Sumner Tram Excursion

Sumner excursion by tram
Cathedral Square on a tram excursion day to Sumner, 1900

On this summer’s day in 1906, the ten o’clock morning tram to Sumner is about to depart from outside the Royal Exchange in Cathedral Square. An excursion to Sumner was a popular outing for Christchurch residents looking for fresh air and seaside amusement.

The locomotive’s four carriages are full and even the open-top upper decks are at capacity.   As they wait, perhaps the occupants are already planning what they will do when they get there – a promenade on the beach or a stroll through the little village before sitting down for refreshments at the magnificent Cafe Continental beside Cave Rock.  Or perhaps they will give their children a treat with a donkey ride on the beach or ride on the hand-pulled merry-go-round.

This Kitson Locomotive is a steam tram fuelled by coal. Sacks of coal lie through the side of the open window, awaiting being stored away inside the cab journey and to be used later to fuel the steam furnace.

The leather-aproned driver strides towards his engine carriage past the conductor who has done a good job filling the carriages to their capacity. A man stands waiting in front of the locomotive to speak to the driver.

Sumner Beach c. 1905 Source: CCL, One Photograph, Black & White, PhotoCD IMG0096
Sumner Beach c. 1905 Source: CCL, One Photograph, Black & White, PhotoCD IMG0096
A Kitson Tram Departs from Sumner, 1907
A Kitson Tram Departs from Sumner, circa 1907

The Tram Company organised regular entertainment at Sumner to attract visitors to use their trams.  The first day of the summer was held on an annual basis when the weather was warming up – normally around the second weekend of November.  The Christchurch Star reported on the first day of the summer in 1890:-

“The first excursion of the season to Sumner by the Tram Company took place last evening, when nearly two hundred persons availed themlseves of the outing.  The Stanmore Band, thirty in number, accompanied the excursionists, and played the selections previously notified in these columns under the leadership of Mr McKillop.  A large number of residents turned out to enjoy the music.  Fireworks were discharged at intervals from Cave Rock.

This excursion was declared to be the best arranged one that has ever visited Sumner, and it is to be hoped that the promoters will in the future, be equally well supported.

The Star, Issue 7008, 12 November 1890, Page 3

On a down note, The Tram Company held a poor record for overcrowding – most likely in an attempt not to disappoint the day trippers.  However, unfortunately, their eagerness to make the day a success did meet with serious consequences such as trams overtipping or worse, deaths.

By 1919, when a fatal accident occurred at Heathcote, Commissioner S. E. McCarthy reported,

“I have no difficulty in finding that the train was loaded with passengers beyond the limits of safety… I also find that the practise of overcrowding is common, and is connived at by the Tramway Board for financial reasons”

Evening Post, Volume XCVIII, Issue 146, 18 December 1919, Page 5. Source Papers Past.

One dreadful accident which was not the fault of the Tram Company but caused by the impulsiveness of a young lad lead to a horrific accident and eventual death. As was the trend of the day, the accident was reported in full and gruesome detail in all of New Zealand’s national newspapers:-

“A boy named Bowron, aged 14,  attempting to jump on the Sumner tram, fell between two of the cars.  The wheels of one passed over his leg just above the knee.  The unfortunate lad was taken to hospital, where he died shortly after admission.”

Hawera & Normanby Star, Vol. XXXV, Issue 4117, 20th December, 1898, Page 2. Source Papers Past.

“A Day at Sumner” taken from “The New Zealand Graphic and Ladies Journal”

Of the many seaside resorts in New Zealand,  Sumner is undoubtedly one the most delightful. Situated as it is,  about eight miles from Christchurch, and reached by steam tram,  it becomes the rendezvous of some thousands of pleasure-seekers during the summer months, anxious to enjoy the refreshing sea breeze.  Leaving Cathedral Square, the tram hurries through the busy streets, passes suburban residences, and is soon crossing the Heathcote River, where the line follows the seashore with ‘high frowning’ basaltic cliffs on the right, till the little township of Sumner is reached.

Hurrying to the beach, the crowd disperses, the majority ‘anchoring’ on Cave Rock for the day. Fishing, sea-bathing, swimming, and riding on the donkeys and ponies are among the attractions for children, and often even the elder members of the female sex may be seen galloping along the beach enjoying a threepenny ride on a donkey.

Extract from “A Day at Sumner, New Zealand”. The New Zealand Graphic and Ladies’ Journal, March 14, 1896, page 285. Sourced from the British Library.

The Journey Home

As the sun drops behind Clifton Hill, shadows form across the nearly empty beach. Photographer, Henry Thomson, sits on Clifton Hill to capture the closing of a busy day at the seaside – the beach is now peaceful, the tide is going out and the last Kitson Tram is pulling out from Sumner.  As it crosses the tram bridge running over the sandy beach, Thomson opens his camera and exposures the photographic plate to the scene below. The moment is now caught forever.

The tram will now make its way through Redcliffs, Ferrymead,  down Ferry Road to Woolston and back into the city where it will end its journey in Cathedral Square.


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