Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Early Years of Electric Trams

Far be it for me to belittle the contribution made by the horse drawn tram in the movement of residents within the town of 15,000 people, but they had severe limitations given the topography of the town. It was mere wishful thinking that this conveyance could ever service the hill area.

Progress was swift. In 1881, horse drawn trams were introduced and sixteen years later in 1897, electric trams made their appearance and by 1913 buses had been introduced, albeit initially for excursions. The latter two services progressed in tandem until the flexibility of bus routes without the need for tracks, predetermined that the bus would ultimately prevail.

Main picture: The scene at Market Square on 16th June 1897 when the electric tram system was officially opened

Tramways Act

Too much bureaucracy, some would argue, inhibits the rate of progress. The stark reality is that it is a necessary evil, it just depends upon the level of red tape that is required. In the case of an electric tram system, the Municipality required an Act of Parliament to proceed with this process. In due course, the Municipal Tramways Act No. 25 of 1895 was passed and became law. In terms of this Act, the Municipality was authorised to construct and operate an electric tramway or alternatively to lease their rights to a third party. Moreover, the Act took into consideration the fact that the P.E. Tramway Company already had a tramway operation albeit operated by horses. In order to compensate the owners for the loss of their business, the Municipality was obligated to pay them £20 000.

Brill California Car No. 13 at Langford Lodge

The municipality subsequently entered into an agreement with Henry Butters, sub-letting their rights to them. They despatched Rommel, an engineer from Cape Town, to supervise the installation of the new tramway. In October 1895, Butters ceded his rights to Messrs Wernher, Beit and Company of London, who were also financing the Cape Town tramways at the time. On 19th May 1896, the Port Elizabeth Electric Tramway Company Limited was officially registered.

Establishing the initial infrastructure

At the time of the opening, tracks had been laid from the foot of Walmer Road as far as the North End park. In addition, there were two lines up the hill, one in Russel Road and the other in White’s / Western Road. These lines converged and then continued along Cape Road with the terminus at the end of the municipal land.

First Leyland charabanc acquired in 1913

The electric tramway was officially opened by the mayor on Wednesday 16th June 1897 by driving the tram from Market Square to the North End park. An illuminated tram paraded through the streets much to the delight of the crowds as most were seeing electric lights for the very first time. The initial order of trams from JC Brill Company of Philadelphia was for 10 units. To house these vehicles overnight and to provide workshops and stores, a new depot building was constructed at the Baakens Bridge.

Trams were decorated for special occasions. Here Lord Baden-Powell is at the controls at the Valley Road sheds

In order to supply the electricity to power these trams, a power station had to be erected as well. It comprised two Bellis and Morcom triple expansion vertical steam engines of 560 kW, direct coupled to two 550V, 500 kW generators running at 300 r/min. A subsidiary shed and yard was situated at North End which was actually the old horse tram depot which had been suitably refurbished.

1908 Baakens Flood showing the famous mule which saved itself by scrambling on to the roof of a shed


Not surprisingly, the tram was a resounding success with the service conveying 2.2 million passengers during 1898. This permitted the P.E. Tramways Company to make several extensions to the various routes over the next few years. The North End route, 3.9 kms in length, was extended by .8 km to the Show Grounds. The rapid development of South End necessitated the extension of the line up Walmer Road as far as the Municipality boundary with Walmer, 2.5kms from Market Square as well as a line to Humewood, a distance of 2.9kms. The Cape Road route was extended twice, first as far as the Golf Club and later to the Fairview Racecourse, a total distance of 5.1km from Market Square.

1908 Flood – The Tram Buildings on the right of the bridge


Being situated in the flood plain of the Baakens River, it had always been an unwise move to locate the tram sheds there. Monday 16th November 1908 would be a day of high drama for the company. As the river came down in flood, the river burst its banks inundating the depot and immobilising the city’s transport system. To commemorate the flood, a brass plaque was attached to a wall indicating that the flood waters reached two metres above floor level. With a sense of relief, the flood was of short duration, nevertheless extensive damage had by then been inflicted.

Extension of the tram line to Humewood

Expansion continued apace. By 1911, the fleet of trams had surged from ten to thirty, of which nine were double-deckers. This trebling of the fleet was engendered by the population increase to 32,000 resulting in 3.25 million passengers being conveyed.

