Electric Avenues | Trams of London

A century ago, trams were a familiar site in Clerkenwell, trundling up and down Farringdon Road and other busy streets in the area. 

London then had the largest tram network in Europe. Bef Yigezu, of Islington Local History Centre, looks back at a bygone age of commuting in EC1. Victorian London experienced massive growth in its population, so the development of public transport was crucial to enable the city to expand outwards to the suburbs. A horse tram could seat up to 50 passengers, double that of omnibuses. Such a significant increase in efficiency helped lower costs, reduced fares and made trams accessible to lower-income groups.

The first tramways initially faced stiff opposition from affluent areas. The City of London and the West End never permitted lines to be built. Trams did not appeal to the middle classes because of the association with working-class commuters. However, the system got a major boost when Parliament passed the Tramways Act (1870) permitting tram services on the condition that rails were sunken into the carriageway and tramways were shared with other road users. The London County Council (LCC), formed in 1889, realised the importance of reasonably priced fares as a means to improve labour movement.

The two companies operating in the Clerkenwell and Finsbury areas, London Street Tramways and North Metropolitan Tramways, sold their networks to the LCC in 1896.

 Rosebery Avenue was one of the first tramways to be powered by electricity

Tramways in Clerkenwell began to operate a horse-tram service from Islington Green to Ropemaker Street in 1871. It was run by North Metropolitan Tramways. Two years later it also introduced services along Old Street and Goswell Road from Angel. In 1885 a rival company, London Street Tramways, launched services along Farringdon Road and, later, Gray’s Inn Road. They would go on to provide a regular service between Caledonian Road and Clerkenwell. In this period of poor literacy, each service was allocated a diff erent colour for its livery to help passengers identify the service. Tickets for the fare were colour-coded, each denoting the price.

Electrification started in 1906. Power to the trams was received from conductor rails beneath the road by means of a device (known as a plough) a ached to the tram. Rosebery Avenue was one of the first streets to be powered by this method in London. In 1907, Clerkenwell Road, Goswell Road and Old Street were electrified, with St John Street converting the following year. In 1913 the number 17 route was introduced to the Farringdon area. It ran between Highgate and Farringdon Street by way of King’s Cross and Farringdon Road. The southern terminus for this route was located at the corner of Cowcross and Farringdon streets.

Many routes were disrupted by air raids during the First World War. Bombs dropped by Zeppelin airships in 1915 and, later, German heavy bombers during 1917 halted services while tracks were cleared and repaired. Tram services continued throughout the war. However, as men working on the capital’s tramways le their jobs to fight overseas, they were replaced by women, many of whom worked as conductors for the first time. Following the end of World War I, expansion of the tramways continued to a point where London boasted the largest tram network in post-war Europe.

The first trams were open-top decks, with ornate iron scrollwork and staircases. Their liveries reflected the stage-coach tradition of the Victorian period with bright and vibrant colours. Tram designs later became more functional. Just like today’s buses the tramcars were covered with advertisements. A typical double-decker tram was 10.4 metres in length and the vehicle had a large headlight above the driver’s position. 

Trams had an average speed of 10.5 mph, although they could reach 20 mph on straight stretches. One downside of trams was the noise caused by the electronic motors, rattling of the bodywork and squealing of the wheels on bends. Trams were also fitted with a loud warning gong.

By the mid-1930s, the dominance of the trams was being challenged by a newer technology – trolley buses. These electric buses, powered by overhead wires, were quieter, less dangerous to other road users and more efficient. Farringdon Road’s route 17 trams were replaced by trolleybuses on 6 March 1938, becoming routes 517 and 617. Tram route 55 along Clerkenwell Road and Old Street became trolleybus route 555 in June 1939. 

By the Second World War, most tramways had been replaced with the new buses and only south London and routes that went through the Kingsway subway into north London survived. Trolley and diesel buses gradually replaced trams and, in July 1952, London’s last tram was retired. It was the end of the line for Clerkenwell’s 80-year partnership with the tram.

Islington Museum is at 245 St John Street, EC1V 4NB. Open 10am-5pm (closed Wednesday and Sunday). The latest exhibition is about poet and publisher John La Rose and the history of Trinidad (until 29 August).


JOURNEY PLANNER – These tram routes were once familiar to Clerkenwell commuters

13 – Highgate to Aldersgate via Goswell Road

15 – Highbury Station to Tooley Street via Angel and Rosebery Avenue

17 – Highgate to Farringdon Street via Farringdon Road 35 – Highgate to Elephant and Castle via Rosebery Avenue

37 – Manor House to Aldersgate via Angel

51 – Muswell Hill to Aldersgate via Goswell Road

55 – Leyton Station to Bloomsbury via Old Street and Clerkenwell Road

79 – Waltham Cross to Smithfield via St John Street