Luton Corporation Tramways

Luton Corporation's standard-gauge, overhead electric tramway opened on the 21st February 1908, relatively late for a municipal system, especially so given that the corporation had owned its own power-generation plant since 1898.

After a few false starts involving tramway promoters, powers to build and operate a municipal tramway were eventually acquired by the corporation on the 11th August 1905, construction commencing a rather leisurely two years later on the 7th October 1907; the constructor — J G White and Company Limited — was however very experienced, so once started, it took a mere four months to complete. Operation of the tramway was also included in JGW&Co's contract, an arrangement that was also in place at Dartford Council Light Railways, which the corporation had visited and presumably been impressed with.

The tramway extended to 5.25 miles and though the original scheme included a greater mileage, it remained as built until its abandonment. The system was centred on the Town Hall, along George St, and comprised five lines running: southeastwards along Park St to Bailey St, where the depot was situated; southwards along Chapel St and Ashton St to a terminus on London Rd opposite Tennyson Rd; northwestwards along Upper George St and Dunstable Rd to a terminus near the junction with Kingsway; and northwards along Manchester St, where the route split, one line continuing northwards along New Bedford Rd to Wardown and the other running eastwards then northeastwards along Midland Rd and High Town Rd to Round Green.

In May 1909 the lease, with the agreement of JGW&Co, was transferred to Balfour Beatty and Company, company set up that year — by George Balfour and Andrew Beatty — both of whom had worked for JGW&Co. The new company quickly set about promoting, purchasing or acquiring interests in several provincial tramways and electric supply companies across the country, a policy which would eventual see it control the following systems: 1909 (Dartford Council Light Railways; Dunfermline and District Tramways; Llandudno and Colwyn Bay Electric Railway; Llanelly Tramways; Luton Corporation Tramways); 1911 (City of Carlisle Electric Tramways); 1912 (Leamington and Warwick Electric Tramways; Mansfield and District Light Railway; Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Tramways); 1914 (Cheltenham and District Light Railway); 1920 (Falkirk and District Tramways); and lastly, in 1922 (Wemyss and District Tramways).

Although passenger loadings were initially promising, the tramway soon began to struggle financially, a loss of £1000 being made by the operating company during the first full year of operations; as a consequence, it wasn't long before B&BCo resorted to running the system on a shoe string, an approach it also instigated on several of its other tramway systems. The original lease ran for either 5 or 15 years at the discretion of the council, so the company must have had mixed feelings when the council extended the lease to its full 15 years, the original 5 years finishing in February 1913.

Like most tramway systems, Luton's was badly affected by the exigencies of the Great War, with loss of staff (and skills), an inability to source spares or to purchase new track or vehicles due to government restrictions. At one point, around half of the tramway fleet was out of action, which must have had a dramatic impact on services. The system emerged from the conflict in badly run-down condition, and despite a formal instruction from the corporation requiring the tramway company to bring the system into a good state of repair — by the 30th June 1919 — little if anything was done. As a result, a second notice was served on the company, which included a detailed list of the work needed, the contents constituting a damning indictment of the company's maintenance regime, which had over the course of ten years allowed the tramway to deteriorate alarmingly. The corporation eventually lost patience with the company, allowing the lease to run its full 15-year term, then taking over operation itself on the 21st February 1923.

The corporation made some effort to improve services and efficiency, purchasing a second-hand Glasgow Corporation Tramways vehicle, and fitting four of the open-top fleet with top covers, though not until 1929. Financial details are unclear, but it seems the corporation had some success with the system as good profits were returned during the mid 1920s, and even as late as 1929, the system was still being operated profitably. Track maintenance costs rose alarmingly as the system crept inexorably towards the time when it would either need significant investment to renew the track completely (and to modernise the tramcar fleet), or to replace it entirely with another mode of transport.

Towards the end of the 1920s, the corporation's thoughts had turned to the operation of trolleybuses, as they did in many towns where the tramway company or corporation also owned the electricity generation and supply infrastructure. In 1930 however, the council must have thought that all its christmases had come at once when a very significant offer (£64,000) was tabled by the Eastern National Bus Company, to abandon the tramway and leave the ENBCo free rein to operate its buses. Unfortunately for the council, the rate payers association was vehemently opposed, formal objections to the Ministry of Transport resulting in the latter's refusal to sanction the deal, as it contravened Section 44 of the 1870 Tramways Act, which did not allow corporations to enter into agreements which did not include sale of the property (track, buildings, vehicles etc.).

