‘Galleons of the Streets’: Irish Trams

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 2 (Summer 1997), Volume 5

There was a time when Dublin United Tramways could boast of being one of the finest services in Europe and the seventh largest system, with 330 tram cars. They were regarded as efficient and clean and the courtesy of the staff was legendary. The proud men in their uniforms, motorman and conductor, were captain and crew of their street vessels as they glided along serving the citizens of Dublin. The massive balcony bogey cars with open front parts on the upper deck had canvas screens to prevent down-draughts and the gleaming of polished brass ware, varnished mahogany and flapping canvas, gave them the poetic name of ‘galleons of the streets’ as they gently swayed from side to side and lurched fore and aft.


The first street tramway system was introduced by an Irishman, John Stevenson, to New York in 1832. Originally hauled by steam, it was found to be unacceptable and horses were introduced. It became the first horse-tramway system in the world, running from Prince Street to 14th Street and providing a fifteen minute service over a four mile route. The tram weighed two-and-a-half tons and could carry thirty passengers (see fig.1). It had all the appearance of an elongated stagecoach. Previous to this, in 1807, a Mr Benjamin French hired a section of mining plateway in South Wales, running from Swansea to Oystermouth and conveyed passengers for the first known time, but the experiment only lasted a number of years and John Stevenson’s effort was the first lasting system. Experiments were tried in Vienna in 1840 and elsewhere in Europe.

The Fintona ‘van’

As early as 1854, a horse-tram was introduced to link the town of Fintona to Fintona Junction on the Londonderry and Enniskillen railway. Apart from experiments with horse traction in Paris by Alphonse Loubat, the horse tramway at Fintona is accepted as being the first permanent horse tramway in Europe. The tram itself, known locally as ‘the van’, resembled a wild west stagecoach with crude side ladders giving access to the upper deck (see fig.2). It appears that a small brake-van or carriage may have been adapted with the stairs added to give extra accommodation on the upper parts. It is recorded that the Benjamin French carriage at Oystermouth in South Wales was very similar in appearance and may have been copied. The early designs were uncertain in their approach and borrowed from stagecoach and railway carriage design. Only experience and knowledge of what was required in terms of good coach building practice, passenger numbers expected, weight of vehicle, gradients on route, size and number of horses and frequency of service, could dictate new designs for horse trams. Railway stock, built for greater speed, was over-robust and wheel sizes necessitated either a platform or extra steps for ease of access. Carriage design norms of the day were unsuited. A vehicle emerged which had a lighter structure, more glazing, smaller wheel diameters and platforms were provided at either end to speed up times of loading and disembarking. Ladder stairs were no longer to the side of the vehicle, but served from the end platforms. One of the major departures from road horse-haulage design was the introduction of identical end platforms. At the terminus the horse could now be released from one side, walked around the tram-car, and hitched to the other end for the return journey. It took a number of years for a recognisable tram-car design to appear and again, it was the Irishman John Stevenson’s Tram Construction Works in America that created the first traditional tram-car designs, from which all else would follow.

Influenced ladies fashion

The first generation of tram-car design although distinctively tram-like in appearance, still had some affinity with coach and horse-bus design of the day. They had an inward sweep or tumblehome on the lower panel known as the rocker panel, a remnant of the days when all road vehicles had large wooden wheels outside the saloon body and the tumblehome was to affect a narrowing of the structure to prevent the wheels from protruding too much. The tram wheels were much smaller in diameter and projected somewhat into the floor of the saloon, out of sight, under a cowl and covered by longitudinal seating on either side of a gangway or central corridor. From the end platforms, ladders gave access to the roof to form upper deck seating. These seats were centrally located over an elevated part of the saloon roof which provided clerestorey lighting and ventilation underneath, into the saloon. A gangway surrounded these seats with railings to prevent passengers from falling off (see fig.3). Ladders were suitable for the agile only. Eventually, ‘boxed-in’ steps or spiral staircases were introduced to prevent feet from slipping outwards. The stairs were contained by railings but these were found to be cumbersome where ladies with hooped skirts were concerned. It was not so bad mounting the stairs, but coming down the hoops had a tendency to stay behind and the poor woman was gradually disrobed as she descended! There were cases where women made a hasty retreat back up to the upper deck and refused to leave the tram until safely back at the depot. In one case a young woman, anxious to keep an affair-of-the-heart appointment, permitted herself to be transported downstairs head first, to the cheers of an admiring audience. Indeed, the tram-car was credited with the move to slimmer forms of dress for women to enable them to avoid confinement to the lower deck saloon. Such was the modesty in Victorian times that a timber or metal screen was fixed to the sides of the stairs and the upper deck railings to prevent the glimpse of an ankle or unmentionable article of clothing. These were known as ‘decency boards’ or ‘modesty screens’. They had the added advantage of reducing exposure to wind and rain.

