Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. . Choose your future. Choose life . . . Choose a tour of the legacy and history of Chester’s tram network with local data expert and transport enthusiast John Murray.

“One to Overleigh corner please”

John got into trams through his granddad . He was  born in  1902, left school at 14 during ww1 and got a job as a tram operator. By 1929 he was a driver in Liverpool  and he carried on until 1957 when the trams stopped running. John retained all of his memorabilia, photos, timetables ,maps etc, including the vintage ticket machine shown above.

” As a child.. I was always fascinated, the time I was born was at the end of most tramway systems.. My granddad took me to Blackpool, the only town that still ran trams, and my fascination developed. Since then I’ve ridden on 32 systems worldwide and taken several thousand photos…” He says his granddad told him that   ” when they did away with the trams, they made a big mistake. One day they will realise it and they will bring them back. He lived long enough to see his prophecy proved right because he was able to ride on the new system in Sheffield”

“They can regard you as a bit of an anorak if you’re not careful!” laughed Cllr Mike  Jones. Murray is proud of being a “Tramspotter…”

“I am an advocate of it as a form of transport, because as we see in Manchester, it works. The fact is , because they are on rails, they can be controlled, they can be much longer, safely manoeuvre the streets, more environmentally friendly because they’re electrically operated… quieter. In Manchester, a tram can carry up to 500 people, you cant get that in a bus…”

Trams began in Chester in 1879. John took us Car Street, off city road where the original tram depot once stood. Now a housing area, called Tramways, the horse trams began here. Still surviving after over 80 years is a section of the original tram track, fascinating to see and largely unnoticed by passers by.

The horse tramway ran from the train station to Saltney and were  “standard gauge” of 4ft 8.5, this is said to be the length of Julius Caesar’s outstretched arms , the distance between Roman chariot wheels. Mostly they were  single track with passing places which reduced the capacity. The trams were quite slow and once back at the depot, the horses had to be detached and reattached at the opposite end so the tram could travel back along the line. A turntable was introduced  to reduce this problem and an example of the mechanism survives in the Manchester transport museum.

John Murray shows the legacy of the trams

The Chester Corporation took over the trams in April 1903 . 12 double decker, open top trams made up the first fleet. The Corporation decided to electrify and also introduce double track. With Chester’s narrow streets, the standard gauge wasn’t viable so a 3ft 6 system was introduced.

John guided us down city road showing us the surviving brackets mounted on walls, known as “Roses” which supported the electric cables. Several have been lost from modern developments such as the demolition of the Royalty theatre.

Lust for life

Up to the bars roundabout, which was a complex three way junction.  In  1907 new trams were built and the tracks extended towards Boughton, with branches to Chapel Lane and Tarvin Rd.  John has produced a  modern style map showing the full network :

Chester Metro MapBack towards the city centre, with another rose visible on the side of the Mayflower takeaway. On Foregate st, remains can also be seen on Bon Marche, and Poundland- the fitting has been lowered and a commemorative plaque added, probably again unnoticed by many residents.

Underneath the Eastgate clock, John pointed out two holes in the brickwork of the arch. This was where the tram lines were fixed..

look up…
Holes.. fragments of the past

The trams were single track at the clock. John then showed us some rare archive footage of the trams operating  in 1929 . The wonderfully nostalgic clip from the North West film archive shows busy streets, a policeman directing traffic,  WHSmiths with the same sign they use today… “I often think.. if you could just go back in time for one day and see what it was like” mused one of the tour guests.  John says  that, without contacting a Time Lord , the best way of experiencing what it was like is to ride on the tram at the Black country museum in Wolverhampton. The tram in use was built by the same company as the Cestrian fleet and survived the following years by being used as coffin store for an undertakers.

Towards the cross, more roses can be seen, the tracks were completely removed over the years.  One survives on the side of St Peters Church , Nothing survives on Bridge St.. at the end of the line in Saltney, all that remains is a pole.

The tram system continued until 1930. Extensions of the line were planned  including a route to the new housing in Vicars Cross, the Northgate railway station, Bache, Liverpool road and more. “One of the reasons for the demise was the limitation of the gauge, the board of trade wouldn’t let them put top covers on because of stability, so they had to stay open topped” says John. By 1928 the trams were worn out and needed investment.  The continental system of long single deckers was considered, and issue was put to a local referendum of rate payers. Invest or abandon were the options, and sadly the era of the trams came to an end. The mayor drove the last tram into the depot 15th Feb 1930.

Golden age of trams

Many other cities were also abandoning their trams, Wrexham’s went in 1932. In smaller towns, buses were the preferred option, but larger cities like Liverpool continued to invest. A lot of the motors from the Chester trams were reused in Liverpool, and a lot of the bodies of the cars went off to varied uses- from summer houses, pavilions or sheds. Tram number 4 was discovered semi derelict by John and fellow transport enthusiast Nick Jones at a railway preservation site in the Conwy valley. After some restoration, the saloon end of the tram can be  seen at the Wirral Transport museum.

In 1992, debate took place about a revival of trams. Representatives of the successful Manchester metro link advised the council . A track gauge of one metre was proposed, commonplace in many European systems with articulated single decker trams. The line would have run from the Zoo park and ride into the city, and long term plan was to extend the line to the business park and Deeside. Sadly the plans never happened, but have remained a talking point, with Lib Dem parliamentary candidate Bob Thompson championing a tram system for Chester in his election manifesto.

Image: Rob Jefferies

With massive thanks to John Murray for his time and supporting materials. John will be hosting more tram tours in the future:

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