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Memories of Sheppey trams which ran from pier to Sheerness East


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Remember when trams shuttled up and down our streets? Well you'd be forgiven for forgetting they were once on the Isle of Sheppey. Sheerness took the title for having not only the shortest line, but also the shortest-lived service, lasting just 14 years, writes Bel Austin.

The trams shuttled from the town's pier to its railway station. Picture: Martin and Rosemary Hawkins on behalf of the Blue Town Heritage Centre
The trams shuttled from the town's pier to its railway station. Picture: Martin and Rosemary Hawkins on behalf of the Blue Town Heritage Centre

Last month saw the removal of the Island's historic railway lines at Brielle Way in Blue Town - a familiar sight to motorists heading into Sheerness.

They ran into the docks and were part of a network which served the steel works.

But go back to the Sheerness and Blue Town of the 1900s and tram lines also crossed busy thoroughfares.

It was the shortest, distance-wise, as well as shortest-lived tram service in Kent.

It was opened in April, 1903, by the Sheerness and District Electric Power and Traction Company and boasted eight double-deck open-top trams, each seating 22 passengers downstairs and 27 upstairs.

The trams were operated by the Sheerness and District Electric Power and Traction Company from April 1903 to July 7,1917. Picture: Martin and Rosemary Hawkins on behalf of the Blue Town Heritage Centre
The trams were operated by the Sheerness and District Electric Power and Traction Company from April 1903 to July 7,1917. Picture: Martin and Rosemary Hawkins on behalf of the Blue Town Heritage Centre

For the first time in Britain, the Sheerness trams collected electricity from overhead wires using Siemens “bow collectors” as used on the Continent. Other British trams used trolley wheels running on the wire.

The Siemens system had a strong spring pressing an arc-shaped metal bar against the underside of the wires. It was supposed to make the system more flexible.

The two-and-a-half miles of track embedded in the road began at the pier in Blue Town. At Sheerness clock tower, the track split in two.

One arm went along the Broadway and Marine Parade to Cheyney Rock. The other arm went along Halfway Road to Sheerness East.

It has to be remembered two rival bus companies were vying for passengers during this period, so it was optimistic of the company to order 12 tramcars. Four were sold on, and a reduced fleet shuttled from the pier to Sheerness East.

A tram in Sheerness High Street in the 1900s. Picture: Colin Harvey
A tram in Sheerness High Street in the 1900s. Picture: Colin Harvey

The cost of travel between four stops was one penny, increasing to a farthing for five stops and two pence for the six stages.

A driver was paid four pence halfpenny an hour (2p) and apart from driving and collecting fares on the Cheyney Rock route had to change over the bow collector in Marine Parade, lock saloon doors, and put down the step at the opposite driving platform before setting off.

This through service didn’t last long and after 1904 a shuttle car went back and forth from the clock tower.

The job attracted men and women and, in Sheerness, managers and engineers were trained before moving on to bigger operations.

Some years back former driver Dan Girvan told me of his experiences - first as a conductor, then a driver - and his pride in wearing the blue uniform. He was 17 when he joined the company and trained on the job - declaring passengers would never have travelled with him if they’d known how nervous he was.

A tram car travelling along Marine Parade, Sheerness in around 1910. Picture: Colin Harvey
A tram car travelling along Marine Parade, Sheerness in around 1910. Picture: Colin Harvey

He recalled a night when more than 100 airmen from Eastchurch who had travelled on the Light Railway, clung to his tram for a ride into Sheerness, rather than walk from Sheerness East train stop.

He pitied the conductress having to collect their penny fares before they jumped off before the stop.

Jock McCann, at the age of 86, had similar tales to tell. He had wanted nothing more than to ride the trams, wear a ticket machine over the uniform and collect fares. He started aged 15 as a cleaner at the Sheerness East depot. He not only achieved his ambition but went on to become a driver.

But on Saturday, July 7, 1917, Sheerness gained the dubious distinction of becoming the first place in Britain to lose its electric tramway system.

Hopes of extending the service to Halfway Houses and subsequently to Minster and Queenborough were dashed when the Sheppey Light Railway refused permission for the tram lines to cross its tracks at Sheerness East.

The open-top trams seated 49 passengers. Picture: Martin and Rosemary Hawkins on behalf of the Blue Town Heritage Centre
The open-top trams seated 49 passengers. Picture: Martin and Rosemary Hawkins on behalf of the Blue Town Heritage Centre

It was the beginning of the end.

As early as 1904 there had been complaints about the condition of the tracks.

Mr Cole, the editor of the Sheerness Times, wrote that flints between the metal rails had led to derailments.

Indeed, one tram came off the tracks and smashed into 220 High Street near the junction with Invicta Road.

In their 14 years of operation, the Sheerness trams rarely made a profit. The limited size of the system, the introduction of bus services in 1913 and the problem of faulty equipment all sounded the death knell.

The final straw came with the outbreak of the First World War. It made it impossible for the operator to get spare parts from the German maker of the equipment.

The lines were taken up to help the war effort in the Great War (by German prisoners of war) and there is scant structural evidence the service ever existed.

But, luckily, many photographs of these splendid modes of transport remain to tell the story.

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