Douglas Horse Tramway closes until 2016

On Sunday 14th September the Douglas Horse Tramway ran for the last time in its current form with Promenade reconstruction works due to see the double track tramway moved to the side of the road with only a single line and passing loop provided. These works will see no tram service offered at all in 2015 with the next horse tram service not expected to be run until 2016. With it being such a momentous occasion British Trams Online reader David Blake decided a day trip to the Isle of Man was in order and what follows is a personal recollection of the penultimate day of operation – Saturday 13th September.

Feeling from the bits of information I had been able to put together that the final weekend of this year’s Douglas horse tram season was likely to be the equine equivalent of Blackpool 2011, I felt I had to go over for one final look, and caught the 0215 sailing from Heysham to Douglas on the morning of Saturday 13 September.

It was still dark when I arrived in Douglas, but as it became light and fortified by a good breakfast, I walked along the still sleeping route of the horse tramway in its traditional centre of the road location, and photographed some of the features including the three truncated intermediate crossovers.

I arrived at Derby Castle in time to see the Tramways Superintendent and the lady tram driver who has been working this season (whose name I think is Debbie) sweeping down and cleaning the bulkhead windows of some of the rolling stock parked outside on the sidings – these appear to be the cars mostly in use. Covered toastrack cars 43 and 44 (United Electric Car Co, Preston, 1907) were to the fore and 44, which carries a red, white and blue livery, was of course the tram that famously carried Her Majesty the Queen, Prince Philip and Princess Anne in 1972 and carries a commemorative plaque. Also on the two outdoor sidings were covered toastrack 45 (Milnes, Voss of Birkenhead, 1908) which was certainly in use when I was previously there in August, and lengthened open toastrack 21 (G F Milnes of Birkenhead, 1890), while at the end of the siding nearest to the Manx Electric terminus stood a tram I had never had a good view of before: open toastrack 12 (G F Milnes, 1888) which is I think the oldest original Douglas car still in the fleet and has been restored over the years with curved lamp arches at each end. I fact there was a smell of paint around no 12 suggesting that it had received further treatment, possibly a repaint, maybe with the weekend’s events in mind. I was desperately hoping for a ride on either no 12 or the other open toastrack, 21, but it wasn’t to be, and people tell me I am unfortunate in never having even seen an open toastrack in passenger service, as the type was apparently quite frequently used in good weather. In 2012 I saw no 21 on a training run with a trainee horse one morning, and that is literally all. A clue may be that two drivers did mention on the day that they do not like driving no 12, at least, as they have to do so from a reversible bench and they find it an uncomfortable driving position.

Soon, the first horse, known as a ‘trammer’, was escorted from the stables, a little further along the promenade, in the unhurried, steady manner which would probably be recognised by all our Victorian forebears. His name plate proclaimed him to be Steve, and he was attached to car 33. I boarded as, under the reins of his driver, he began his clip-clopping journey along the seafront in the time-honoured tradition, as the 107 year old tram clicked and rattled its way over the depot fan behind him, and the conductor clambered along the wooden footboards of the tram to issue me my £5.70 day ticket. We had an uneventful journey to the rather spectacular 1960s Sea Terminal at the other end of the Promenade, where Steve was led to the other end of the tram, and the whole workaday yet in this age totally amazing process was repeated in the opposite direction. Somewhere around the Villa Marina we passed the second tram, which revealed itself as car 44 in the hands of the horse John.

This was to be the service pattern for the whole morning, during which increasing numbers of people descended on the two trams and some journeys were more or less full. If my experience earlier in the summer is anything to go by, this was nothing unusual, with the conductors guiding boarders across the road carriageway and asking people to make room on the crossbench seats (‘four to a seat’, they would say). I don’t think I ever saw a tram leave anyone behind.

I waited for car 44 at Derby Castle and did a full round trip, towards the end of which the motive power changed from John to Charles; the horses did two round trips each, which was a much easier and more comfortable life than their own Victorian forebears would have known, not to mention the fact that the cars have been equipped with such refinements as roller bearings over the years. Having experienced Blackpool pre-rebuild, however, it was noticeable from the varying angles of the trams as they passed along the Promenade that the track foundations were sunken in many places and that the Promenade itself was probably in poor condition, and there was evidence of patching up by welding at various junctions on the track.

