Electric Trams – “Horses No Longer Required”

Christchurch was the last of the four cities to introduce electric trams. They had tried to introduce the system in 1902, but it was prior to the amalgamation of the boroughs, so with the advent of greater Christchurch and the Tramway Board being established, the work was able to be begun.

Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 08 JUNE 1905 p007. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19050608-7-3
Christchurch Municipal Electric Tram System: Colombo-Street. Showing the overhead wires, post and trolley [1]

1:4-034746-G
Double decker electric tram with hansom cabs alongside. [2]
Unlike Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin, the electric tram service was built for the city council by a colonial firm, whilst the others had been built by foreign companies for their councils. It was hoped that once each line was finished and passed into the possession of the council, it would be a great saving to the city.

The fleet of electric trams cost £300,000 to replace the horse drawn trams. Electric trams had been trialed after Mr. Walter Prince of Dunedin  had purchased a patent in 1887. They were faster than horse drawn trams and a lot quieter than the engines of the steam tram.

The opening of the new service on June 5th, 1905, was an important event for a city of little more than fifty thousand inhabitants.

Everybody who saw the electric trams take their “preliminary canter” yesterday must have come away satisfied with the efficacy of the new system. In place of the slow horse trams or the noisy steam motor they saw the electric cars gliding smoothly and silently along the rails. Unfortunately, the proceedings were marred by an accident, but the mishap was pure chance; and cannot be justly debited to the new service. For the rest, the electric tram system began its career in Christchurch under happy enough circumstances. The streets were muddy, but the sky overhead was bright, and the large gathering of invited guests who journeyed to Papanui and back seemed to appreciate both their novel experience and the welcome cup of tea at the end of it. [3]

Moreover, there is reason to suppose that it has been well and truly done. The permanent way has been firmly laid, the motor plant is powerful and up-to-date, and the cars bear evidence of excellent workmanship. Altogether, there is reason to believe that, the people of Christchurch will have cause to be well satisfied with their tramway system. By the time the service is complete, it will have cost them £300,000 but the money is being well spent. [4]

Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 27 OCTOBER 1904 p013 . Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19041027-13-2
Christchurch Electric Trams. Workmen engaged in construction works in Moorhouse Avenue. [5]
The twelve miles or so which had already been finished cost a little more than £100,000. The total expenditure per mile was £8,600, which was £1,000 less than the cost of the various other electric tramway systems in the colony. As far as cheapness is concerned: the municipally constructed service of Christchurch had already exhibited its superiority over the services of the other centres. After a twelve month trial, it was reported that, in regard to strength, solidity and general utility, the local system was an improvement on its rivals.

parade celebrating the opening of the electric tramway
At the parade celebrating the opening of the electric tramway in Christchurch, 3 May 1905 [6]
To celebrate the introduction of the electric trams, a grand opening procession was held in Cathedral Square on June 3rd, 1905.  Though the sun had been shining brightly from a clear blue sky, ‘the conditions underfoot have been the reverse of pleasant’, the snow from the previous day’s storm had made the streets slushy and sodden. Although it was a cold and wet, large crowds of citizens gathered to see the latest additions to the new fleet of trams.

Rumour has it that on the official opening trip one city dignitary leaned so far out from the top of a double-decker that his top-hat suffered irreparable injury, and it was a mercy bordering on the miraculous that his head did not share the same fate. [7]

As a consequence of the successful introduction of the electric trams, 150 coach and tram horses were made redundant and put up for sale along with 50 sets of 2, 3 and 4 horse harnesses, 12 drags, 4 buses and a large quantity of rugs, collars, reins, gear and stable tools.  The horses were considered to be ‘rather attractive’ and many of them fetched ‘exceptionally good’ prices. [8]

On the night before the grand opening, the Tramways Department, organised a trial run at Papanui.  In the dark, a double decker tram and a convoy of single storey trams travelling behind it. To mark the occasion, a large number of the tram drivers posed for a photograph in front and on top of the tram.

