Sixty years since the last Leeds Tram – a commemoration


During the nineteenth century towns and cities developed with public transport systems operated by private individuals and companies. Early buses didn’t have rubber tyres and horses provided the motive power. Trams with steel wheels running on steel rails gave a better ride. On 16 September 1871 horses pulled the first Leeds trams from Boar Lane, near Trinity church to Headingley Oak, via Park Row, Cookridge Street and Woodhouse Moor. A network of routes developed and from 17 June 1880 double-deck trams were pulled by small steam engines built in Hunslet. About this time the Government allowed Local Authorities to operate their own transport. Huddersfield was the first off, in 1882, and most municipalities in the UK, including Leeds in 1894, followed suite.

Electric traction arrived in Leeds as early as 29 October 1891 when a private company experimented on parts of two horse-drawn routes, from Roundhay Road at Sheepscar and from Beckett Street, Harehills and onto Roundhay Park (Oakwood). Opened in two stages, 2 & 16 August 1897, the first municipal electric trams ran from Roundhay (Canal Gardens) to Kirkstall Abbey via Briggate and Boar Lane.

By 1927 the number of mainly municipally-owned trams in the UK had reached an all-time high. However, shortages during the Great War had caused deterioration and motor cars were becoming very popular. Their owners became impatient. Trams, carrying up to eighty passengers were in the middle of the road! They were slowing downthe two or three people in their expensive cars – Something had to be done about it! And at tram stops they were held up whilst passengers crossed between the kerb and the tram.

(Note: in South Leeds in the mid 1950s Alderman Frank Burnley who, when Lord Mayor in 1951-52 promoted the retention and modernisation of Leeds’ reliable trams, was knocked down and fatally injured on alighting from a tram on Dewsbury Road on his way to his home in the Allenbys)

So strong was the bus and private car lobby that a Royal Commission was set up. It reported in January 1931 that tramways were obsolete, caused congestion, were dangerous, were not necessary in many places and should gradually disappear. A quick enthusiastic start was made to implement this advice, especially in small towns and particularly in Birmingham, Manchester and London where the vast network in the north of the capital had closed by 1939. In October 1950 a start was made in South London. Twenty-one months later 800 trams had been withdrawn and closure was complete.

In Leeds in 1931, our General Manager, Mr RL Horsfield was busy putting 104 new trams on the tracks and strongly disagreed. So did – note where they are – the city councils in Sheffield, Liverpool, Blackpool, Sunderland, Belfast, Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow, as well as the owners of the privately-run line from Llandudno to Colwyn Bay. Leeds City Council opened a new extension down Gipton Approach in 1937 and new tracks along Belle Isle Road to Middleton in four stages from 1940 to 1949. Here in the 1920s new express tracks, fenced off from the rest of the road appeared in four locations as well as the off-road lines to Temple Newsam and Middleton. This kind of work continued through the 1930s as major roads (eg Stanningley Road and York Road) were widened with an expess tramway on the central reservation. More were planned …

Then the Second World War took its toll. The councils in the cities listed above claimed that the trams were becoming too expensive to maintain, new vehicles were hard to acquire and cost a fortune compared to the price of a bus. Suppliers of new rails were rare – but they could be bought in Germany … One by one these municipalities took the easy option and closed down their tramways rather than burden their rate paying citizens. Eventually, those who saw much merit in trams decided, without the enthusiasm shown elsewhere, to close. Sheffield in 1952 with closure in October 1960; Leeds in 1953 (closure in November 1953); and finally, the most reluctant of all, Glasgow in September 1968. This left Blackpool as the sole operator with its miles of segregated track and a well maintained fleet of relatively new trams, of which few were needed for the full year.

It was 1992 before trams appeared again in the UK. In Manchester, followed by Sheffield two years later. Four more locations followed.