I thought it better not to try and indulge in the last-minute kind of tram-hopping we have tended to do at Blackpool to maximise riding, because with horses and primitive handbrakes to consider, all designed around the more leisurely pace of a century or more ago, yet very much having to cope with today’s intensive traffic conditions, it seemed more considerate to the crews and horses to act a bit more carefully and predictably than the tram enthusiast species would perhaps normally be inclined to demonstrate! Also, you never quite know where the trams are going to pass because the speed is variable depending on the characteristics – and maybe the mood? – of each horse, which makes for a delightful variable. This did give me time to inspect and photograph all the cars in the depot at Derby Castle, during which I noticed that trams like no 33 (G F Milnes, 1896) which were in regular use on my visits a decade ago, now seemed to be out of the service fleet or at least not to have been used for a long time. I hope I wasn’t trespassing but there were other people in there who said it wasn’t a problem and there was no one else around at the time to ask! I also discovered the answer to a long-held question: why in wet weather cars 27 and 29 of the three magnificent 1892 saloon cars by G F Milnes would often appear, but never sister car 28. One of the former two cars has rather warped longitudinal wooden seating, but that on 28 is somewhat akin to a hump-backed bridge! I last rode on the saloons in August and noticed, as previously, that one of them – I think it might be 29 – rode very badly compared with the other. Also in the depot I admired saloon car 1 (Milnes, Voss, 1913) which is the newest surviving car in the fleet and has been illuminated for Santa Specials etc.

Further rides were on car 43/Ian and 44/Una, during which I had the pleasure of riding alongside the driver on the long seat ahead of the bulkhead on the front platform. He had first worked for the horse tramway in 1976 – which incidentally had been the year of my first visit – when there were many more trams in service for the holiday visitors, and described it to me as ‘the best job in the world’. Later horse changes brought out Robert for car 43 and Douglas for 44. Then came the highlight of the day.

You have to get to know the horse tramway to find out how best to experience it. In 2013 I belatedly discovered that the one surviving double-deck horse tram in the fleet, no 18, often did a single round trip just after lunch. This was the first indication I had had that this tram was ever used, and attempts to catch up with it in August this year yielded success! That only served to whet the appetite, of course, especially as this represented the kind of tram that would have been seen in my own town of Preston, like so many others, in the pre-electric era. Around 1.50 pm, no 18 was drawn out by a combination of horse (Phillip) and person power, and soon was filled with a substantial load. This is the oldest tram in the fleet, having been obtained from South Shields in 1887 but according to Keith Pearson’s book of 1999 is thought to have been built originally for an unsuccessful Ramsgate-Margate line, seemingly around 1882/83, and possibly by the Falcon works of Loughborough, later Brush. Between 1904 and 1988 no 18 operated in rebuilt form as a single-decker, but was restored to its double-deck glory, in maroon livery, for the 1989 season.

I rode in the wood panelled lower saloon on this occasion, and the driver was Debbie with Mr Crellin, the Tramways Superintendent as conductor. This was, of course, a heavier car than the ‘trammers’ usually haul, and Debbie handled the journey with a mix of sensitivity and skill, especially as a motor event elsewhere in the area caused substantial traffic congestion along the promenade at times blocking the passage of the tramcar along its route. Her aim was clearly to avoid having to stop the tram unduly, because re-starting is the part that requires greatest effort from the horse, and she judged distances and clearances very closely, often slowing the tram down with the brass handbrake handle to a very slow rolling pace but actually stopping on the minimum of occasions other than when passengers wished to board at stops.

I rode ‘outside’ on the classic knifeboard seat on the return journey, as this remarkable superimposition of everyday 19th and 21st century everyday sights made its curious way along the Promenade, often engendering waves from passers by, a sure sign of the presence of warmth and feelgood factor in the air. At Derby Castle I took a risk, as it was nearly time to catch my seacat back to Liverpool at 3.45 pm and I had not realised that no 18’s second run was to be as an extra car (highly unusual in the present era at Douglas), so no 44 went out as the 3.00 departure while Philip was given a longer break than usual between runs and a bit of food. However it was not long before we were on our way and the heavy traffic meant that we came close to catching no 44 up, resulting in two horse cars almost following each other along the promenade which I don’t think I had experienced since my first visit in 1976!

I sat on the knifeboard seat facing outwards towards the sea. The sun had come out and the waves of the tide were steadily rolling in to the promenade railings with that balmy clear green-blue sea which is such a characteristic of the Isle of Man. With the gentle clip-clop (and an occasional neighing!) from Phillip, and driver Debbie again displaying her sensitive skill at handling her unique load, you could have thought all was well with the world. I suddenly felt that, after around 30 visits to the Isle of Man over some 38 years, I had finally found the true spirit of the unique horse tramway, and more than that, of Douglas itself, with which it is inextricably associated. I could have believed that all was well with the world.

All too soon, we had slowed down to a saunter to allow car 44 to turn at the Sea Terminal without our car having to stop, and then we passed 44 outward bound and it was our turn. Car 18 stopped and I followed the crowd and stepped down. As I made my way into the Sea Terminal, I glimpsed the maroon double-decker starting over the crossover on its way back to Derby Castle – the last horse tram I would see of a long and glorious era. And what a note on which to end! There was no paddle steamer to transport me back to the mainland as there would have been when no 18 was new (for me, that was to come in the south of England three days later!), but a 21st century seacat, but the whole mad journey to experience the horse tramway one final time had been worthwhile.

