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Fond memories of the golden days of the tram

IT is now more than half a century since Sunderland's last tram made its final journey. Today SARAH STONER takes a nostalgic look back at the tramway age.

BUSINESS was booming – as was the population – when trams made their first appearance on the streets of Wearside in the late 19th century.

A flat fare of 2d was charged per trip, regardless of distance, but there was no service after 9pm at first – due to a lack of horses!

The golden age of trams was to last for 75 years, until they were literally driven off the road by cars in the 1950s.

But as Arthur Staddon recalled in his book, The Tramways of Sunderland, published in the 1960s: "The trams may have gone, but memories will live on."

The history of Wearside's tram era begins in 1878, when Sunderland Tramways Company sought permission to run trams around the town centre.

Approval was granted for a service between Roker, Christ Church, Tatham Street and the docks.

The first horse-drawn trams appeared a year later, on April 28, 1879, running from the Royal Hotel at Monkwearmouth to Roker and carrying up to 19 passengers.

Just a day later, however, they claimed their first accident victim – when a young boy was knocked down by a cart as he stood gazing in fascination at the new trams.

"The trams themselves were primitive vehicles, lit by smoking oil lamps and with the floors covered with straw in the winter," Mr Staddon was later to recall.

"At first neither life guards nor decency boards were fitted. The stairs on the early double deck cars also blocked the driver's view, and an accident when a child was run over was attributed to this fault and to the lack of life guards."

Despite these problems, the trams proved highly popular and, by May 1879, a 15-minute service operated between 9am and 9pm, with a flat rate fee of 2d.

Lines south of the river were completed by June 1879, with the route taking in Bridge Street, Fawcett Street, Burdon Road, Gray Road, Tatham Street and Borough Road.

A branch line also ran from the corner of Tatham Street to the docks via Nicholson Street and Cousin Street, leading to a terminus at Adelaide Street.

The lines were inspected and approved by Major General Hutchinson, of the Board of Trade, on June 11, 1879 – and the new services started on the same day.

Unfortunately, however, there was a cab rank in Fawcett Street right on top of the lines – and no-one told the cabbies.

"The cabbies refused to move to let the trams get past and the tramway people tried to force their way through," recalled Mr Staddon in his book. "Heated words were followed by blows, and peace was only restored when police intervened."

By 1880, with a tram network now covering the town centre, the first steam locomotives were brought into operation.

Tram chiefs planned to use the locos to pull two or three double-deck trams at a time, but the steep gradient of the Southwick line left them struggling to pull even one.

"They were transferred to the Christ Church to Roker route, where they were given a fair trial over a period of seven months. They were also tried out up Hylton Road, but only for three days," said Mr Staddon.

"They were eventually discarded because they interfered with ordinary traffic and were subject to frequent breakdowns."

Although the continued use of horses was deemed necessary, it was not popular. There were "many, many complaints" about horses being overworked and underfed and a "considerable number" of prosecutions for cruelty to horses too. In 1883, one poorly horse was even "arrested" after the Tramway Company refused to let a vet from the RSPCA examine it.

The animal was brought to court the next day, to allow magistrates to see its condition. It is not known, however, what the outcome of the case was.

When Sunderland Corporation bought the Tramways Company for 35,000 on March 26, 1900, it converted the trams to electricity.

The first electric tram made its debut on July 31, 1900, running from the Wheatsheaf to Roker, then on to Christ Church and back to the Wheatsheaf.

On August 15, 1900, however – the day the trams first entered public service – there was an embarrassing accident between two vehicles being tried out by council chiefs.

The driver of Tram Number Two, who was the vice-chairman of the Tramways Committee, crashed into Tram One – being driven by his chairman – in Burdon Road.

The accident was blamed on the current being switched off by a mischief maker. But although the act was considered malicious, no culprit was ever found.

A rapid network expansion soon followed the Corporation's takeover, with Villette Road, Kayll Road and Chester Road all benefiting from services by February 1901.

Football fans benefited too in 1908, when a new route into Roker Baths Road – just 100 yards from Sunderland's football ground – was opened.

But the trams soon began to attract troublemakers and, to prevent accidents, a "large number of summonses" was issued against boys hanging on to cars.

The outbreak of World War One left the trams short-staffed, as dozens of men were called up. Their places were taken, for the first time, by women.