Back in 1952 in Leeds the Yorkshire Evening News had run a vicious anti-tram campaign and public opinion was divided. A glance at my scrap books (1951-60) shows how bad it was. The Conservatives appeared to be pro tram and Labour anti-tram. Both the YEN and the YEP kept the pot boiling, and the Chairman of the Transport Committee – quite a “character” – Alderman John Rafferty was constantly vilified. However, being the son of Tom Smith, deputy Chairman for 16 years, I do have some “inside information” the decision to close in 1953 had little to do with the rantings of the YEN, but followed a serious report made by the well paid general manager Mr A B Findlay who had a strong pro-tram background from Glasgow. There really appeared to be no way forward that would be deemed affordable by the City Council – and a recent sharp rise in the cost of electricity was, more or less, the last straw.

The Last Leeds Tram Routes

These were the services along York Road. For decades they had run across town to Upper Wortley (Whingate or New Inn) and then for nearly three years to Middleton. Now they were isolated: No 18 to Cross Gates, No 20 to Halton and No 22 to Temple Newsham. No 17 trams ran as far as Harehills Lane (Shaftesbury), but during these last seven months only two or three were scheduled to reverse there during the morning peak period. The service to Cross Gates and Halton had been reduced to every ten minutes each, but was more frequent at the morning and evening rush hours when there was a tram every two minutes to the Halton Dial junction. The No 22 ran beyond Halton to Temple Newsham every 30 minutes (but only hourly between 9am and 1pm) with the last departure at 9:30pm.

The No 18 picked up in Kirkgate, before going right at the curve in front of the Yorkshire Penny Bank, and the 20s and 22s loaded in New York Street after the curve. As far as Lupton Avenue / Torre Road the tram tracks were in the middle of the road, but beyond, there was a railway like express, fenced off track on the central reservation as far as Cross Gates, except for a section of York Road between Killingbeck Hospital and the Bridle Path which still resembled a country lane.

The track in Selby Road was on the central reservation and Halton terminus was a crossover alongside the Irwin Arms. Beyond Halton the line continued on the left of Temple Newsham Road, except for a section which took a short cut through some trees. Just before the terminus there was a field to the left where the tram sometimes alarmed a pheasant or two.

The Last Day Saturday 7 November 1959

Throughout the day the weather was gloomy and damp. 22 trams were out in service (10 of Mr Horsfield’s “Showboats” and 12 ex-London “Felthams” all built in 1931). Special souvenir tickets were issued at 1d, 2d, 3d, 4d, 5d, 6d. The penny ticket would be issued to children travelling for one fare stage. The last service trams left town by 4:40pm with buses taking their place for the rest of the day.

All of this was followed by a procession of ten “Showboats”, the first and last of which were decorated with coloured light bulbs. They set off from Swinegate depot at 6:15pm. The decorated cars were for special guests and staff. Members of the public had had to apply for a seat on the other eight. Demand was very high, leaving many disappointed. After Halton Dial the first five cars went to Cross Gates, and the others to Temple Newsham. They met up again on the return journey and continued in procession back to Swinegate depot.

Over To Dad

Cllr Tom Smith

My Dad, Tom Smith, was a City Councillor for Holbeck South ward (1949-51) and the new Holbeck ward (1951-69). For 16 years he was deputy Chairman of the Transport Committee. He was a railwayman, driving engines based at the sheds in Nineveh Road. I wasn’t able to be in Leeds on 7 November because I was living in Armentieres in northern France where I worked in a Technical High School giving conversational English to boys aged 14-18 who were training for managerial posts in industry. In those days in France the education year started on 1 October, so I had, as I thought, my last Leeds tram rides on 29 September. However, All saints Day is a public holiday in France, so schools take their half term break then. I returned to Leeds for five nights and Mam and I had our last tram rides to and from Temple Newsham on 4 November on tram No 528 driven by Charlie Wardle with conductress Betty Fox. I returned to Armentieres the next day.

