A Brief History of Public Transport in Coventry
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.
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
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
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
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.
- 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
- 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
- Warwick Road to the Styvechale Boundary.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.