Ipswich Icons: How town pioneered the electric vehicle revolution with the electric tramway

Ipswich Icons July 18

Ipswich Icons July 18 - Credit: Archant

Electric vehicle recharging points are becoming common across some parts of the country but are still rare in Ipswich, writes John Norman, of The Ipswich Society.

Ipswich Icons July 18

Ipswich Icons July 18 - Credit: Archant

Waitrose in Ransomes Way has two, but beyond these recharging is limited to home and the occasional place of work.

Electric vehicles have come and gone from Ipswich’s streets over the past 100 years and they have been manufactured in the town. During the 1980s, when Eastern Electricity occupied Wherstead Hall as their headquarters, they ran a number of small electric vehicles as pool cars. They were ideal for the journey between Wherstead and the town centre and could frequently be seen outside Russell House in Russell Road.

Despite promising beginnings, rechargeable electric vehicles have not caught the public’s attention and there remains doubt as to their range and capability. There is a current resurgence and a number of international motor manufacturers are producing electric vehicles. However, fewer than 7,000 electric cars were sold in the UK last year (out of 2.5 million cars sold). Despite their obvious advantages for commuting, and as a city run-about, these vehicles are rare outside London.

Battery-electric traction began in Ipswich when Frank Ayton came to town. The contract to oversee the construction of Ipswich’s electric tramway had been won by Kennedy and Jenkin of Westminster: Frank Ayton was their assistant engineer and spent five years in their employ. He was then appointed chief engineer and manager of the Ipswich Corporation lighting and tramway undertakings, running both the power station in Constantine Road and the trams operating from the depot in the sheds adjacent (Ipswich Buses still occupy these buildings).

Ipswich Icons July 18

Ipswich Icons July 18 - Credit: Archant

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At this time the generation of electricity was a corporation undertaking, the power station having been built primarily to supply the current for the trams. Most homes were still lit by gas and warmed using coal fires.

The trams derived their power from an overhead wire and travelled on rails (3ft 6in gauge), which had originally been installed for horse- drawn trams in 1898. Trams are a very efficient method of moving large numbers of people. Their steel wheels on steel rails create almost no friction. The downside is that their route is fixed, so they are unable to deviate to avoid roadworks and parked cars.

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The battery-electric connection becomes a reality at the beginning of the second decade of the 20th Century when Ransomes begin building electric-powered, rubber-tyred lorries. Frank was so convinced that battery-electric traction was the future that he installed a municipal charging station; thus Ipswich became the first town in the country to have on-street vehicle recharging for the public to use. The lorries built by Ransomes were well suited to their purpose, tootling around town, not going far or fast, making frequent stops and recharging their batteries overnight. Frank, of course, had a second objective and that was to sell electricity produced by his generating station.

The concept was developed and taken up by dairies when they replaced their horse-drawn milk floats with battery vehicles – similar variants are still in use today. The Co-op also used electric vehicles for grocery delivery, again an ideal power source for stop-start journeys around the suburbs of Ipswich.

Frank spent some 20 years with the Municipal Borough of Ipswich before moving, in 1921, to Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies Ltd., at their Orwell Works, as their joint managing and works director. Needless to say, his prime function at Ransomes was to develop electric vehicle production.

However, their popularity didn’t take off as Frank had envisaged and the company made considerably more electric trams and trolleybuses than battery-electric vehicles.

In 1913 Frank had formed the Electric Vehicle Committee of Great Britain and edited the journal Electric Vehicles.

He became their first honorary secretary and eventually chairman, and was a director of Ransomes for 25 years. There is an Ipswich bus named Frank Ayton in his honour.

John Norman Frank Ayton, 1873-1956, lived at 5 Warrington Road, 56 Henley Road and, from 1924, at Hill House, Anglesea Road.

See more from The Ipswich Society here

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