Public transport as it used to be in the North East

PUBLISHED: 22:12 17 March 2010 | UPDATED: 11:45 28 February 2013

Looking towards the station, the electrified tracks can be seen entering the station at the right. This postcard was published c.1910.

Looking towards the station, the electrified tracks can be seen entering the station at the right. This postcard was published c.1910.

John Hannavy looks at public transport in the North East a century ago

If you worked in the city at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, you lived in the city and you probably walked to work. In the days before cars, essential local services like shops and pubs thrived. If people could not walk to the shops, they could not eat, and every community had its own range of corner shops and local shopping areas.

In the days before motor cars, travel was dependent on trains, trams, horse-drawn coaches and, for the wealthier tiers of society, taxi cabs. The public transport network kept communities together - trams were especially cheap and, in Edwardian times, their networks in cities like Newcastle and Sunderland were extensive.

But, of course, these cities were built on rivers, and in the days before cars, there were many fewer bridges across those rivers, so ferries proliferated, providing essential if somewhat slow and restricted access to the other side.

Trams were surprisingly popular in Victorian and Edwardian times, with many towns having horse-drawn carriages. The tram was hugely popular, but even the very low fare of one old penny would have been beyond the everyday means of many.

The 1830s and 1840s must have been exciting times in which to live. The rate of industrial progress was growing exponentially, and the transport systems which have been taken for granted over the past century and a half and more were just being developed.

In Newcastle, for example, a rail link to Carlisle was opened in 1838, lines to Darlington in 1844, north to Berwick-upon-Tweed in 1847, and south to London by the end of that decade. Before that, anyone travelling further than walking distance would have had to use one of the many long-distance coaches which travelled along less than comfortably smooth roads.

Stockton and Darlington were, of course, the birthplaces of the railway, and the North East embraced the railway age with great enthusiasm - building many of the great routes which still exist today, but also constructing branch-lines the potential of which to ever make a profit was in the realms of whimsy. A lot of people lost a lot of money laying track beds which today survive only as footpaths. Others, of course, now form the basis of the Metro system.

Railways around Newcastle developed into quite a complex network, but as far as Edwardian postcard publishers were concerned it was the biggest railway junction in the world which sold cards. The complex trackwork outside Newcastle Central Station was photographed for several different publishers, some cards just showing the empty rails, but others giving a colourful glimpse of the locomotives and rolling stock of the day.

On the streets, the pace of life in those days was dictated by the trotting speed of a horse, and the walking speed of a man. And just how slow that could be was pointedly brought home to me the other day as I crawled along in my car behind a brewers dray - very picturesque, no doubt, but in todays world, very frustrating indeed if you are late for an appointment.

On the streets of Newcastle, horse-drawn trams came along in 1879, and the system was electrified between 1901 and 1904, and no doubt all the stable-hands, drivers, and horses were pensioned off.

We rarely think of the real cost of progress, but in the transfer from horse-drawn trams to steam-powered ones, the driver went from having to understand horses, to having to know about steam pressure and firing a steam engine; he went from being a coachman, albeit on rails, to being an engineer.

When horse-drawn trams were withdrawn, it was claimed that the decision had been taken on account of the increasing cost of maintaining the many horses need to operate the network reliably.

Steam trams were operated by, among others, the Newcastle and Gosforth Tramways and Carriage Company, the Gateshead and District Tramways Company, the latter operating Leeds-built Kitson engines from 1883 until 1897. Darlington was first in the race with a tram system, albeit short-lived, in 1864. Re-established in 1880, horse-drawn vehicles continued in service until 1904 when the town went straight from horse-drawn to electric.

North Shields and Tynemouth never had a horse-powered system, but introduced steam trams in 1884 before converting to electricity in 1901. Sunderland, whose system had been horse-drawn since 1879, briefly experimented with steam traction in 1880, but apparently abandoned it after just a few months, and keeping the horses and coachmen employed until 1900.

Stockton was another of the many towns to use steam-hauled trams, using engines built either by Merryweather of London, or Kitson. Interestingly, one of the pioneers in the development of steam traction for trams was Charles Algernon Parsons, who worked with Kitson and later founded the Parsons marine engineering company near Newcastle, and whose engines powered many of Britains ships.

Gateshead and Tynemouth were the last to abandon their steam trams in 1901, while West Hartlepool was one of the first to go electric, converting the system between 1891 and 1896. Sadly, pictures of these early vehicles are about as rare as hens teeth. They had all gone by the dawn of the postcard era, although electric trams in abundance graced Edwardian postcards.

When the tram systems were electrified, all that understanding of steam could at least be used to get work on the railways but then, by 1904 in Newcastle at least, the railway was partially electrified with the opening of the line to Tynemouth.

Sunderland was the last to lose its street trams in 1954, three years after Newcastle and Gateshead, and eight years after South Shields.

Getting across the Tyne, the Tees and the Wear could be achieved by road, by rail or by water and some of the ferries as depicted in Edwardian postcards might not pass muster in todays health and safety-conscious society. On one card in my collection, showing the busy shipyards along the rivers edge at Stockton, the foreground is filled with heavily-laden rowing boats taking workers across the river. On one rather fragile-looking boat, I can count at least 26 people. At least the ferries crossing the Tyne - the famous penny ferries from North to South Shields - looked a bit more substantial, but some of them, of course, were designed to carry vehicular traffic in addition to the steady flow of foot passengers.

Steam ferry services across the river - and up and down it - were introduced in the 1840s, and while many of them were short-lived, some continued to operate well into the 20th century, with fares as low as a halfpenny on the shortest route. The Hapenny Dodger, which operated from New Quay in North Shields, to Kirtons Quay in South Shields, was the shortest crossing. The last ferry linking piers up and down the river closed over a century ago and some routes closed in the 1950s, but services between the Shields continue to this day.

The car, the railway and the bus, together with several more bridges across the regions rivers, consigned most of the ferry services to history.

If you have any old photographs or postcards of trams, trains, ferries or trolley buses in the North East, you can share them with us on the website. CLICK HERE

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