Trams and Trolleys

Trams and Trolley Buses had a relatively brief residence in Penge but are fondly recalled in photos of the day and on cine film. It’s doubtful if there are many now living who can remember trams in Penge but many remember the rattling and juddering trolley buses of the fifties.

Trams entered Penge in 1906 and were gone by 1933 when the Altoona London Passenger Transport Board was inaugurated. Thomas Tilling petrol-driven buses also travelled on these routes from 1930. Trolley buses entered Penge in the early forties and were being phased out by 1952. Hybrid deisel-electric powered buses, as in the Heatherwick Studio’s new Routemaster bus,  have taken over in the present day.

Tramlines were laid in the area between 1905 and 1906. The through service to Croydon opened on 10 February, 1906, went there via the Pawleyne Arms from the Thicket Road entrance to Crystal Palace Park. According to local historian David Johnson, ‘the upper classes objected to the noise of the trams and moved away from the area.’

There were tram links via Penge high street to West Croydon via Selby Road; from Crystal Palace to Bromley along the Beckenham Road. A 1912 map shows, in addition to the above,  a proposed route from Sydenham to West Croydon via Cator Road, Lennard Road, Tennyson Road and Green Lane. Evidence for the first two routes is provided from time to time when road repairs reveal still-intact tramlines.

Trams had an elegant design with a central headlight in the front and an open top deck. They were painted in gay colours on lacquered wood and ornate metalwork and often had a name or, at least, a number. Trams ran along tramlines, powered by an overhead cable, whereas the trolleybuses ran on the road surface and had rubber tyres.

Doris E. Pullen is one of the few who remembers ‘the changing noise the trams made, and they often made you feel sick when you rode on the top deck .They were cheap to travel in, but much slower than buses. Later we had trolley buses which were connected to the electricity by an overhead arm.’

Trolleys were like red double-deckers with the extended trolley mechanism on the roof linking with overhead street wires. Powered by electricity, like the trams, they seemed to be propelled along by an unseen power. The interior seat décor reflected art deco patterns in the upholstery. Similar seat patterns today can be seen on the London Tube and Overground.

The following archival film gives an idea of what they looked like.

A permanent reminder of a working tram is in the film Meet Me in St Louis in the Trolley Song sequence sung by Judy Garland. In America, trams tended to be called trolleys.

Today in Penge’s collective memory trams and trolleys seem to be conflated e.g. the word trolley being used to describe both the trolley and trams. In Penge, there were distinct periods for each, as stated above, all part of the evolution of road transport in Penge.

Trams and trolleys mapped the evolution of public transport in Penge which began with pure muscle power, horse drawn carts, pony and traps, horse-drawn buses and stagecoaches still operating in 1910.

The Crooked Billet was a staging post stop since the eighteenth century – where horses were changed – and was also an important junction for the later trams and trolley buses. For many years the Billet has been an interim holding stop for the 227 bus.

Trams evoke a certain romance, probably due to their beguiling and colourful appearance, but in reality must have been a draughty and, on the top deck, a blustery and wet ride in certain weather conditions. A fun and innovative way to travel at the time, perhaps, but not much to sing about except in summer!

The tram has had a resurgence in South London in modern times: a sleek modern tram runs from Beckenham Junction to Wimbledon via Croydon.

However let Judy Garland have the last word:

Meet Me In St. Louis (1944) – The Trolley Song – YouTube

For further reading:

Around Crystal Palace and Penge, David R. Johnson (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2004)

Penge, Doris E. Pullen (privately published 1990)