A Brief History of Public Transport in Coventry

Steam Trams

The history of public transport in Coventry has been varied. The first form of mass public transport was started in 1884 by Coventry & District Tramways under the Coventry & District Tramways Acts of 1880, 1882, 1883 and 1884. Further powers were obtained under the Coventry & District Tramways Act of 1887. The route ran from Coventry Station to Bedworth and was operated with open-topped trailers towed by steam tram locomotives. Ultimately, there were seven locomotives, two by Beyer-Peacock of Manchester, two by Green and Sons of Leeds and three by The Falcon Engine and Car Works of Loughborough.
Because of the narrow streets, the track was laid to a gauge of 3' 6", quite common in the industrial Midlands. Reliability problems meant the service was not successful and patronage was poor. Particularly troublesome was the climb out of the town centre up Bishop Street towards Foleshill. The service was suspended in 1893 and steam trams never operated in Coventry again.


The Coventry Electric Tramways Co was formed to take over and electrify the route. The newly electrified service began on 5 December 1895. By the following year Mr T R Whitehead had been appointed as General Manager. Expansion of the system took place under the new ownership. The powers to do so were granted in the Coventry Electric Tramways Act of 1897. As a result, in 1899, new routes were opened to Stoke ("The Bulls Head") via Ford Street, Gosford Green via Victoria Street and Bell Green via Stoney Stanton Road.
In 1900, a postal service was introduced on certain trams. Letters could be posted by members of the public at a surcharge in special letter boxes affixed to the trams. This continued until tram operation ended.
Broadgate c1900 This commercial postcard by H & J Busst shows Broadgate looking north in about 1900. The tram in the background appears to be number 27. Tramcars 19 - 30 were purchased from Wigan in 1905 and this is certainly an ex-Wigan car.
In 1905, a new route from Broadgate via Smithford Street and Spon Street was inaugurated. At Spon Street the route split, part continuing to Allesley Road and part via the Butts and Albany Road eventually terminating at Beechwood Avenue (Earlsdon). This was authorised under the Coventry Electric Tramways Act of 1903.
To supplement the existing fleet of tramcars - some of which had been converted from the trailers of steam tram days - new and second hand tramcars were purchased. In 1905, twelve tramcars (19 - 30) were purchased from Wigan Corporation which was converting it's system to 4' 8½" gauge. In 1910, five further cars (37 - 41) were obtained from Norwich Electric Tramways which, like the Coventry company, was owned by the New General Traction Co Ltd.


It appears that the New General Traction Co Ltd had a 'corporate' approach to a number of things, one being tickets. In his book, 'Tramways Remembered - East Anglia, East Midlands & Lincolnshire', (Countryside Books 1992), author Leslie Oppitz describes the system used by the Norwich Electric Tramways Company. He states:
"Norwich's tramways had a rather unusual ticket issuing system. The conductor had a cylindrical canister (about the size of the one pound cocoa tin of the day) painted black and containing a spool on which he slid roles of tickets. Each roll was separated by a circular piece of cardboard and the tickets projected through a slot in the canister. They were torn off as required and then punched by a hand machine to cancel and also register the number issued. It was a system used in Coventry where the tramway company was also a New General Traction Company subsidiary."

Coventry Corporation Takes Over

On 1 January 1912, Coventry Corporation exercised powers granted in 1903 and purchased the company, so beginning a period of municipal operation. Mr Whitehead continued as General Manager. The Corporation acquired 41 complete tramcars and one more under construction in the former company's workshop.
Although bus operation had been tried before World War One, and was developed in the 1920's, the expansion of the tram system continued. Eleven new tramcars were bought between 1913 and 1916. These were 43 - 45 of 1913 built by Brush which were open-top double deckers, and 46 - 53 of 1913 - 1916 of similar design and manufacture but were fitted with covered tops. These were the first covered-top trams in the fleet. 43 - 45 were subsequently fitted with covered tops.

Possible Extension of the System

At various times, thought was given to extending the system. Plans were considered to add routes or extensions of routes serving
  • Allesley Road to Queensland Avenue,
  • Bedworth to Nuneaton,
  • Binley Road to Uxbridge Avenue,
  • Corporation Street,
  • Harnall Lane East, Swan Lane and Heath Road,
  • High Street, Earl Street, Jordan Well and Gosford Street to Lower Ford Street,
  • Lockhurst Lane and Foleshill Station to Holbrooks,
  • Queens Road and The Butts,
  • Radford Road to the City boundary,
  • Station Street East linking Foleshill Road with Stoney Stanton Road,
  • Warwick Road, Spencer Road, Belvedere Road, Earlsdon Avenue and Queensland Avenue,
  • Warwick Road to the Styvechale Boundary.
Detailed plans still exist which show that the route to Heath Road would have been laid as double track from Stoney Stanton Road to the entrance to Harnall Lane bus garage. Similarly, the Station Street East route would have been laid as double track from Foleshill Road to Highfield Street (now Eld Road) and from Princess Street to Edgwick Road. At either end of Station Street East, the junction would only have allowed direct access to trams travelling to or from the City. The High Street route would have been double track in the High Street and from St Mary's Street to a point on Gosford Street just before where it is now crossed by the ring road flyover.
In the event, only the Queens Road and Binley Road plans came to anything, the latter opening in September 1930, although a junction was installed at the Foleshill Road end of Station Street East to link with the proposed route.
New trams continued to be purchased. 54 - 58 came in 1921, 59 - 63 in 1925, 64 - 68 in 1929 and 69 - 73 in 1931. All were covered top double deckers and all were built by Brush except 64 - 68 which were manufactured by English Electric.
Broadgate c1933 This commercial postcard by H & J Busst shows Broadgate looking south in the early 1930's. The tram in view is number 70. It is showing the route symbol for the Stoke via Ford Street service.

