When rails ran through Ipswich streets

Saturday, July 18, 2009
11:10 AM

You don't have to be a transport anorak to enjoy a book on Ipswich trams. Even if you're not taken by the vehicles themselves, there are lots of lovely old street scenes to thrill anyone with a bit of the town in their soul.

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You don't have to be a transport anorak to enjoy a book on Ipswich trams. Even if you're not taken by the vehicles themselves, there are lots of lovely old street scenes to thrill anyone with a bit of the town in their soul. Steven Russell reports

IPSWICH is too often overlooked as a provincial backwater, but 80-odd years ago the town was something of a trendsetter. For more than four decades trams had run on rails through some of its key streets - initially pulled by horses and later powered by electricity. But in the 1920s a trial was held to run trolleybuses - which didn't need those metal tracks scarring the streets - between Cornhill and the railway station. It worked well and Ipswich was one of the first UK towns or cities to make the change. Out went the tram and in came the trolleybus. The atmosphere and look of the tram era is captured in a new book by Colin Barker, published nearly 85 years after the last one ran.

Ipswich Tramways isn't designed to be a definitive history, “more a camera shot of public transport and day-to-day life in Ipswich between 1880 and 1926”. It's packed with 120 pictures, and that means a treat for the general reader who knows the town and can spot the similarities and differences between then and now.

The fortunes of Ipswich enjoyed something of a renaissance after the river channel was dredged in the 19th Century and the docks developed, Colin explains. A provincial market town with a decaying port became a growing industrial centre. It pulled folk from the countryside, and homes were built further out from the heart of the town.

In the 1870s there was talk about the need for public transport, and in 1879 the Board of Trade gave permission for a horse tramway from the Cornhill to the Great Eastern Railway station. It was built in the spring and summer of the following year - though the contractor was declared bankrupt at the end of the project!

It opened on October 13, 1880, with two single-deck cars built by a Birkenhead firm. They were brown and cream and had seats for 18 passengers. A second route opened in March, 1881, along Princes Street, Portman Road and Mill Street to Barrack Corner, and then along Norwich Road to Brooks Hall Road. “A third car was purchased; this time an open-top double-decker,” says Colin.

An Act of Parliament that year designated the business as the Ipswich Tramway Company, with powers to operate other routes: Cornhill to Barrack Corner in 1882 and Majors Corner to Derby Road station the following year. By 1896 the fleet stood at nine trams; and by the end of the decade, three single-deckers had been converted to double-deckers.

Competition arrived in 1898 in the shape of Ipswich Omnibus Service, which ran 18 red, horse-drawn buses from a depot in Kemball Street, off Foxhall Road. “They operated along the tram routes and into new areas of the town, with competitive fares that forced the tramway company to reduce theirs.”

Meanwhile, the Ipswich Corporation Tramway Act of 1900 gave the town the power to operate its own system and it moved quickly to serve a compulsory purchase order on the company the following year. Arbitration fixed the price at £17,552.

The corporation took over on November 1, the book explains, and continued to run the horse tramway system. This stopped in the early summer of 1903 so tracks could be laid and overhead lines hung - mainly suspended from bracket arms - for electric trams. Seven Acre Field, a site in marshy Constantine Road, was bought for offices, a depot and a power station.

Nearly 11 miles of track was laid. Twenty-six open-top double-decker vehicles were bought in 1903, with 10 more arriving the following year. They could seat 50 passengers and were painted green and cream (a colour combination that's become synonymous with public transport in the town).

The first trial run was to Whitton - then a village; now part of Ipswich - on November 10. The official opening came on November 21 and the first paying passengers travelled two days later on the Whitton to Bourne Bridge (Wherstead Road) route, which served Ransomes and Rapier's factory and the berths on the River Orwell for the steamers that sailed to Felixstowe, Harwich and beyond.

Extensions were unveiled just before Christmas: along Spring Road to the Lattice Barn pub, and along Bramford Road. Before long the Ipswich Omnibus Service horse buses faded out of the scene.

In the spring of 1904 the Bell Inn corner in Vernon Street was connected to Princess Street via Stoke Bridge, St Peter's Street, St Nicholas Street and Queen Street; and in the May a route was completed along Felixstowe Road to the Royal Oak.

“While the advent of the horse tramway system provided a basic public transport operation, the introduction of electric trams beyond the original termini, plus the introduction of new routes, gave the general public a cheap, speedy and reliable means of moving around the area, which contributed to the development and expansion of this county town,” says Colin. “Before the advent of electric trams, the only means of transport was to cycle, be drawn by a horse or have the doubtful benefit of one of the early motorcars.”

In the 1920s Ipswich began thinking about trolleybuses - trackless trams - and a successful trial was held by converting the section between Cornhill and the station. This started in September, 1923.

There were discussions about whether the trams ought to be replaced by trolleybuses or the even more modern motorbuses. The corporation held a referendum of ratepayers about operating trolleybuses on all routes: 3,780 folk voted in favour, with 2,156 against. Routes were converted, with the last tram running on July 26, 1926.

“Six trams, plus one body, were sold to Scarborough Tramways; the bodies of many of the others were used locally as sheds,” says Colin.

With Ipswich being one of the first places to switch to trolleybuses, the electric trams had enjoyed only a short life. Their demise in 1926 ended more than 45 years of railed street public transport in the town, though, as he points out, “electric traction would continue for a further 37 years with the introduction of trolleybuses”.

Ipswich Tramways is published by Middleton Press at £15.95. ISBN 978-1-906008-550. Call 01730 813169 for details of availability.

Tramway trivia

The outbreak of the First World War brought staff shortages to the Ipswich tram system as employees were called away to fight. This led to women over the age of 21 being taken on as conductresses.

A notice from the chief engineer and manager, in May, 1915, explained they'd be paid the starting wage for male conductors: 22 shillings for an average week of 60 hours (10 hours a day).

“Owing to the nature of the employment, applications can only be considered from women of good physique and strong constitution,” F Ayton advised.

Meanwhile, a shortage of steel and spare parts made it hard to maintain vehicles and track: in 1917, the track in Bath Street, by the docks, was taken up for use elsewhere and was never replaced. A lack of paint meant some trams were painted grey.

There was controversy in the 1890s when the wooden blocks between the (horse-drawn) tram rails were in a poor state and the Ipswich Corporation asked the operators to repair them.

“The company did not comply and the corporation carried out the work themselves and sent the bill to the operator,” explains Colin Barker. “The subsequent dispute between the two parties resulted in services being withdrawn for two weeks.”

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