Some of you South London folk might be familiar with the Tramlink, the (relatively) new service that links Wimbledon with Croydon for some reason. It appears to have been a success, and a number of other tram and light rail schemes have been proposed for the 21st century. Some are more realistic than others, and my proposal for a tram running from my front door to the Tube station has sadly been shot down, despite the obvious benefits to the local community.
At this point, I usually like to go all wise and mysterious, tapping my nose. So if you could imagine that I’m doing that, that would help me a lot.
Anyway. Ah, but did you know that this is far from the first tram in London? The first trams were horse-drawn and appeared in 1860, introduced by George Francis Train, an American eccentric and the possible inspiration for Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg character. Experiments in steam, cable haulage and battery power all made their appearance, but gradually electricity from overhead wires or a conduit between the rails became the norm. By the First World War, there was an extensive network of trams serving the suburbs of London.
Alas, the heyday of the trams was to be short-lived. By the 1930s, it was clear that motor buses were the way forward. They cost less to maintain, they didn’t need a complicated infrastructure and they were far more flexible than the trams. Admittedly they could carry fewer passengers, but this was seen as a small price to pay. There was also, it’s fair to say, a certain amount of politics involved. In 1933, trams were taken over by London Transport, who ploughed the profits they made into repaying debt rather than investing in improvements in the network. They favoured Underground trains and the not-much-more-flexible trolleybus. From the 1930s onwards, the system was run down and closed and on 6th July 1952, the last tram for forty-eight years ran in London.
And that was it for the old tramways. Such tramlines as remained were removed, to the delight of cyclists across the city. Some bits lingered longer than others – Fulwell Bus Garage had a number of surviving tracks until a few years ago. A number of tram buildings survive, some as bus depots and others put to other uses. I recommend Tooting Tram and Social, a pub, to all tram fans. As its name implies, it used to be a tram shed. It retains a number of the old London Transport fittings and, since being refurbished, you have almost zero chance of getting stabbed in there. A great improvement on the old days.
There is one virtually unchanged reminder of the old days in Holborn. I speak, of course, of the Kingsway subway.
This opened in February 1906 and ran from Holborn to the Embankment, designed to link the Northern and Southern parts of the London County Council’s tramway system together. Putting it underground would, of course, minimise disruption to traffic. What’s less well known is that there were a number of other proposals for tram subways at the time. One would run from Victoria to Marble Arch, another from Aldgate to Knightsbridge and one from St Paul’s to Aldersgate. These would have linked up, and the Kingsway subway would not have reached the Embankment but rather would have taken a sharp right along the Strand. Sadly (depending on your point of view), none of these plans were implemented.
It was originally only able to take single-deck tramcars, as pictured left, of the F and G class. By the 1920s it was becoming clear that this was a bit stupid, as double-decker cars were the norm. Between 1930 and 1931, the subway was enlarged to allow the new E/3 double decker cars (one of which may be seen above) to work through.
Its fortunes faded with those of the rest of the network, and the last regular service took place on 5th April 1952, just after midnight. This wasn’t quite the end, however. Part of the tunnel was converted for motor use and opened in 1964 as the Strand Underpass. Another part was used to house London’s flood control HQ prior to the opening of the Thames Barrier. The southern end, which came out beneath Waterloo Bridge, is now a bar.
The northern end, however, is very much intact. It has been used as a store in its time, but is now grade-II listed. The tram station is still in place and, as you can see in the night time photo above, the tracks are still in situ. It underwent some refurbishment this year, and hosted an art installation called ‘Chord’ by Conrad Shaw. It remains innocuous and obscure, but it’s good to see that it’s been saved for the foreseeable future. It’s partly protected by the fact that it’s virtually useless as anything but an abandoned tunnel. A fine venue for filming or exhibitions, but no use as a transport link or for conversion into anything else. Excellent.
- A walk through the underpass.