The ‘coffin’

In open-front trams, the driver was exposed to the elements. This was not so bad with the horse-trams where a more leisurely pace was the norm, but the extra speed of the electrically powered trams ensured that the driver got a thorough soaking in inclement conditions and often had to stand for the best part of the day in wet clothing. Dublin’s no.11 tram was the first to introduce a windscreen and was affectionately known as the ‘coffin’ on account of its angular appearance. Dubliners had nicknames for most of the trams that plied the same routes year after year. No.111 was known as ‘the sergeant’ on account of the three stripes, and no.222 as ‘the three swans’. A famous converted horse-tram, no.80, was known as ‘the submarine’ as it had motors raised above the possible flood level found in the city. When the windscreen was added, the upper deck was continued out over the platform to form a vestibule. The enclosed area was not only more comfortable for the driver but provided extra seating accommodation on the upper deck (see fig.4). These trams were known as ‘open-toppers’ and survived on routes where low bridges prevented the addition of a roof and were common in seaside areas. The Hill of Howth tram fleet of ten cars remained open-topped until closure in 1959. As standards of comfort improved, a roof was provided over the saloon part of the open-topped tram leaving the end still open to the elements. These were known as balcony cars and first made their appearance in 1904 (see fig.5). The bogey or eight-wheel version of these fine trams survived on the Dalkey route right until closure in 1949 and every family on an outing tried to occupy the front balcony position in fine weather. In the event of a shower, a swift retreat into the upper deck saloon or downstairs to the rear vestibule was usual. The leading vestibule remained the exclusive domain of the motorman or driver.

Ritualistic dance

On Dublin trams, the driver always remained in a standing position with legs and arms held well apart to manage the controls. The left hand was on the controller, managing the speed by rising a scale of notches. Trams could reach the dizzy speed of 40mph on straight routes and could outpace any motorbus. The right hand was held on the handbrake column to aid slowing down at corners, coming to a halt or holding the car on an incline. Trams also had powerful air brakes which gave out the hissing sound common with today’s articulated trucks and also magnetic brakes usually reserved for emergencies. The motorman’s feet were also busy, clanging gongs to warn of the tram’s approach and clicking home a foot operated ratchet to lock on the handbrake. The foot was also used to tap a pedal to release sand onto the track for wheel-grip in wet conditions. Although rarely used, the foot was also used to drop a safety screen or lifeguard to scoop up a fallen body if within braking distance. So with hands and legs on the go, the motorman went through a rather ritualistic dance as he propelled his tram along.
In the early 1920s, all-enclosed ‘standard’ cars were introduced (see fig.6). There were both four- and eight-wheel versions of open-toppers, balcony cars and standards. At first, the tram design engineers were nervous about building over the vestibule as they feared that the outer limits of the overhang would cause distortion and sagging, but by securely cantilevering the platform and upper deck overhang, they overcame their fears. In some hilly systems were there was excessive use of the magnetic brake, especially when the air-brakes became leaky through age, the tram slumped down at the ends and many of the older trams became hog-backed or humped. This was an endearing feature of the blue and cream Hill of Howth trams.

