Erith Council Tramways

Erith Urban District Council opened its short (4.7 miles), standard-gauge tramway on the 26th August 1905. The main line ran westwards from Erith to Abbey Wood on the municipal boundary, and in the opposite direction, southwestwards to Northumberland Heath (again on the municipal boundary), and southwards to North End, the latter line being only half a mile long. The council had hoped that London County Council Tramway's planned line to Plumstead would be extended to Abbey Wood, giving access to traffic to and from London; however, whilst the LCCT initially made some positive noises, hopes of inter-running were ultimately to prove forlorn. It seems likely that the LCCT was never really interested in through running to/from Erith, and even when its line to Abbey Wood was completed in 1908, it continued to come up with various excuses for not physically connecting its tracks to those of Erith. The connection was not in fact made until late 1933, when both tramways were part of the London Passenger Transport Board.

At the other end of the system, things initially looked considerably brighter, with Bexley Heath Urban District Council readily agreeing to a connection between their existing line to Northumberland Heath and Erith's. This proved however to be a false dawn, with Bexley unexpectedly declining Erith's approach to instigate through running, a rebuff which presaged a decade of petty squabbling between the two councils. An agreement for through running of Erith cars to Bexleyheath was first reached in 1908, nearly three years after the tracks had been connected, with services commencing on the 26th July 1908. All was however not well, with Erith feeling that they were paying far too much to run their cars through, so the service was terminated exactly one year later. Erith's decision to terminate the service was no doubt reinforced by the financial losses it was suffering, particularly on the North End route, which should probably never have been built, and which was to close for good on the 31st August 1910, barely 5 years after it had been constructed.

The on/off service to Bexleyheath was resumed on the 26th July 1910 after Bexley accepted a revised offer from Erith, but was terminated once again on the 25th July 1914, this time by Bexley, who felt that Erith were not paying enough. Matters however now took a more serious turn due to the Great War, and the importance of munitions manufacture in the area. The latter was being hampered by workers constantly having to change cars at the municipal boundary, and this reached the attention of the War Office in December 1914. Despite a polite request to sort their differences out, Erith astoundingly saw fit to issue a 'take it or leave it' ultimatum to two approaches from Bexley, with the latter refusing to accede. By October 1915, the War Office had clearly had enough, and a meeting took place with the Ministry of Munitions and an independent tramway arbitrator — this finally did the trick, through-running being reinstated towards the end of the month, the final agreement differing only by half a pence per mile from that terminated 18 months earlier.

The war did at least move the tramway into profit, but the end of the conflict and with it, the heavy loadings of war workers, heralded a return to the old status quo. Infrastructure renewal and competition from buses exacerbated an already dire financial situation, so it was probably with some relief that the council handed over their charge (and its continuing losses) to the London Passenger Transport Board on the 1st of July 1933. The LPTB lost no time in converting the loss-making system to trolleybus operation, the last tram running over former Erith metals 15 months later on the 9th November 1935.

In the early years of the tramway, conductors and motormen wore single-breasted jackets with five buttons, two breast pockets, epaulettes and upright collars; by analogy with later photographs, the bearer's left-hand side probably bore an employee number (in individual metal numerals), with the right-hand side bearing system initials — 'E C T' — all more than likely in nickel. Caps were military in style with a tensioned crown (top) and bore script-lettering grade badges — Motorman or Conductor — above which a small badge, comprising the Prince of Wales feathers, was worn.

By the time of the Great War, a switch had been made to double-breasted 'lancer-style' tunics with five pairs of buttons (narrowing from top to bottom), epaulettes and upright collars; the latter carried an employee number on the left-hand side and 'E C T' initials on the right-hand side. It seems a reasonable possibility that motormen had in fact worn this style of tunic from the opening of the system in 1905, though photographic evidence which would either prove or disprove this remains elusive. The tunics were a very dark, navy-blue serge. A further change in the style of the jacket was made after the war, probably in the early 1920s, and though still double-breasted with epaulettes, it now had lapels and high fold-over collars that could either be worn open or buttoned up; the collars continued to carry the same badges as the tunics they replaced.

Conductors and motormen were also issued with double-breasted greatcoats with high fold-over collars and epaulettes; it is currently unclear what insignia, if any, these carried.

