Oxford Tramways


Oxford horse trams circa 1890
Photograph taken by Henry Taunt circa 1890
Author's collection

A tramway system for the city of Oxford was first proposed in 1878. This was to comprise two main routes, one running east to west from the railway stations down High Street to Cowley Road, with the second running north to south between Summertown and Banbury Road with a branch along Woodstock Road. A rival scheme was also proposed following much the same route, but without the branch down Woodstock Road, and it was this that gained powers to proceed under the Oxford Tramways Order of 1879. The Oxford Tramways Company Limited was duly incorporated in that November but things did not proceed any further and the company was dissolved a year later with a new company, The City of Oxford and District Tramways Company Lmited, being formed to take over. Work started on the 4 foot gauge horse-drawn tramway in 1881. The new company did however revise the scope of the undertaking shortening the route mileage and reducing the amount of double track although, by means of various later agreements and legislation, the system was expanded several times until in 1898 it reached its maximum extent with a total route milege of 5¼ miles. Throughout its life there were no fixed stops, drivers and conductors had to look out for passengers and stop on request.

Copies of this photograph taken by H.W.Taunt are held in a number of archives and picture libraries being dated variously between 1890 and 1905. It shows single deck cars numbered 2 and 3 posed on a passing loop in High Street between Catte Street and Queen's Lane. Our copy was obtained from a dealer in Australia and we think it was probably taken during the early 1890s. As with all the Oxford trams, the horses were loosely attached providing motive power only, with the driver operating a screw brake to control the speed of their vehicle. When trams reached the end of their route the horse would simply be unhitched and walked round to be re-attached at the other end.

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The route 1881-1882


Oxford tramway routes

Track laying on the east to west line started outside the railway stations towards the middle of 1881. Rapid progress was made, and after just five months the single track line had reached part way down Cowley Road. Whilst the line from Carfax, down High Street and over Magdalen Bridge had originally been authorised as double track, this reduced scheme saw only three passing loops along High Street and a longer one over Magdalen Bridge. Work continued with the line reaching the Magdalen Road terminus and the newly constructed five road depot in Leopold Street close by in the November. The completed line was opened for use on 1st December 1881.

Work had been progressing also on the junctions at Carfax and the line from St. Aldate's up Banbury Road to its first terminus at Rackham's Lane (later named St. Margaret's Road), although this section would not be opened for traffic until January 1882. Passing loops were provided along both lines to allow opposing services to pass each other.

The first trams were small single deck cars seating 20 to 25 passengers and drawn by one horse, as seen in the above photograph. These were later supplemented by double deck trams, hauled by two horses. Some of these trams were new, some converted from the single deck cars, and others being obtained second hand from several London tramways. At one time there were about 150 horses employed, with stables at the Leopold Street depot and in Brewer Street off St. Aldates. Horses were not exclusively used to haul the trams as a number were also employed on the network of horse drawn bus routes which covered some parts of Oxford not served by the trams.

Oxford City Corporation had plans to almost double the width of Magdalen Bridge and work began early in 1882, just months after the tramway had been opened. An agreement was in place between the Company and the Corporation whereby they would lift and relay the line according to the Corporation's wishes. One line was duly taken up, but not relaid and a dispute arose between the two parties which was only settled by legal action in early 1885. By that May the track had been relaid and double line working was finally restored over the bridge.


Oxford tramway routes

Extending the route 1883-1898

As already mentioned, the tramway system did grow over time, as allowed by the Acts of 1883, 1886 and 1898.

In late 1883 construction started on a new line from a junction formed with the existing tramway by the Martyrs' Memorial, along Beaumont Street, then up Walton Street to terminate at the junction of Leckford Road and Kingston Road, just beyond the end of Walton Street. This line was provided with five passing loops, being completed and opened for traffic in July 1884.

1886 saw work commencing on an extension southwards from St. Aldate's, over Folly Bridge and down Abingdon Road terminating at Lake Street. Again served with passing loops, this line was to open for use in March 1887.

Work on the final extension from the Rackham's Lane terminus up Banbury Road to a new terminus at the end of South Parade in Summertown was completed in late 1898. This extension had just three passing loops and brought the tramway up to its maximum extent with a total of 5¼ route miles, of which about 1¼ miles comprised passing loops or short sections of double track, such as those over Magdalen Bridge and Folly Bridge.