The Beginning of the End

Bus operation had begun in earnest and this signalled the eventual demise of tramway operation. The first service was withdrawn in March 1932. In March 1933, Mr Whitehead retired and his replacement as General Manager was Mr R A Fearnley. Under the new stewardship, the tramway era was to draw to a close. By the late 1930's much progress had been made in replacing the trams with new buses, many of the diesel powered and high capacity.
On 21 January 1937 the 'Midland Daily Telegraph' reported that 'three of the Council's Committees, the Transport Committee, the Watch Committee and the General Works Committee, had been considering the very important problem of traffic in Hertford Street. It was reported that even after ceasing the tram service to Earlsdon in April 1937, 24 trams per hour would still be running to the Station.'
The 'Coventry Standard' commented on 29 January that 'with the withdrawal of trams from Hertford Street, added to the previous abandonment of routes via Smithford Street, Allesley Old Road and Ford Street, the trams were passing away more quickly than had been anticipated would be the case when the policy of their gradual abandonment had been decided upon. It was first thought that the abolition of services would not be considered until the loan charges on the undertaking had been repaid.'
However, the tramway system was to enjoy a brief Indian Summer. With the worsening world situation - which was to start bring about the start of World War Two - a halt was called to the abandonment of tram services. This was because, being electric, the power was relatively easily produced, whereas petrol and diesel fuel were imported and therefore at risk of disruption.
On 5 July 1939, the 'Midland Daily Telegraph' informed readers on the discontinuance of the Broadgate to Stoke tram service. It was reported that according to Councillor Roberts, reinstatement of the roads would cost 18,000. However, less than five weeks later, the same newspaper reported on the proposed reinstatement of trams to this route. A short length of track would be repaired utilising rails from the Broadgate - Chapelfields route. It added that when operation begins, three buses would be released for use elsewhere.
On 6 January 1940, the 'Midland Daily Telegraph' reported that 'it was intended to increase night-time travelling on the Bell Green and Bedworth tram services at an early a date as possible.' Last departures were to be put back from 9.15pm to 10.20pm.
However, a major blow was received on the night of 14 November 1940, the night of the great Coventry blitz. The devastation was such that trams never ran in Coventry again. Originally, it was intended to suspend tram services for the duration of the war, but further blitz damaged led to a re-think and the decision was taken in February 1941 that tram services would not restart. Consequently, all tramcars were sold for scrap.
Remarkably, very few of the tramcars had been damaged in the bombing, and a few found new uses on allotments and in gardens. Some managed to travel far beyond Coventry, something that they had not been able to achieve in their working lives!
With World War Two in progress, and non-military production at a minimum, it is unlikely that any useable parts which could have been used as spares would simply have been scrapped. Other towns and cities still operated trams. Such items as traction motors would have been useful elsewhere and there is evidence that ex-Coventry spares were used in Salford and Sheffield. The motors from the last five trams (69 - 73) were of quite a rare type and the fact that the exact number of motors of the same type being acquired by Sheffield at the time when the Coventry trams were being scrapped is surely not a coincidence!

Recovering the Track

Much of the track, wiring etc was eventually salvaged for scrap. Later, some of the traction poles were sold to Liverpool Corporation for the post-war extension of their tram system. However, it did not happen overnight.
The 'Coventry Evening Telegraph' reported on 8 January 1942 that 'Coventry was likely to take speedy action to remove the old tramway tracks in the city to provide valuable steel for war purposes.' Apparently, although many thousands of tons of steelwork were lying around the City, the particular quality of the steel on the rails was urgently required. The 'Coventry Standard' added that the Ministry of War Transport was unwilling to pay more than 60% of the cost.
Nonetheless, the Watch Committee considered removal inadvisable at that time owing to danger of road obstructions at night.
A more positive note was reported on 25 August 1943, when the 'Coventry Evening Telegraph' advised it's readers that 'within a few months' 32 miles of tram rails, 16 of them single track, would be removed from the streets of Coventry, releasing about 2,600 tons of high-grade steel for the war effort. The work was being done by George Wimpey and Co Ltd with the cost being reimbursed by the Government.
The target was to complete the work in sixteen weeks. Reinstatement would be with existing setts as far as possible, a necessary war-time measure. The work was to be done in four sections: Longford - City Centre, Bell Green - City Centre, Hales Street - Paynes Lane - Gosford Street - Ford Street - Hales Street, and Bedworth - Longford. It was thought that this final section may have to be deferred until after the war.
On 9 June 1949, the 'Coventry Evening Telegraph' was able to report that 'work started today on the removal of some of the last traces of Coventry's old tramway system - the replacement of granite setts in central thoroughfares by a properly ashphalted road.' This work would cover the stretch of roadway from the bottom of Hertford Street to the top of Bishop Street including The Burges.

Public Transport in Coventry Today

Although it really outside the scope of this work, Coventry Corporation continued to operate buses until 31 March 1974. On 1 April 1974, the operation was taken over by the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive. This in turn became West Midland Travel Ltd on 1 April 1986. The company was later the subject of a management and employee buy-out and was subsequently sold on to National Express.
Whilst much of the industrial archaeology of the bus operation has been swept away some interesting remnants of the tramways remain if the searcher knows where to look.


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Contents © Ken Crawley 2000 & 2001