Dad wrote to me on 11 November. Here are some extracts, with my comments in italics. “Saturday was a real November day – misty and slight rain. After I finished work at 2pm I went to Cross Gates on 532. All cars were full. I had to stand all the way. This was about 3:10pm. I took some photos hoping that the light was good enough and left about 4:05pm on car 187, got off at the Woodpecker and used up the film. The cars were very full all day. They tell me that the first car in the morning at 4:22am had a queue waiting for ticket No1. Car number 181 was the last service car to run. It went to Cross Gates. Mr Gill (Chief Traffic Officer) and two Policemen saw it off full, leaving about 30 people. It left at 4:40pm (ie from Kirkgate, before going round the Penny Bank curve into New York Street). Mr Gill then got a point iron and held the points while a workman scotched them up (why? To prevent any trams on the later procession from going back to York Road?). The first tram to run in was 177 from Temple Newsham. The first Halton bus was No 848 at 4:43pm and the first Cross Gates No 851 at 4:45pm. I then went to Schofields for a cup of tea and arrived at Swinegate at 5:45pm. It was a job getting into the depot for the crowd was all around the doorway. Car No 1 in the procession (No 178) was just inside. Everything went off without any trouble. A Policeman and an Inspector were on each car. The oldest conductress was the only conductor on. She rode on No 1 civvies.” (this was Elizabeth Hoyle, who was one of the first women allowed to work for LCT in 1940. Dad doesn’t mention the driver, Arthur Aisthorpe with his 39 years service, nor the Lord Mayor Alderman Gertrude Stevenson). “Fancy Mam going to Swinegate to see the last tram home” (a good comment, Mam always pretended to be completely disinterested in transport matters, although she was certainly pro tram! Later she visited the exhibition in the Art Gallery).

After the ten trams had returned to the depot, special guests went to a commemorative dinner in the head office, now the Malmaison Hotel. In a further letter Dad sent me some photos and wrote in answer to a comment of mine (yes we were “full inside” after the dinner). It was 1:15am when I got home (on duty at 6am Sunday morning) Councillor Mather and others got home at 4:30am. Mam and the Ladies had a good lunch.” (on the Tuesday I think at Swinegate)

At the Commemorative dinner on 7th, Alderman Rafferty was presented with a chromium plated fruitbowl which had been a tramcar warning gong. Other guests received a smaller dish, made from the bell rung by conductors for stopping and starting. I’ve still got ours. It’s stand is inscribed “In commemoration of the last Leeds tram – 7 Nov 1959”

Ting! Ting! “Ho’d on missus” as conductress Lizzie Snaith used to call out.


This post was written by Eric Smith

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4 Replies to “Sixty years since the last Leeds Tram – a commemoration”

  1. Great story Eric. Really enjoyed looking around the tram sheds on Kirkstall road with you in 1948. Wow! That’s 70 years ago.

  2. I remember trams in east Leeds – Cross Gates & Temple Newsam, from when my parents lived in Whitkirk in the 1950’s. Is there any commemorations being held in east Leeds where the last closures took place in 1959? I was barely five years old then when these services were axed. also, I can remember them in the central part of York Road (Leeds 9) and what that area used to look like between Lupton Avenue and Harehills Lane with all the factories and depots nearby.

  3. Great review of the final period. Growing up in the Carr Manor estate, my family used the trams on Harrogate Road if possible, though the bus service on both that route and Scott Hall Road was good. What a shame that the central reservation on Scott Hall Road was never used as a tram route.
    When I was really young, my mother said one morning, let’s go to Middleton Park by tram and go through the woods before the route closes, so we went, presumably in summer 1957, as would have been about 5 at the time., being born in December 1951. My memory of the route is limited and we returned via Belle Isle Road so as to do the full route, which I actually remember better. The track in the central reservation made so much sense that I questioned at that age why Scott Hall Road didn’t have a tram track. Arguably, it still should have one.
    Today? We still need tram routes beside the main arterial routes despite the reluctance of central government to assist with funding for Leeds trams. I live in Stourton Grange and am pleased to see some attempt to improve transport in south Leeds, but the Stourton P&R is more about supporting people from outside Leeds than Leeds residents and council tax payers. It’s time to spread modern mass transit to Belle Isle, Middleton, Alwoodley, Shadwell, Lawnswood, etc.

  4. I am not a South Leeds resident although I did live in Headingley in the sixties. 60 years ago today I hitch-hiked from my home in Southampton to witness the last Leeds trams on November 7th 1959. Asking my headmaster for leave to attend a funeral was picked up by the local press and resulted in my first appearance on TV, on the newly created ITV channel Southern Television (in black and white of course). Many years later I managed to help get trams back on the street in Manchester. If only Leeds had followed their example.

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