The Foxearth and District Local History Society

The Hysterical Hystorian

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Friday, February 11, 2005

Taking the Tram to Colchester

The Colchester Tram laden with
football supporters before 1914

I shall never forget coming across one of the old Colchester Trams being used as a garden shed in a garden behind a bungalow near Colchester. A splendid creation, of simple, renaissance, lines, all mahogany and engraved glass. Even in its undignified old age, full of spades and wheelbarrows, it looked wonderful. It was over thirty years ago I saw it, and it has probably been destroyed since.

The Colchester tram system was introduced to get over an awkward problem; Colchester Station is some distance from Colchester, and the town itself was served by a branch line that had an elegant terminus at St Bartolphs, and also served the docks. This wouldn't do. Colchester station was originally the point at which two rival railways met in 1846 (the Eastern Union and the Eastern Counties), and such was their spirit of passive hatrad that the actual meeting point half-way down the station platform was a sudden kink in the line that caused generations of subsequent travellers to spill their coffee. Feelings were running high between the two concenrns and they were only just dissuaded from building two rival stations no more than a few hundred yards apart. The two railways couldn't bring themselves to line up properly, and the sharp curve in the station was not ironed out until 1961. The station could not be built nearer the town without two very expensive river crossings, and both railway companies were already in a state of financial melt-down.

The first optimistic solution, by the Eastern Counties Railway, was to encourage the development of the town around the new station. To this snd, they built a massive railway hotel, in order to encourage an urban sprawl around it. It was a commercial disaster and quickly was adapted to become a Lunatic Asylum. The eventual solution was a fleet of horse-drawn wagons to convey travellers across the colne valley to Colchester. Then, at last, came the tram...

The trams started working in 1904. They started at the North Station and all ran up the North Hill where the routes diverged to Lexden, East Gate, and the Hythe. In 1906, a fourth tram-route opened to the recreation ground. In all there were eighteen trams. Sixteen had been built for the launch of the service and the two others were added for the Recreation-ground line. Anyone who has regularly had to walk from the station to the town will be able to imagine the relief of having such a civilised way of getting too and from North Station. Surprisingly, the system gradually faded away and closed altogether at the end of 1929. The age of the Omnibus had arrived

The trams were all disposed of locally as sheds and stables. Very few pictures of the trams exist, though a Mr Carter from London was, at one time, preparing a history of the tramway. Fortunately, Leslie Oppitz includes an account of the Colchester Tramway in his book 'Lost Tramways of East Anglia', and includes a number of old photographs.

As for me, I shall always cherish the magic of that sunny afternoon as I sat in the overgrown garden in the old Colchester tram, amongst the sacks and empty seed-packets, imagining the rumble and hum, as the old Colchester of Georgian coaching-inns and cavernous Emporiums moved slowly past those beautiful engraved windows.


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