The council was now left with a worn-out system in a town that was palpably unsuited to the operation of trams, even more so since the Great War, as car ownership had increased dramatically, the narrow streets becoming more congested than ever. It had little choice other than to borrow money, order new motorbuses and gradually replace the tramway services. The first tramway abandonments came on the 28th February 1932, the last tram of all running around 7 weeks later on the 16th April 1932.

Early photographs reveal that motormen were issued with double-breasted, 'lancer-style' tunics with five pairs of buttons (narrowing from top to bottom), whilst conductors were issued with single-breasted jackets with five buttons, breast pockets with button closures and epaulettes. Both styles of jacket had upright collars, which bore insignia, though exactly what remains unclear. Caps were in a military style with a tensioned crown (top) and a glossy peak, each bearing a script-lettering grade badge, either Motorman or Conductor. A small unidentified badge was worn above the grade badge, probably the Luton 'seven ears of wheat' municipal device, given that Luton Corporation owned the system. This badge was eventually dispensed with, as photos taken in later years show staff wearing just the script-lettering grade badges. It is currently unclear whether these badges were brass or nickel.

Photos taken after Balfour Beatty and Company took over the lease in May 1909 show that the uniforms remained unchanged, bar the collar insignia, which now comprised the company's initials — BB&CoLTD — in individual letters (worn on the bearer's right-hand side) and an employee number (worn on the left). The use of employee numbers appears to have quickly declined, such that by the time of the Great War, most tramcar staff wore the company initials on both collars.

Whilst the difference in jackets based on the grade generally held for most of the tramway's life, photographs taken from the late Edwardian era onwards show that the uniform policy was somewhat relaxed in this regard, with motormen occasionally wearing single-breasted jackets and conductors occasionally wearing double-breasted, 'lancer-style' tunics.

A change was made in the 1920s to a more modern double-breasted style of jacket with lapels — probably following the corporation take-over of 1923 — though it is currently unclear what badges these jackets bore.

Tramcar crews were also issued with long, double-breasted greatcoats with five pairs of buttons, three pockets and high, fold-over collars. The collars carried the same insignia as used on the jackets.

Inspectors wore single-breasted jackets edged in a finer material than the main body, with hidden buttons (or more likely a hook and eye affair), two slit breast pockets and upright collars; the latter bore Inspector in embroidered script lettering on both sides. The cap was the same style as that worn by tramcar crews, but bore a hat band embroidered with the designation Inspector. Inspectors were also issued with smart double-breasted overcoats with two rows of five buttons, three waist-level pockets with flaps, and lapels; the latter do not appear to have borne any insignia. The chief inspector's uniform appears to have differed from those issued to inspectors solely in respect of the grade badges — Chief Inspector — on the collars and the cap.

In common with the vast majority of British tramway systems, female staff were employed during the Great War to replace men lost to the armed services, though in the case of Luton, seemingly only as conductresses. These ladies were issued with mid-length, tailored, single-breasted jackets with four buttons, a waist belt (with two buttons) and lapels, along with a long matching skirt. The collars carried elaborate embroidered lettering, though exactly what this was remains unclear. Headgear comprised a dark-coloured straw bonnet with a hat band, the latter bearing 'BB&CoLTD' in individual metal letters.

Further reading
For a history of Luton Corporation Tramways, see: 'Luton's Trams — the Story of a Small System 1908-1932' by Colin Brown; Irwell Press (1999).


Motormen and conductors
Luton Corporation Tramways Tram No 5 at Round Green terminus
An inspector, a conductor and a motorman pose with Tramcar No 5 at the Round Green terminus — photo undated, but in view of the pristine condition of the tramcar, very probably taken in the first year of operation. Author's Collection.

Luton Corporation Tramways inspector, conductor and motorman
A blow-up of the above photo showing the tramway staff. The conductor and the motorman are both wearing double-breasted greatcoats, along with military-style caps bearing script-lettering grade badges; the caps also bear a small badge of unknown pattern, more than likely some form of municipal device.

Luton Corporation Tramways cap badges
Standard 'off-the-shelf' script-lettering cap badges — nickel. It is believed that Luton insignia were nickel, though this is by no means proven. Author's Collection.

Luton Corporation Tramways cap badge
Luton 'seven ears of wheat' cap badge — chrome. This pattern of badge is almost certainly the same as that used by Luton Corporation Tramways, though the material would most probably have been nickel; chrome would only have come into use after the demise of the tramway (for example, on police and/or ambulance uniforms). Author's Collection.