“Well, I guess this is like old times,” and the speaker, a vivacious little lady from America, laughed merrily as she and a score or more fellow-passengers were whizzed through wintry wind and clinging fog at the rate of about eighteen miles an hour. It was Saturday night, and wanted a few minutes to the hour “when graveyards yawn” as a spick and span, brightly lighted electric car sped gaily along the Papanui road… The trial trip was made with the American single-deck car that did duty on the occasion of the preliminary run on Moorhouse Avenue about a fortnight ago, and it glided quickly out of the power house into the murky night just before 11.30…

Mr Chamberlain, the Tramway Board’s engineer, was at the helm, and he took the car along at a nice pace down Moorhouse Avenue. On this section of the route the car was on old, familiar ground, but soon it swung easily round the curve into Manchester street, and then the adventurers sat tight and prepared for the plunge into tho unknown. The thoroughfare had never before borne such a burden as an electric tram car, and the muffled-up passengers began to feel that they were really very reckless persons as they sped past the tall, grim poles which loomed up out of the fog like so many fantastic gibbets, with their eerie outspread arms. But, after all nothing exciting happened: it was really a very prosaic, though highly satisfactory, trip. There was a mildly humorous incident when the car pulled up in the Square. An inebriated individual, attracted by the dazzling glare of the electric light, made for the car with a purpose much steadier than his gait, and commenced to climb ungracefully in. Remonstrance found him deaf; “he was going to Papanui, and was ready to pay his fare.” Strong hands lifted him tenderly off the step, and the car proceeded at a dignified pace, amid the cheers of sundry little knots of belated revellers.

The Papanui terminus was reached, after an uneventful run… But the trial was not finished yet. A big double-decker was next brought out. The passengers got aboard, and another run to Papanui and hack was made. The double-decker was much longer, heavier, and altogether more massive than the other, but nothing untoward happened. [9]

Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 15 JUNE 1905 p011. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19050615-11-1.
Opening of the Christchurch Municipal Electric Tram System. [10]
Opening of the Electric Tram 3 May 1905
At the parade celebrating the opening of the electric tramway in Christchurch, 3 May 1905. [11]
Date: 2 May 1905 Ref: 1/1-007755-G Trams about to leave for Papanui on a trial run, the night before the opening of the electric tramway in Christchurch, 1905. Shows a double decker tram and a convoy of single storey trams behind. A group of drivers are alongside. Press newspaper photograph taken in Cathedral Square, 2 May 1905. Photographer unidentified. Quantity: 1 b&w original negative(s). Physical Description: Glass negative.
Trams about to leave for Papanui on a trial run, the night before the opening of the electric tramway in Christchurch, 1905. [12]
Some were disgruntled by the lack of speed of the electric trams. Soon after the Papanui line opened, ‘Disgusted’ expressed his feelings to the Christchurch Star in June 1905,

Sir – As a resident of  St. Albans and a constant user of the new electric tram service, may I call the attention of the Tramway board and its number of stopping-places that have been made between the Square and Papanui. What on earth is the use of spending £300,000  on a new electric service, the chief object of which is increased speed, and then utterly ruining it by stopping every hundred yards, and practically thus never allowing the cars to attain full speed. I feel sure I speak for a very large number of residents when I say they feel bitterly disappointed with the time taken to reach their destinations. An average run of nineteen minutes to Papanui can hardly be claimed as good, and unless a very different system is adopted on this, and on the other lines when made, the major portion of our large expenditure will be simply thrown away. – I am, etc., DISGUSTED [13]

A month after opening, on the afternoon of June 15, the first electric tram car accident occurred in Christchurch.

Whilst a double deck electric tram car was on its way from Papanui, the trolley pole got adrift from the wire, and swung round a number of times, catching a male passenger full in the face, and causing some damage to his nose. [14]


  1. Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 08 June 1905 p007 . Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19050608-7-3
  2. National Library of New Zealand, Ref: 1/4-034746-G C, Photographer Daniel Manders Beere.
  3. Daily Notes. Star , Issue 8335, 6 June 1905, Page 2.
  4. The Star. Monday, June 5, 1905. The Tramways.
  5. Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 27 October 1904 p013. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19041027-13-2
  6. Opening of the electric tramway, Christchurch. The Press (Newspaper) :Negatives. Ref: 1/1-008444-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
  7. The Working of the Electric Trams. Press, Volume LXII, Issue 12213, 7 June 1905, Page 6.
  8. Sale of Tram Horses. Star , Issue 8331, 1 June 1905, Page 3 and Timaru Herald, Volume LXXXII, Issue 12671, 6 May 1905, Page 4.
  9. Press, Volume LXII, Issue 12206, 29 May 1905, Page 10.
  10. Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 15 June 1905 p011. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19050615-11-1.
  11. National Library of New Zealand, One photograph, Black & White, Ref: 1/1-008404-G  Press newspaper photograph. Photographer unidentified, Physical Description: Glass negative.
  12. National Library of New Zealand, Ref: 1/1-007755-G. Photographer unidentified.
  13. Past Papers, Christchurch Star , Issue 8339, 10 June 1905, Page 4.
  14. Colonist, Volume XLVII, Issue 11360, 16 June 1905, Page 4.
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