The “Black-Maria” Tram

Prior to WW1 a “Black-Maria” tram was in use in Port Elizabeth. It was a single-decker, about 25 feet long, painted black with no side windows. A small window in the front and rear doors provided the only light by which an armed constable, on the rear platform, could keep an eye on the passengers inside.

On a daily basis, the tram conveyed prisoners from the jail at the foot of Mount Road to the Baakens Police Station. It was towed by a single decker tramcar as far as foot of Military Road, From there the prisoners were marched up to the Police Station in Baakens Street. In the late afternoon, they were conveyed back to jail in the same “Black-Maria”

Sometime after the war, the “Black-Maria” disappeared. As it was a small tramcar, it is possible that it was a survivor of the horse-drawn trams of earlier days.

The nemesis of the tram arrives

By and large, the importing of the first motor bus was not considered a threat to their existing tram business. The pair of Leyland charabancs were acquired in 1913 to provide excursion trips and not as a replacement of the tram. Shortly afterwards, four large bogie double-deckers were purchased, also for private hire. They all came in handy during the Great War. The resulting shortages arising during the war increased operating costs per mile from 11s 1d in 1913 to 18s 4d in 1922, a staggering increase for those times.

Tram in Walmer Road circa 1910

Industrial Action

Peace broke out in the world on Monday 11th November 1918 when the armistice ending the Great War took effect. A new period of amity, harmony and prosperity beckoned. This era was to be short lived for the P.E. Tramways Company.  Commencing on Saturday 19th July 1919, the Tramway sheds were mute with none of the normal sound of trams and buses. None of the drivers and conductors had reported for work that day. They had lodged a dispute over wages with management of the company. Intransigence negated all efforts at the strike’s resolution. It was to take 19 days before higher wage rates, based upon a guaranteed week of forty-eight hours, was implemented. Worse was to come, for it was ultimately the passenger who bore the brunt of that increase as fares were raised from 3d, which was the tariff for a third of all passengers, to 4d.

The post war depression was felt by Port Elizabeth too. The use of the two Leyland charabancs which were hired out for excursions, declined. Being underutilised they were transferred to Cape Town as there was buoyant demand.

Trams were decorated for special occasions. Here Lord Baden-Powell is at the controls at the Valley Road sheds

Conversely, the attendance at horse racing was surging as betting was one method by which people were deluded into believing that they could earn some extra money. To assist these punters, the Turf Club entered into an agreement with the Tramway Company whereby they would pay them 10% of the gate money if the tram line was extended by 1.5 kms to a point near the Fairview Racecourse.

The extension to the line was officially opened on the 28th July 1920. It must have been a Wednesday’s Child for, despite the fares collected and the percentage of the gate money, this line seldom made a profit. 

Brill California Car No. 13 & the arrival of the 1st Battalion, Welsh Regiment

Pirate buses

At this juncture, the era of the pirate motor bus made its appearance. The P.E. Tramways Company did not operate their buses on regular routes at this stage, but rather hired them out for private use. The arrival of these pirate buses coincided with the depression. During this period in Port Elizabeth’s development, it was not industrialised but depended largely upon the wool, mohair and feather markets. Moreover, unemployment was exacerbated by migration from the platteland.

Senior Tramways staff in 1910 L-R James Laing, Secretary, JA Barkley GM, R Hutchinson, Works Superintendent

To make matters worse, the company had not expanded the network into the growing areas in the north towards Korsten. Furthermore, the tram fleet was no longer in prime condition. This was in the process of being addressed by acquiring two new Brill bogie double deckers in 1922 while two other large double-deckers were re-motored to increase their speed. As well in 1922, a renovation program was instituted to bring all the trams into first-class condition once again.

Tram in Main Street

Into this milieu during 1923, the first of the pirate buses came into operation. These buses primarily targeted the Humewood and North End routes using mainly small 18 to 20 seaters built on Reo, Studebaker and other light truck chassis. One of the factors which influenced the public to support the pirate buses was that on most routes, the pirate buses catered only for white passengers. On the Humewood run, tram passengers dropped by 33%, and overall the tramway company lost 16% of its passengers, virtually overnight.

Brill Double Decker No. 3


Port Elizabeth TramwaysA Short History of Port Elizabeth’s Road Passenger Transport Services by Graham Shield (1979, E.H. Walton & Co, Port Elizabeth)

Looking Back, Vol XI No 2 (June 1971) page 56

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