A brief introduction to…Douglas Horse Tramway

The first in a new irregular series we take a look at the Douglas Horse Tramway with a brief history of the line and a description of the current operations of the tramway. Words by Ken Jones.

The Douglas Horse Tramway is one of the few remaining horse tramways surviving in the world and is the only one surviving in the UK. Built originally by Thomas Lightfoot and Sons, services began on 7th August 1876 and have continued ever since apart from a period during World War II when part of the promenade became a prisoner of war camp.

In 1882, Lightfoot sold the line to Isle of Man Tramways Ltd, later the Isle of Man Tramways & Electric Power Co. Ltd, which also owned the Manx Electric Railway. The company went into liquidation in 1900 as a consequence of a banking collapse. The tramway was sold by the liquidatorto Douglas Corporation (now Douglas Borough Council) in 1902.

Since 1927 the tramway has run in summer only.

In 2015 Douglas Borough Council partnered with Isle of Man Transport to introduce the ‘Ticketer’ system as used across the Island’s other public transport systems. On board a Ticketer hand-held unit connects with the island-wide contactless Go Cards and individual tickets can also be purchased.

The line is 3ft gauge and double track throughout. It runs for about one & half miles along the sea front, from near the ferry terminal [it used to go as far as Victoria Pier] in the south to a northern terminus near the Manx Electric Railway, where the depot can be found. The stables are on the promenade some way back towards the southern end.

It was as recent as 1980s that it boasted a service until 11pm, with a tram every few minutes. Nowadays it operates every 20 to 30 minutes with the last tram in the early evening. The cross over places along the route are still in place but not used apart from each end. In 2014 there was an official last day of running as the tramway is to be rebuilt on the promenade away from traffic. New plans were submitted this year and so for 2015 the horse tramway is still in use.

Tram Stops – Promenade/Beach Side
Sea Terminal
Claremont Hotel
Tower House Shopping
Near Villa Marina
Near Blossom Hotel
Near Imperial Hotel
Near Hilton
Rutland Hotel
Regency Hotel

Tram Stops – Hotel Side
Sea Terminal
Admiral House
Promenade Church
Tower House Shopping Centre
Villa Marina
Near Blossom Hotel
Shops near Hydro Hotel
Corner of Summerhill Road
Derby Castle/Electric Railway

Stored Fleet

Many cars that see little use are kept in the sheds adjacent to the station; they are in a number of styles. These include

  • No. 18 – restored double deck tram
  • No. 33 – roofed toastrack
  • No. 34 – roofed toastrack
  • No. 39 – “long” (extended) open toastrack
  • No. 42 – “long” (extended) open toastrack with ornate hanging lamps on bulkheads

Jurby Transport Museum

Several cars were stored off-site for a number of years having been moved to a transport museum in the north of the island for display in 2009; No. 22 now serves as a souvenir shop in much the same way as it did when located at the tramway terminus for a number of years. I’m sure it was in use as such when I first visited the island in 1973. The remaining cars are stored at the museum but as they are privately owned no further work has been carried out to them.

  • No. 11 – open toastrack, not used for many years. Left out in open storage.
  • No. 22 – “umbrella” car, converted to shop in the 1970s and now inside the museum.
  • No. 47 – roofed toastrack in 1970s condition. Left out in open storage

Other tramcars

  • No. 14 – sole surviving original double-decker, on loan to Manx Museum
  • No. 35 – roofed toastrack, on display at retired horses’ home outside Douglas
  • No. 46 – restored to original condition and displayed in the UK until scrapping in 2001
  • No. 49 – sole surviving convertible car, privately owned and in store off site (Baldrine)

I visited the Island in July [2015] with my wife, 35 years since we went on honeymoon to the island. We had permission to visit the depot and museums and all the pictures were taken with the full co-operation of relevant staff. We saw all the horse trams with the exception of number 49.

In service during our stay were trams 36, 43 and 45.

* Photographs from Ken’s recent visit to the Douglas Horse Tramway can be found at http://www.britishtramsonline.co.uk/gallery548.html.

