HAVING nobly served the people of Swindon for almost a decade, ferrying countless thousands of passengers around town, our last surviving tram – a remarkable relic from a bygone age and a unique local heritage artefact – is slowly trundling towards the scrapheap unless an increasingly urgent solution is found.

Over the past 80 years or so Tram 13 has been ignominiously used as a chicken shack, storage space for coffins, paint and wallpaper and even – oh, the indignity – as a makeshift garden for the cultivation of tomatoes.

But it is now 60 miles from home, draped in green tarpaulin and slowly rotting away amidst trees and bushes in the Forest of Dean. However, the fading slogan ‘Swindon Corporation Tramways’ can still be made out on its weather-beaten body…..along with the legend: “Spitting strictly prohibited, penalty forty shillings.”

That it hasn’t joined Swindon’s 12 other tramcars in that Great Tramway in the Sky is something of a miracle, largely due, at least over the past 20 years, to the sterling efforts of transport author and former Swindon councillor Neil Butters, aided by some like-minded train/tram buffs.

Recent hopes that the truncated tram – its open upper-deck and undercarriage have long since departed – could be returned to something approaching its former self as a static exhibit in Swindon’s proposed museum and art gallery have now fallen through.

Some years ago Neil described the initiative as very likely Tram 13’s “last chance saloon” following a string of other failed moves to save the rusting, battered hulk.

But he steadfastly refuses to give up on the old girl and is now in talks to salvage the 28 footer with people including vintage transport enthusiast Bill Parker, whose restoration workshop kept railway engineering alive in Swindon following the closure of the railworks 30 years ago.

Between £100,000 and £250,000 is required save the dilapidated former public conveyance before it simply deteriorates beyond repair (see panel) during the harsh winters.

Swindon’s comparatively modest but efficient tram system, one of the smallest in the country, had been clattering around town since 1904 when a new kid on the block arrived in 1921.

A second generation open-top car, Tram 13 was delivered by English Electric to supplement the existing fleet.

Eight years later Swindon’s trams were deemed obsolete – like the canals, wouldn’t we love have ‘em back today? – and were swept aside for a new mode of public transport, a fleet of Leyland ‘Titan’ double decker buses that did not require rails or overhead electric cables to traverse the town.

As Swindon folk got used to life on the buses, our 13 trams were acquired as a job lot for £400 by Edinburgh firm EJ Walsh.

After extracting the mechanical elements for spare-parts or recycling, they flogged off the bodies for a fiver each.

Today, the sale of redundant trams would probably trigger a mad rush among those who fancied a spruced-up bone fide vintage tramcar for the bottom of the garden.

But back then they all went for scrap. All except Tram 13… “It survived because uniquely it had been fitted with vestibule ends and thus could be adapted more readily to useful purpose,” said Neil.

A new lease of life beckoned for our sole survivor - but not an especially prestigious one.

New owner Chiseldon undertaker, builder and wheelwright John Liddiard used the bottom to store paint and wallpaper and the top deck for coffins and timber.

Following Liddiard’s death in 1957, the ex-vehicle with its faded cream and ‘lake crimson’ (maroon) livery, fell with the rest of the business into the hands of John Payne of Wanborough.

Payne didn’t fancy the tram – didn’t know what the hell to do with it – and off-loaded it to Chiseldon farmer Reg Hart, who is said to have used it for growing tomatoes.

At some stage he scrapped the top deck but had a nagging thought that it could be restored so he offered it to the Swindon and Cricklade Railway Society.

Mr Hart, then 79, told the Adver 34 years ago: “I’d like to see the tram put back into good shape. I must have ridden in it a few times back in days when Swindon had trams.”

Villagers watched with interest as derelict Tram 13, which had become something of a local landmark, was loaded onto a truck and driven away in August, 1982. “They have done away with our bus service and now we have lost our tram,” quipped one of them, Fred Perren.

While keen to salvage Tram 13, and eventually display it as an exhibit, it didn’t fit in with the society’s more pressing plans to re-build the former Blunsdon railway station.

So they swapped it for a Baily Bridge with Thamesdown (now Swindon) Borough Council who kept it in the paint shop of the old bus depot in Corporation Street.

Its fortunes appeared to be on the up in the late 1980s when it was acquired by the Leadon Valley Electric Railway Association in Malvern, Worcestershire.

But their efforts and enthusiasm for reviving poor old Number 13 ran out of steam through lack of funds and by 1991 they revealed it could follow its former compatriots into the broker’s yard.

“If we can’t find a new home for it then unfortunately the old tram will have to be broken up,” said treasurer Jim Fielding.

Weeks later it was dramatically rescued when fire engulfed its barn and was ferried back to Swindon, finding a new home at Braydon Farm, Purton.

The wheel of fortune turned again in 1996 when it was publicly exhibited as part of the Old Town Festival, publicising new moves to revive its flagging fortunes. But these, too, hit the buffers.

It later resided at Long Shop on the former Swindon railworks site before the dilapidated vehicle – today just a few years short of its centenary and, in effect, owned by no-one – found an alfresco home at Bill Parker’s quarry in Coleford.

How sad, then, if this were to be Tram 13’s final resting place…

The final resting place?

A MEMBER of the Science Museum Group’s Railway Heritage Designation Advisory Board, Neil said: “I don’t want to prejudge things because there have been so many disappointments over the years.

“But interesting suggestions have been made recently with regard to a place to undertake the restoration - and also an ultimate destination for Tram 13. One thing for sure is that it is not regarded as a suitable exhibit for Swindon’s proposed new museum and art gallery.

“This is due to the extent of restoration needed and the synergy with other likely exhibits.

“The feeling is that it would be better off accommodated in another development.”


NEIL Butters first clapped eyes on Tram 13 while inspecting the old Thamesdown Transport depot in Corporation Street more than 30 years ago as part of his duties on the council’s public works and services committee.

For a dedicated train, tram and bus enthusiast who has worked in various areas of public transport most of his life, it wasn’t a sight easily forgotten.

Ten years later, when the onetime 54-seater vehicle’s increasingly desperate plight became apparent he launched a bid to save it.

Then a Lib-Dem councillor for Lawn, his initial idea was to refurbish it as an Old Town information centre in Market Square.

Other schemes, including installing it as an exhibit at the Outlet Village, and even returning it to running order, have floundered due to costs.

Today Neil, a prominent member of Bath and North East Somerset Council, is looking at the possibility of forming a Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO) to raise funds.

He said: “It survives to this day as one of only two in the whole of the historic counties of the south west capable of restoration.

“It is however stored outside with the condition ever deteriorating.

Neil added: “If it were to be restored, even as a static exhibit, the budget would need to be between £100,000 and £250,000.

“Even with a Lottery grant, that would still imply significant local fundraising.

“It would of course be much better if local people - especially young adults - played a prominent role.”

Anyone with suggestions can contact Neil at ‘NButtersTram13@aol.com.’

  • FOR 25 years between 1904 and 1929 Swindon boasted Wiltshire’s only electric tramway system.

    From the ‘Tram Centre’ at the junction of Bridge Street and Fleet Street, lines radiated to Old Town, Rodbourne, Gorse Hill, and the town centre GWR station.

    The line was 3.7 miles long though plans to extend it to eight miles never materialised.

    The system was built to 3ft 6in gauge – single line with passing loops. This was due both to costs and the narrowness of many Swindon streets.