Luton Corporation Tramways staff photo 1908 Park Street depot
A staff photo taken at Park Street depot to commemorate the opening in 1908. Photo courtesy of Colin Brown.

Luton Corporation Tramways staff photo 1908 Park Street depot
A blow-up of the above photo showing motormen (in double-breasted, 'lancer-style' tunics), conductors (in single-breasted jackets) and an inspector (bottom right in single-breasted jacket with edging).

Luton Corporation Tramways Tram No 8 Round Green
An inspector and the crew of Tramcar No 8 pose for the camera at Round Green — photo undated, but probably taken during the late-Edwardian era. Author's Collection

Luton Corporation Tramways Tram No 8 Round Green
A blow-up of the above photo showing the tramway staff. The conductor and the motorman are both wearing double-breasted greatcoats with badges on both collars.

Luton Corporation Tramways Great War tram conductors
A studio portrait of three young LCT conductors — photo undated, but almost certainly taken during the Great War. None of those depicted are wearing collar insignia. Author's Collection.

Luton Corporation Tramways Tram No 11 and crew
LCT conductor and motorman with Tramcar No 11 — photo undated, but possibly taken shortly after the Great War. Closer inspection of this photo suggests that the small cap badge may have been the Luton 'seven ears of wheat', which was also worn by police officers. Source unknown.

Luton Corporation Tramways depot staff photo c1920
A staff photo taken at Park Street depot, possibly around 1920. There are 12 motormen, six conductors, an inspector, a chief inspector and several individuals of uncertain grade. Some of the conductors are wearing 'lancer-style' tunics and some of the motormen single-breasted jackets. Author's Collection.

Luton Corporation Tramways motormen and conductors circa 1920
A blow-up of the above photo showing four motormen, two conductors and a flat-capped individual who may also be a conductor. Some of those depicted in this and the larger image are wearing badges above their script-lettering grade badges; these are of a variety of shapes and sizes, strongly suggesting that they were regimental badges, the wearing of which was common practice amongst post-Great War tramwaymen the length and breadth of the country. The collar badges are individual company initials — BB&CoLTD — worn on both sides.

Luton Corporation Tramways 10
A distinctly hog-backed Tramcar No 10 in George Street — photo undated, but definitely taken after the corporation take-over of 1923. The motorman is wearing a double-breasted jacket with lapels, along with a shirt and a tie. Photo courtesy of the Tramways and Light Railway Society, with thanks to David Voice.

Senior staff
Luton Corporation Tramways inspector 1920
A blow-up of the 1920's depot photo above showing the inspector. His cap clearly bears an embroidered grade badge on a hat band bordered with light-coloured piping. Whilst his upright collars appear to bear no insignia, this is more than likely a function of the poor quality of the photograph.

Luton Corporation Tramways Chief Inspector circa 1920
Another blow-up of the 1920's staff photo, this time showing an individual who, from the length of his grade badge, is almost certainly the chief inspector.

Luton Corporation Tramways inspectors and Tram No 13
One-man operated Tramcar No 13 photographed at the depot, along with what would appear to be three inspectors — photo undated, but almost certainly taken shortly after 21st May 1923, when No 13 was purchased from Glasgow. Photo courtesy of the Tramways and Light Railway Society, with thanks to David Voice.

Luton Corporation Tramways inspectors
A blow-up of the above photo showing the inspectors, one in a single-breasted overcoat and the other two in fairly standard 'tramway' inspector jackets.

Luton Corporation Tramways badge
A cap/lapel badge which is believed to have been used in the days of Luton Corporation Transport, i.e., after the demise of the trams — nickel. There remains however a real possibility that it was first used following the take-over of tramway operation by the corporation in 1923; photographic evidence that would either prove or refute this is yet to come to light. Author's Collection.

Luton Corporation Tramways badge
A cap/lapel badge which may have been used in the days of Luton Corporation Transport — brass. It is currently unclear whether this type of badge (or material) was used in tramway days. Author's Collection.

Female staff
Studio portrait of a Great War Luton Corporation Tramways conductress. Although there are no identifying features on either the photograph or the uniform, the latter does in fact exactly match those seen in other photographs that are unequivocally of Luton conductresses, whilst the mark on the rear — 'Black & White Studios' — is from a studio that is known to have been in business in Luton in that period. The cap badge (on the hat band) is almost certainly the company initials, BB&CoLTD. Author's Collection.