36 - pulled by the appropriately named Douglas - heads along Douglas Promenade on 20th July 2015. (Photograph by Ken Jones)

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10 Responses to A brief introduction to…Douglas Horse Tramway

  1. David Blake says:

    Wonderful to see this delightful and unique tramway getting some of the recognition it so richly deserves. In my opinion it is one of Britain’s great historical treasures, whether you are a tramway or transport enthusiast or not. It definitely appeals to all sorts of people who you see taking a ride into living history along Douglas Promenade.

    The dedicated staff who run this amazing tramway deserve to be congratulated for their pride, tenacity and resourcefulness over so many years.

    It wasn’t until seeming threats and uncertainty have surrounded the tramway in the last few years that I realised just how central to my fondness for the Isle of Man it actually was. I have explored the Manx Electric and steam railways many, many times, but the horse tramway along Douglas Promenade – well, for me, it’s absolutely the icing on the cake!

    I would not want to think of Douglas or the island without this wonderfully atmospheric attraction which is not only a delight to ride on but offers a rich and unique insight into the history of virtually every town and city we know and the onetime lifestyle of all our ancestors, not to mention being fascinating to experience and observe just for its own sake as many young children know. And it shares with its electric and steam compatriots the distinction of being totally unlike anything you will find anywhere else.

    Reasons for me – now, along with my wife – to have visited the beautiful Isle of Man over and over again, and also the ‘gateway’ which has led us to discover many of its other charms and attractions. It is truly now one of our favourite places in the whole world.

    In an ideal world, I would personally like to see certainly the horse tramway, along with perhaps the steam and electric railways, to obtain the protection of something like world heritage status to at least ensure survival. I know I am not the only person to have expressed this view, and it does not necessarily mean I am against some progress or evolution to adapt to changing times, but I want the history, infrastructure, and crucially, the ‘spirit’ of the horse tramway to survive for future generations to enjoy.

    Although I have mentioned the electric and steam railways, I don’t want to confuse the argument too much because my urgent concern at the moment is for the horse tramway which is currently facing real uncertainty and threats and seems to need voices to speak up for it.

    We haven’t had the opportunity to visit the Isle of Man this year as yet, but I am planning at least two visits before the horse tramway ends operation for the season on 13 September (when I definitely hope to be there). From a personal viewpoint, I have yet to experience a ride on an open toastrack (I’m told I have been unfortunate on this) and I would like to experience saloon no 1 which is normally reserved for Santa specials but didn’t run last year; a member of staff told me then ‘it may never run again – who knows?’ Anyone want to organise a ‘last weekend’ enthusiasts’ tour of the system, as happened in Blackpool in 2011, using unusual cars?

    I am looking forward to seeing Douglas again very soon, but I hope that in future years the horse tramway will retain its own special place in the unique portfolio of heritage transport attractions which help to make the island something of a paradise in the middle of the Irish Sea. Once you’ve discovered it, you find yourself going back again and again, and I hope nothing changes that.

  2. Nev Sloper says:

    Thanks for this timely (for me) article. We will be making a first ever visit this week and were delighted to find that the horse tramway will be operating this season.

  3. Alex Fairlie says:

    Its quite sad that during the transport festival there was no effort to do anything special or additional on their part. 21 did get short bursts of use, but it begs the question what was the point of painting 12 or 42 last year if all they are going to do is sit in the shed?

    I contacted the council in good time before the festival with a view to possibly sponsoring or funding the use of the toastracks on service for one of the festival days – to no response…

  4. David Mee says:

    Not official, but one of the drivers we spoke to during the Heritage Festival last week did comment that they are hoping to insert a point on the existing line somewhere near the Villa Marina this winter so that they can offer a service on at least part of the route next season whilst the Promenade reconstruction works are underway.

    It is sad that the Corporation decided to play no part in the Heritage Festival this year – how much effort is it to push a few cars out of the shed doors for display? especially after going to the effort of restoring cars 12 and 42 just for them to stay in the sheds. A bit more creativity with rostering the cars would add so much more to the attraction of the tramway, both for enthusiasts and the general public.