Motormen and conductors always appeared in service wearing enamel Public Carriage Office licences, which were issued by the Metropolitan Police (see link).

During the first two decades, inspectors wore single-breasted jackets with hidden buttons (or more likely a hook and eye affair) and upright collars; the latter carried Inspector in embroidered script lettering on each side. Inspectors’ caps had a braided peak and an elaborate black hat band that almost certainly bore the grade — Inspector — in embroidered script lettering. Some time in the early 1920s, inspectors' jackets were changed to a more modern double-breasted style with four pairs of buttons and lapels, the upper part of which carried Inspector, once again in embroidered script lettering.

In common with the vast majority of UK tramways, Erith employed female staff during the Great War to replace tramwaymen lost to the armed services. These ladies were employed from April 1916 onwards, and were issued with distinctive, short, tailored tunics with six pairs of buttons (narrowing from top to bottom) and high, fold-over collars. The latter certainly carried insignia, probably an employee number (on the left-hand side) and 'E C T' initials (on the right-hand side). Headgear consisted of a large baggy peaked cap which bore a script-lettering grade badge, though not apparently the small badge that the men wore above their grade badges.

Further reading
For a history of Erith's tramways, see: 'Tramways of Woolwich and South-East London' by Southeastern; Light Railway Transport League (1963).


Motormen and conductors
Erith Council Tramways Tram No 9
A conductor and motorman with Tramcar No 9 — photo undated, but probably taken in the mid-Edwardian era. Author's Collection.

Erith Council Tramways Tram No 9 and crew
A blow-up of the above photo showing the crew; the conductor is clearly wearing a small badge above his script-lettering grade badge. Both men are also wearing PCO licences issued by the Metropolitan Police (see link).

Erith Council Tramways cap badges
Standard 'off-the-shelf' script-lettering cap badges of the type worn by Erith Council Tramways staff — nickel. Author's Collection.

ErithCouncil Tramways cap badge
A 'Prince of Wales' feathers badge, possibly the same type as used by Erith Council Tramways — nickel. Badges of this general type exist in many different forms, and it is currently impossible to say whether this is the exact type used by Erith; however, it was identified as 'Erith Council Tramways' in an old tramway badge collection, so may possibly be correct. The badge was almost certainly a stock item used by numerous organisations, rather than one made expressly for Erith Council. Author's Collection.

Erith Council Tramways No 11 and crew
The crew of ECT Tramcar Number 11 — photo undated, but probably mid-Edwardian judging by the condition of the tram. Although the round cap badge seen in other photos is not in evidence, this is probably because it has been obscured by the rain covers that both men are wearing on their caps. With thanks to Richard Rosa.

Erith Council Tramways staff Walnut Tree Road depot
Erith tramway staff photo — undated, but almost certainly taken during the Great War, given the large number of female employees. The car in the background would appear to be No 19, an ex-Hull City Tramways vehicle purchased in 1916. With thanks to Richard Rosa.

Erith Council Tramways conductors and motormen
A blow up of the above photo showing two motormen and a conductor (back row), all of whom are wearing a Prince of Wales feathers badge above their grade badges, in contrast to the ladies below them. With thanks to Richard Rosa.

Erith Council Tramways Walnut Tree Road Depot staff photo 1923
A staff photo taken at Walnut Tree Road Depot in 1923 by 'Thomas' of Belvedere. Author's Collection.

Erith Council Tramways conductors and drivers tram
A blow-up of the above photo showing several motormen and conductors in a new style of jacket issued in the early 1920s, which although still double-breasted, could now be worn open necked to reveal the shirt and tie, or buttoned up.

Erith Council Tramways staff
A group of Erith conductors and motormen pose at Walnut Tree Road tram depot — photo undated, but probably taken in the late 1920s or early 1930s. With thanks to the National Tramway Museum.

Senior staff
Erith Council Tramways inspectors Great War
A blow-up of the Great War staff photo above showing three inspectors. All have embroidered Inspector designations on their collars, though the situation with the caps is less clear.

Erith Council Tramways tram Inspectors 1923
A blow up of the 1923 depot photo above showing two inspectors in double-breasted jackets and military-style caps, with embroidered Inspector insignia on both collars and caps. Author's Collection.

Female staff
A blow-up of the Great War staff photo above showing three conductresses in their distinctive tailored tunics.