The first 10 female conductors – the term "conductress" not then being in use – started work on June 9, 1915, but the move was not without problems.

"One effect was a large increase in the number of prosecutions of boys riding on the back of trams," recalled Mr Staddon.

"There were also four prosecutions for "throwing stones, streets refuse, etc, at female conductors and cars" and one for assaulting a woman conductor in 1915.

"It must be remembered that until that time, the place for women was considered to be at home or in service and people resented being told what to do by a woman.

"One lady, on being told by one of these conductors to go upstairs, responded by hitting her over the head with an umbrella!"

By 1920 however, once the men had returned from war, the women who had worked so hard to keep the trams running during the troubles had all "gracefully retired".

As Sunderland's population boomed, so did the tram network. A new route along Ryhope Road was added in the 1920s, plus a service to Barnes Park.

But, as early as 1929, some routes were being abandoned in favour of buses. The dock route was the first to go.

By 1938, officials were discussing alternative methods of transport and, on January 11, 1947, it was announced that the town's trams were to be scrapped.

The decision was blamed on the "influx of motor traffic" clogging up the roads, the greater popularity of bus services and the expense of renewing trams.

The Villette Road route was the first to be abandoned, with services withdrawn on November 5, 1950. The second was at Southwick in September 1951 and on September 20, 1952, the "Football Special" trams disappeared.

The end finally came on October 1, 1954, when a procession of trams left the Town Hall for Seaburn at 11.20pm.

Trams 93, 32, 34, 24, 31 and 35 were filled with people who paid a shilling for the last ride, while tram 91 carried Sunderland Corporation guests and tram 86 contained the official party.

The golden age of the tram was not quite over, though, as on October 29, 1954, three retired cars were used as grandstands during a visit by the Queen to Sunderland.

Scrapping began a fortnight later, on November 15, 1954, with the Wheatsheaf tram depot being converted for buses. The last of the tram lines was lifted at Dykelands Road in 1959.

"All that is left is our memories of the trams," concluded Mr Staddon in his book, which was republished by The Echo in 1991. "The trams made a great impact on the lives of the people of Sunderland in their lifetime."

* Details taken from The Tramways of Sunderland by SA Staddon, originally published in 1964 and reprinted by the Sunderland Echo in 1991.

Accidents and incidents on the lines

SUNDERLAND'S trams ran for 75 years and carried 54,308,000 passengers. They were considered "remarkably safe vehicles", but had their problems too – including:

NOVEMBER 1879: Isabella Owens became the first of many children to die in tram accidents. The toddler was knocked over by a horse-drawn tram in Roker Avenue.

December 1882: William Wicks, aged 12, died after hitching a ride on a tram horse. He was fatally injured.

June 24, 1884: George Haver, aged 15 months, became the youngest tram victim. He was run over while crossing Hylton Road near the Willow Pond pub.

January 24, 1889: Fire broke out at the Wheatsheaf tram stables, but a brave stableman managed to release every horse – despite suffering serious burns himself.

June 1898: An escaped bullock forced itself between two horses drawing a tram across Wearmouth Bridge. The horses tried to kick the bullock and ran faster and faster to get at it until a policeman managed to seize them and stop the tram.

August 15, 1900: The first incident involving an electric tram happened on the day they were introduced. Tram Number 2, driven by the vice-chairman of the Tramways Committee, crashed into Tram 1 – driven by the chairman – in Burdon Road.

December 1900: A tram driver tried to commit suicide after crashing in Holmeside. He fired four shots at his head with a revolver, but survived to tell the tale.

July 9, 1924: The first incident involving a car occurred, when a motorist drove through a queue of people waiting to board a tram in Fawcett Street.

January 26, 1926: A female passenger dropped a bottle of ammonia on the floor of a Durham Road tram. The Echo reported: "The result was, to say the least, disconcerting."

November 1927: Passengers were left shocked when a man – who had escaped from a mental ward of Sunderland Workhouse – boarded a tram in Chester Road "wearing neither stockings nor trousers."

June 15, 1933: A tram collided with a brewer's lorry in Hylton Road, near the Mountain Daisy, and then toppled on to its side with a "terrific crash".

Passengers were rescued by passers-by and 13 needed hospital treatment.

* Details taken from Accidents and Incidents on Sunderland Tramways, written by Ed Keogh, edited by Arthur Staddon and published by the Sunderland Echo.