Proposed extensions and electrification 1907-1909

There were later proposals to greatly extend and electrify the system. The Oxford & District Tramways Act 1907
Act of 21st August 1907
Author's collection

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enabled the existing tramways to be vested in the new City of Oxford Electric Tramways Ltd. which was duly authorised to reconstruct and extend the tramway. We have a case bound copy of this 52 page Act in our collection, and whilst there are no illustrations, it contains a great deal of information relating to the changes and limitations being considered.

Land was identified in the Act to the north of Botley Road where an electricity generating station was to be built. This was identified as comprising an area of two acres or thereabouts in the south-east corner of the field known as "Twenty pound meadow". It had been proposed to extend the route down Cowley Road from its terminus at the end of Magdalen Road, through Cowley to Iffley Turn and back up Iffley Road to The Plain where it would rejoin the existing rails. A new route would also have run from there as far as Headington. The routes from The Plain along High Street and that up Cornmarket Street were to be doubled with a full, and rather complex, four-way junction at Carfax where they crossed. Another even longer extension was to have continued the route from the end of Walton Street up Kingston Road as far as Rackham Lane (now St Margaret's Road), across to Woodstock Road and thence up to Five Mile Drive where it would turn to rejoin Banbury Road and head southwards to meet the existing line at its terminus in Summertown. Finally, the route would have been extended from its terminus in Abingdon Road by Lake Street down towards New Hinksey to terminate instead by Wiers Lane. Limitations were imposed wherein no posts, brackets or wires were to be erected above the streets within the City. Various alternative methods were looked into, including several conduit and surface contact systems. These extensions never took place however.

Eventually, in 1909, a Bill was introduced to Parliament which allowed for the use of overhead wires on all but 1½ miles of the system, the central portion using a conduit. Whilst the Bill received Royal Assent, nothing changed.

A bit of Old Oxford Oxford Electric Tramways ticket postcard Improving the High, A Prophetic Nightmare

Davis's, whose shop was at 2 Cornmarket Street, published a series of satirical postcards in 1905 poking fun at the state of the existing tramway system and its proposed electrification. Those examples held in our collection are shown above. On the right, an electric tram which is powered by overhaed cable and packed with members of Oxford Corporation causes chaos as members of the University and a policeman watch on in horror.

The end

A dispute over poor pay saw 51 out of 56 drivers and conductors go on strike for over six weeks starting in March 1913. They petitioned that many worked 65 hours a week and demanded six pence per hour but the company only offered drivers four pence and one farthing, and conductors three pence three farthings an hour after two years of service. The manager, Arthur Tyler, and his two sons together with two stablemen tried to keep a limited service going between Cowley Road, Carfax and Summertown. There were many ugly scenes and protest gatherings descending into running battles with police and damage to trams.

Efforts to operate motor buses instead of the old trams had previously been vetoed by City councillors, but in late 1913 William Morris, owner of the Morris Motors car factory at Cowley brought a dozen Daimler motor buses from London and started a motor bus service between the two railway stations and Cowley. As he did not have a bus operating licence, he could not collect fares on board, so passengers had to buy tokens from shops and then hand them in on the bus. The travelling public quickly deserted the old fashioned trams and so, inevitably, on January 14th 1914 12 motor bus licences were issued to Morris and 12 to the Tramway Company who started to operate their own motor bus services. A few weeks later, having made his point, Morris agreed to sell his buses and licences to the Tramway Company. This marked the beginning of the end for the trams. On 27th January 1914 the Walton Street and New Hinksey tram routes ceased and, after a steady decline in passenger numbers, the last tram in Oxford ran in the August of that year. The old tram tracks were quickly taken up over the following few months, the Leoplod Street depot building survived however.

The Oxford and District Tramways Act of 1914 set out the terms and scope of motor bus operations, and under a further Act in 1921 the old tramway company became the City of Oxford Motor Services. What might be considered as the last reference to the tramways was made in Oxford Motor Services Act 1951
Act of 26th April 1951
Author's collection

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which sought to repeal the Act of 1914, the Oxford Motor Services Act 1921, and certain provisions of the Oxford Extension Act 1928.

Following the tramway routes

We have collected a number of postcard views of Oxford in which the tram track with its cobble infill can be seen, and in some views a tram may be seen in the distance. We have attempted to assemble these cards in sequence below to follow each of the five tramway routes. Where noted, some of the gaps with our postcards have been supplemented by images from the Historic England archive and from the collection of Stephanie Jenkins with her kind permission. Click or tap on any thumbnail below to explore a gallery of enlarged images.