  5. David Blake says:

    I agree that the horse tramway could probably attract its own part of the Island’s transport enthusiast market if it was possible to know in advance about special occasions, or when any of the rarer cars were likely to be rostered to operate (although I realise that with open cars the weather is also a factor). I think David is also right to suggest that in the case of the horse tramway, it may be comparatively easy to extend in this kind of way its appeal to the general public too, as many fascinated eyes are upon it.

    It was more or less by sheer chance that I discovered last year that it was at least sometimes possible to catch the open top double-decker no 18 for a single round trip just after lunch, on a fine day. We planned a day round it and caught it successfully. It was a moving experience part way along the line when we passed, I think, a nursery with all the children at the gate who cheered and waved at the horse and tram passing by with all their passengers. Even a heritage steam train would have struggled to achieve that!

    I didn’t attend the Transport Festival this year (as we had been at a steam event in Ireland), but if I had known in advance that the elusive horse car 21 was going to appear, I would have made the effort specially that day, as I and so many others do, for example, for rare cars advertised on the Manx Electric. I can but hope that I haven’t missed my only opportunity, not to mention the other rare cars the horse tramway offers too.

    We have to remember, though, that the horse tramway is council operated, and as a local government employee myself, I know the sort of pressure and uncertainty that budgets and staff are now under, certainly on the mainland, and time and resources are probably tight. They did put on a good event for the final weekend in September last year although I was only able to be there for part of it; I am keeping it free this year…!

    And so we have just booked our tickets and are catching the ‘Ben-My-Chree’ on Sunday afternoon for our first taste of the Isle of Man this year. I think it’s a case of being there when I can in the hope that things may, at some point, happen!!

  6. Nathan says:

    Having been on this tramway, I think it is not only a unique and irreplaceable attraction but actually a rather convenient way of getting around Douglas, especially if you have one of the new GoExplore cards. I’m saddened, and quite frankly confused, at why the council wants to spend a considerable amount of cash to rip it up, make it single track and move it a few metres closer to the sea! As the only horse tramway surviving in the British Isles, surely it needs some kind of protection akin to what listed buildings receive. It’s been in the middle of the road for nearly 150 years, surely residents have got used to it by now? To move it would spoil the character of the promenade and make it look like any other seaside town in Britain. I hope the public recognise this and vote for someone that respects the heritage of Island in whatever the IoM’s equivalent is to a local election, but even then my faith in the residents of Douglas is damaged by reading opinions in a local newspaper, as most of them seem to support the changes proposed! One even suggests “moving on” and replacing them with a modern electric system, a là Blackpool! Some suggest ripping it up all together! Would you replace the face of Big Ben with a digital display because we’ve “Moved on”?! I think not. If it really does come to this, I hope the UK government intervenes. Personally, I think the transport system (and perhaps the entire island) should be declared a World Heritage Site to protect it from political buffoonery.

  7. David Blake says:

    Delighted to report that one day on the Isle of Man and our visit has proved rewarding! The horse tramway started the day with the 2-car service being operated by cars 36 (Milnes, 1896) and 45 (Milnes, Voss, 1908). Around 1.00 pm, car 36 changed horses from Philip to Charles at the stables and travelled the very short distance to Strathallan Crescent where the car was parked on the storage tracks, and Charles was instead attached to open toastrack 21 (Milnes, 1890, rebuilt and lengthened by Douglas Corporation, 1936), on an adjacent track. This remained in service for the rest of the day so, some 39 years after my first visit, I have not only now succeeded in seeing an open toastrack in service but also ridden on it – quite a few times! I don’t know if 21 has been working regularly this summer, or whether it may have been brought out specially as there was an organised group of people which appeared to be transport related and filled the car for one and a half trips on its last departure from Strathallan Crescent, having reached Derby Castle by Manx Electric. Later they departed from their hotel for another destination aboard preserved Douglas Corporation AEC Regent bus no 64.

