to Swindon’s new form of transport” – pointing the way to a modern breed of public conveyance which had supplanted our creaking tramcars... the bus. Chairman of Swindon’s electric light and tramways committee, Alderman William Robbins, publically invited customers to use the newlyinstalled fleet of 25 Leyland ‘Titan’ double-decker buses. The tram had provided a good service, he said but was keen to stress: “The tramcar has finished. “Those who have used our new omnibus service will know how much more efficient that service can be.” He also urged Swindonians not to indulge in a mad rush onto the buses when they pulled up at the stops, as they apparently did with trams, but to queue up in an orderly manner. n Only one of Swindon’s 13-strong fleet of tramcars today remains, the others having long since been scrapped. Tramcar 13 resides under wraps as a rusting relic in the Forest of Dean in the hope of restoration.
  •  THE world’s first tramway was a horse-drawn system introduced in Mumbles and Swansea in 1807. Around 30 years’ later horse-powered trams – ‘streetcars’ – began to appear in America. A cable car was installed in San Francisco in 1873 while gas and steam powered vehicles also emerged. In 1883 Magnus Volk constructed a system along Brighton’s seafront which today remains the world’s oldest operating electric tramway. Electric trams have also been in use in Blackpool since 1885 and in Budapest since 1887. Discarded over the decades in favour of cars and buses, trams have made a comeback in the UK starting with Manchester in 1992. Moves to re-introduce trams in Swindon floundered during the 1990s over costs.
  • THE heart of the Swindon tramways was the junction of Fleet Street and Bridge Street, known as The Tram Centre, The Centre or Clappens Corner. From there you could take a tramcar to one of three destinations – Cricklade Road in Gorse Hill, the far end of Rodbourne Road near the Bruce Street railway bridge or the Old Town Market Square. Special workmen’s trams were laid on to and from the railworks, originally running between 5.30- 8am, and 5.30-6.30pm, plus noon to 1pm on Saturdays. For these services the seats were covered to protect them from railworkers’ mucky, oily overalls.
  •  RECALLING her Edwardian childhood in Old Town, Mary White told the Swindon Evening Advertiser in 1971: “A visit to New Town necessitated a ride on a tram that ran from the Corn Exchange to Regent Circus. This was quite an outing. “If the weather was fine we mounted the stairs and sat on one of the slatted wooden seats on the upper deck. “We unrolled the rubber apron that was attached to the seat in front and spread it over our knees. “Then began the noisy, bone-shaking ride down Victoria Road, past the Empire Theatre and the New Town Hall (now considered old) to Regent Circus.”