Up St.Aldates to the Carfax and down Queen Street

Oxford, Christ Church College, Tom Tower
Oxford, Christ Church College, Tom Tower
Published by F.Frith & Co. Ltd. No.31678. Franked 'OXFORD 1905
Oxford, Carfax Tower
Oxford, Carfax Tower
Unknown publisher. LL.
Queens St., Oxford
Queens St., Oxford
Unknown publisher. 2824.

Looking west down Queen Street
Image © Crown copyright, Historic England Archive, cc72_01266

Junction of Queen St., Castle St. and New Road
Image © Crown copyright, Historic England Archive, cc72-00788

From Carfax and up Cornmarket Street to the Martyrs' Memorial

 Cornmarket Street, Oxford
Cornmarket Street, Oxford
Valentine's Series 44003 JV.

Cornmarket Street looking north
Image © Crown copyright, Historic England Archive, ht10434
Clarendon Hotel, Oxford
Clarendon Hotel, Oxford
Unknown publisher
Oxford, Cornmarket Street
Oxford, Cornmarket Street
Published by F.Frith & Co. Ltd. No.56606, overprinted Savage, Carfax, Oxford'
Martyrs' Memorial, Oxford
Martyrs' Memorial, Oxford
Valentine's Series. Franked 'OXFORD 1905'

Beaumont Street and Walton Street


Looking along Beaumont Street from Worcester College
Image © Crown copyright, Historic England Archive, cc72_02277
Oxford University Press: Walton Street Front
Oxford University Press: Walton Street Front
Oxford University Press
Kingston Road, Oxford
Kingston Road, Oxford
Postcard courtesy of Stephanie Jenkins

St.Giles and Banbury Road

St.Giles S., Oxford
St.Giles S., Oxford
Valentine's Series 79132
St.Giles with Martyr's Memorial, Oxford
St.Giles with Martyr's Memorial, Oxford
St & Co D E26426
The Old Parsonage, St. Giles Oxford
The Old Parsonage, St. Giles Oxford.
Postcard courtesy of Stephanie Jenkins
Banbury Road, Oxford
Banbury Road, Oxford
Unknown publisher
Banbury Road, Oxford
Banbury Road, Oxford
Postcard courtesy of Stephanie Jenkins

High street to Magdalen Bridge


Looking east from Carfax junction
Image © Crown copyright, Historic England Archive, bb73_00533

Looking east from Carfax
Image © Crown copyright, Historic England Archive, cc73_00440

Looking back towards Carfax
Image © Crown copyright, Historic England Archive, cc72_01893
The High Street, Oxford
The High Street, Oxford
Wyman's Series 4716. Franked 'OXFORD 1918'
The 'High', Oxford
The "High", Oxford
The Woodbury Series, No. 1423. Franked 'OXFORD 1905'
High Street, Oxford
High Street, Oxford
Unknown publisher. Franked 'OXFORD 19??'
Magdalen College from High St., Oxford
Magdalen College from High St., Oxford
Published by DAINOTYPE no 61755
Oxford, Magdalen College
Oxford, Magdalen College
Published by Alden & Co. Ltd., Oxford. Franked 'OXFORD 1915
Magdalen Tower Oxford. Great Western Railway
Magdalen Tower, Oxford
Published by the Great Western Railway

Magdalen Bridge and tower
Image © Crown copyright, Historic England Archive, ht08144

The Plain and Cowley Road

The Plain, St. Clement's, Oxford
The Plain, St. Clement's, Oxford
Valentine's Series 52023 JV. Franked 'OXFORD 1915'
Cowley Road, Oxford
Cowley Road, Oxford
Postcard courtesy of Stephanie Jenkins

More information on the history of Oxford's tramways and the subsequent motorbus services can be found in The book of Oxford Buses and Trams written by Stephen Jolly and Nick Taylor which was first published in 1981 by the Oxford Bus Preservation Syndicate (ISBN 0 9506739 2 7). For a very detailed history of the system, see the series of articles 'The Tramways of Oxford' by H J H Wheare, in Tramway Review Nos 140 (p103-116), 142 (p176-195) and 143 (p213-223) published by the Light Rail Transit Association during 1989 and 1990.