    I don’t know if double-deck car no 18 also ran today because at 2.00 pm we were instead aboard the excursion motor vessel ‘Karina’ in sublime weather for a landing cruise to Port Soderick – itself of great transport interest as we saw the route of the Douglas Marine Drive electric tramway from the sea, including the wreck of one of its famous metal viaducts, lying close to sea level, which had been concealed for many years but has recently been revealed by coastal erosion! The captain’s very informative and enthusiastic commentary also pointed out the location of the former Douglas Head funicular railway. Highly recommended!!

    Then it was back to car 21 and horse Amby for a few more rides.

    There is still a lot of uncertainty about future plans for the horse tramway, and the headline in the current edition of the weekly paper, ‘Manx Independent’ is ‘Chance to vote on horse trams’. It refers to criticism of the plan to move the track to the promenade walkway, but also questions whether cyclists with no bells, which also use it, are not more dangerous to pedestrians than ‘clip-clopping horses’, and suggests that more room for parking on the promenade would help the town’s retailers. It mentions that the service is currently loss-making and subsidised by Douglas Council and that ‘there have been calls to end the service altogether, with some saying its time has been and gone’.

    The paper says that it wants to gauge the strength of public opinion, and is holding a postal vote (deadline Tuesday) among the island’s public, on three proposed options:

    1. Move the trams to the walkway.
    2. Keep the trams on the road.
    3. Scrap them.

    I think there was a similar vote among the local population a few years ago which voted to retain the trams so it may be a bit concerning that there seem to be some moves to revisit this, and I have seen one Facebook website which in campaigning vociferously against the walkway proposal, seems to have attracted some anti-horse tram opinion (although others have expressed in favour).

    I hope that notwithstanding the uncertainty, Douglas will find a way to keep this great attraction and heritage transport treasure on an international scale. Like Nathan, I would personally ideally like it to stay as far as possible in its present form and be protected, so await future developments with interest but also some apprehension. Let’s hope for a happy ending!!

  8. Edward says:

    I know it’s pedantic, but I’d like to point out that Douglas is not, as Ken Jones states, in the UK.

    If the trams are not to remain in the street, why not replace them with a single reserved line extension of the Manx Electric Railway? I believe that such an extension was proposed over a hundred years ago!

  9. Ken Jones says:

    So that Edward can rest easy I apologise to him and others – the main reason being that this site only details British trams not foreign ones and so if I had been correct the pictures and article would have been rejected as a foreign system outside the UK. The British Government is responsible for it’s foreign relations and defence and that’s good enough for me to include it as a UK tram system.

    The Isle of Man (/ˈmæn/; Manx: Ellan Vannin [ˈɛlʲən ˈvanɪn][4]), otherwise known simply as Mann (Manx: Mannin, IPA: [ˈmanɪn]), is a self-governing British Crown dependency located in the Irish Sea between the islands of Great Britain and Ireland. The head of state is Queen Elizabeth II, who holds the title of Lord of Mann. The Lord of Mann is represented by a Lieutenant Governor.

    The island has been inhabited by humans since before 6500 BC. Gaelic cultural influence began in the 5th century AD, and the Manx language, a branch of the Gaelic languages, gradually emerged. In 627, Edwin of Northumbria conquered the Isle of Man along with most of Mercia. In the 9th century, the Norse began to settle there. Norse people from Scotland then established the Kingdom of the Isles. The King’s title would then carry the suffix, “and the Isles”. Magnus III, the King of Norway, was also known as “King of Mann and the Isles” as part of the Hebrides civilization between 1099 and 1103.[5] A Norse-Gaelic culture arose and the island came under Norse control. In 1266, the island became part of Scotland, as formalised by the Treaty of Perth. After a period of alternating rule by the kings of Scotland and England, the island came under the feudal lordship of the English Crown in 1399. The lordship revested into the British Crown in 1765, but the island never became part of the Kingdom of Great Britain or its successor the United Kingdom, retaining its status as an internally self-governing Crown dependency.

    • Geoff, Isle of Man says:

      I’m more than happy for our tramways / tramroads / electric railways / light rail lines / interurbans / (any more offers?) to be included in BTO. Just so long as our Island remains firmly outside both the UK and the EU!

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