I have seen photographs of the following day when the stables were opened to the public to meet the ‘trammers’ and their staff. I understand there was even a Manx Electric style ‘parallel run’ along the Promenade which looks as if it may have featured cars 18 and 44. I believe car 12 did operate. Car 18 made the last run, at 5.20 pm, driven by the Lord Mayor of Douglas and pulled by ‘trammer’ Mark, a delightful horse who may be the senior member of the stud; from what I have been told I think he may be about 28 years old which shows how well the horses are looked after. In my experience Mark generally seemed to work the last tram of the day. We will miss him.

I could not put in a short article what I think about the Douglas horse tramway. Heritage is hardly the word for it, as it was real and not a recreated museum. I would have liked to have seen it designated a World Heritage Site. As a tramway enthusiast, I think it was far more than a vintage tramride, it was an experience. In my view, it was sometimes, or even often, underrated by many tramway enthusiasts, but if you got to know it, its unique atmosphere came to captivate you. A unique combination of man, beast and comparatively primitive mode of transport. An operation in which the high-pressured work environments we have all come to know meant nothing, because it was all about humans and horses working in collaboration, which meant consideration, compassion and a reassuring steady routine. It was a joy to see Debbie giving the horses an occasional treat between trips, and passengers and admirers patting and stroking the horses. At times a spirit of partnership and affection between the horses and their crews was palpable, as the horse was walked from one end of the tram to another at the terminus, with the ever present rustic red wooden stool of goodness knows what vintage being carried on to the driver’s platform by the conductor, and then horse and crew enjoyed a few restful moments before commencing yet another journey. I had the impression that the consideration and compassion engendered by a love and appreciation of animals on whom one’s livelihood depended, seemed to pervade the human side of the operation as well. Before I encountered the tramway I knew nothing about horses, but now I appreciate them and am fascinated by how a tram service can be provided with working horses, both in the past and present.

Sadly there still seems to be a measure of uncertainty about the future and I hope that when the horse trams return as much as possible of this internationally unique and exceptional line will survive. Meanwhile, to say that the Isle of Man will be much the poorer for its absence is an understatement. I would like to pay tribute to everyone who has been involved with running this wonderful and amazing tramway, and I can only hope we will see them and the horses themselves back ‘in harness’ very soon.

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8 Responses to Douglas Horse Tramway closes until 2016

  1. A. D. Young says:

    The heretic in me says why not go the whole hog and electrify the thing so that Manx Electric can run through to the Sea Terminal in between horse cars?

    The lunatic (or visionary-there’s not always much to choose between them) says a further projection of the electrified tramway from the Sea Terminal to the bus and the train station wouldn’t be such a bad thing, perhaps with a handful of used modern cars to hold down service in winter.

    Are the light rail cars used on Lisbon route 15 life-expired yet?

    Dream on…

  2. Nigel Pennick says:

    It is clear that whatever happens now the original horse-drawn street tramway is finished. It is remarkable that it survived not only the whole of the twentieth century but into the twenty-first. If it ever re-opens, its function will be reduced to a museum operation.

  3. Ken Walker says:

    By moving it to seaward it will be in a traffic-free environment, so from that perspective you could say it is being restored to its 1876 condition. If I remember rightly the tramway started off as single line with passing places anyway. The only logical alternative would have been to close the promenade to all other traffic as the behaviour of many modern day motorists leaves a lot to be desired. I’m more concerned about the claims that the council are planning to turn the road into a mini-motorway, and the implications for bus services and pedestrians, and which might make access to the tramway from seafront hotels difficult. Also whether the tramway will have to be closed in rough weather due to its proximity to the sea.

  4. John Gilbert says:

    I just think it is wrong to shift the horse tramway. Why should this tramway have to make way for unruly or at least sloppy motorists who should be penalised to within an inch of their licences – or they should lose them. Do that and the word will soon spread around that the horse tramway is not to be trifled with!
    I do think that there is mileage in wiring the promenade tramway so that Manx Electric Railway cars can run through.

    • Ken Walker says:

      Setting the promenade line up as an extension to the MER would provide an excuse for the end of the horse trams and is totally unnecessary.

      • Geoff, Isle of Man says:

        Sorry, Ken, I disagree with you on both counts. There is no reason why a way can not be found for both horse trams and MER cars to share the same track, although this will be a little more difficult once the line has been ‘singled’.
        I have always lamented that the MER line terminates at Derby Castle, rather than the Sea Terminal (as it would have done if the IoMT&EPCo had not collapsed), and its extension would greatly increase the MER’s visibility and viability, especially to visitors. Sadly, 21st century people are not accustomed to walking or changing transport modes: they want a ‘through run’ on a single vehicle.

        • Ken Walker says:

          I didn’t say the two couldn’t be combined; I said that extending the MER could/would be used as an excuse to do away with the horse trams.

  5. Ken Walker says:

    According to Isle of Man News today ( the promenade scheme has been put on hold and is being put out for public consultation, and no work will now take place until April 2015. According to the news item it may be possible to run the horse trams next year after all. The Douglas Bay Horse Tramway Facebook page has a link to a tv interview with a government minister

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