The streamliner

The last evolution of tram-car design, or the fifth generation, was the Luxury tram or streamliner, introduced in the early 1930s (see fig.7). Bus competition had made its presence sorely felt and new models of design and standards of comfort were drawing crowds away from the trams. Regrettably, the buses were set into direct competition with the trams, scooping up passengers minutes before the tram arrived. There were cases when the tram men got their own back when a following team ‘imprisoned’ a bus against a leading tram and the captured bus was forced to release its passengers before the convoy split up. It happened the opposite way too, where the driver of one of the pirate buses would drive slowly over the rails, preventing the tram from gathering speed and enabling other buses in the same company, to commandeer the tram’s legitimate clientele.
The Luxury trams were built to a very high standard of specification and comfort and were very modern, both in terms of appearance and mechanical know-how and certainly way ahead of bus designs of the day. They were constructed mostly of steel and aluminium and were much lighter, with rapid acceleration and were very economical. It was hoped to replace the entire Dublin fleet with these magnificent machines and provide a more efficient and economic service, but the policy all over Britain was to abandon tram operations in favour of the ubiquitous bus and we, unfortunately, followed suit.

Other tram systems in Ireland

Belfast also had the full generational compliment of tram design forms, from open front to Luxury. Indeed, the famous McCrearys, with platform folding doors, were very advanced. Belfast lost her trams in 1954, leaving the world famous Hill of Howth trams to become the last to operate in Ireland. Cork also had electric trams. However, these were of the open top and open front family of design and were abandoned as early as 1931. An industrial tramway ran from the town of Newry to serve mills at Bessbrook. This system, which closed in 1948, was entirely single deck in design and had the distinction of using the first ‘bow system of current connection, which later became world wide. The most famous electric tramway system in the world was undoubtedly from the Giants’ Causeway. Apart from being one of the most scenic, it is surprising to learn that this picturesque tramway, lashed by North Atlantic gales, was the first long tramway system in the world, the first to use hydro power and the first tram to have been driven by a woman on the day of its official opening. It could possibly also boast of being the only Irish system disrupted by submarine action during World War II. At the time of its opening in 1883, Addison was still experimenting with model electric streetcars at Menlo Park in the USA. In Germany Von Siemens operated two small lines more on an experimental basis, in Berlin (1881) and Charlottenburg (1882). But the Causeway was the world’s first fully fledged enterprise of its kind.
Horse trams were operated prior to the introduction of electric traction in Dublin, Cork and Belfast, but Derry never progressed beyond horse-hauled trams. A delightful horse tramway, the most western in Europe, operated in Galway, but as in Derry, when the horses were commandeered for World War I, the tramways quietly succumbed and were replaced by buses after the war. The town of Warrenpoint operated a scenic horse-drawn tramway along the coast to Rostrevor using gaily coloured stock and was an immense attraction until displaced by charabancs in 1915. The smallest horse-tram in the world provided a rail link from Glenanne to Loughgilly Mills in Ulster and the open sided carriage was no bigger than the horse itself. The Fintona horse-tram lasted until the closure of the Omagh to Enniskillen branch of the GNR line which at the time, in 1957, was the longest running horse tramway in the world. Two steam tramways operated out of Dublin to Blessington and to Lucan. The latter was later electrified and taken over by the Dublin United Tramways. Another steam tram operated with the BNCR railway from Cromore Station to the town of Portstewart, commencing in 1882. The famous Causeway system used steam trams to haul the carriages through the town of Portrush, as a live rail at ground level within a town area was unacceptable. Eventually the overhead method of current connection was adopted in 1899 and through-running was then possible with the electric cars. There were other steam hauled roadside tramways: Castlederg to Victoria Bridge; the Clogher valley; and the famous Muskerry tram that ran out of Cork to Blarney Castle.
In all, a motley collection of transport oddities existed in Ireland, many first of their breed, many unique and unusual and some surviving long beyond their ‘sell-by’ date while others were progressive and modern for their time. For years trams served the public well, but they required the dignity of isolation to succeed and in cities where the trams were given their rights-of-way, they continue to provide excellent service to this day. Only now is this slowly being recognised as city after city (most recently Dublin) is once more turning to the tram for the solution to traffic problems.

Jim Kilroy is a director of the National Transport Museum, Howth.

Further reading:

J. Kilroy, Irish Trams (Omagh 1996).

J. Kilroy, Howth and Her Trams (Dublin 1986).

W. McGrath, Tram Tracks Through Cork (Cork 1981).

R.A. Hunter, R.C. Ludgan and J. Richardson, Gone But Not Forgotten: Belfast Trams 1872-1954 (Belfast 1979).

A set of sixteen coloured postcards featuring trams and other forms of transport is available from the author at £3.50 (inc. p&p). Proceeds towards the National Transport Museum’s restoration work.


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