The Medway Towns have always stood on one of the main arteries of England. Many a visitor, whether in peace or in war, has landed on our shores and, from the Kentish coast, has made his way to London along the route which the Romans established as Watling Street. On foot, on horseback, by coach, by boat train – the have all come up through Canterbury, Chatham, Rochester and Strood.
Through transport has changed over the ages, but my main interest here is in local transport. If we roll back the centuries, we find Falstaff, and many other “foot-pads” way-laying honest travellers as they crossed over the crest of Gads Hill, half-way from Rochester to Gravesend. From Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”, we gather what a hazardous journey it was from London to Dover even at the end of the eighteenth century. Presumably, when Mr. Pickwick later came down to Rochester and stayed at the Bull Hotel, it was not quite so dangerous. But then, most events in “Pickwick Papers” paint life in lighter colours, and, apart from the Fleet Prison episode, avoid the grimmer side of things.
The horse remained the main motive power until well into the present century. However, the year 1902 introduced a new era in the Medway Towns, and sadly heralded the arrival of mechanical vehicles. For, in the year, the Chatham and District Light Railway Company was inaugurated. What an imposing title! Nothing, however, to do with the London, Chatham and Dover Railway or the South Eastern and Chatham Railway, which by now were the established means of travel between London and Dover. No, electric motive power had arrived, and the main streets of our local towns were ripped up for the laying of rails to carry the trams that, until 1930, were to be our main method of travel throughout the Medway Towns.
Today the tram, in Britain at any rate, is almost extinct and, to millions of people, not even a memory. Such things have disappeared so thick and fast in this country, and books and museums to recreate the vanished trams, and older models of buses and trains, have proliferated. In some ways this is all rather sad, for the modern electric tram is still very much a viable proposition in such countries as Holland and Germany, thanks to their customary efficiency with their rolling stock and their road systems.
It should be understood that our trams were far from luxury vehicles. Indeed, there could have been few anywhere in the country more uncomfortable. Springs were conspicuous by their absence and the slatted wooden seats gave no hint of the plush-seated buses of the future. Unlike the London trams, ours never had the refinement of a covered upper deck. A journey on top meant braving the elements. The seats up there were back-to-back, with movable tarpaulin sheets to cover them in wet weather. The power came from overhead wires along our streets. In the middle of the upper deck stood a central column, from which a swivelled arm reached up to the overhead wire. This was secured by a holding cable, with which, at the end of a journey, the driver or conductor could reverse the direction of the power-arm for the return journey. The end of the vehicle were each supplied with brass-handled driving controls, to allow for driving in either direction – and these, again unlike the London trams, had no glass or other protection, and were completely open to the elements. A tram-driver thus worked under Spartan conditions, in all weathers, with even less comfort than his passengers. However, at least we always had a conductor to take our fares and issue our tickets. There was none of the “pay-as-you-enter” business then!
Nearly fifty years ago, when the trams “bowed out”, many of the drivers were trained to drive the buses that followed. One driver who is still especially “live” in my memory was a tremendous character, in more ways than one. For he weighed 22 stone and was to fat that, according to local legend, he never did succeed in getting up the stairs to the upper deck. I wonder how many readers can remember his ruddy face and portly figure, standing at the controls and driving the swaying, clanking trams along the New Road towards Star Hill, all the time singing lustily?
Fares were (now) unbelievable. From Chatham Town Hall: 1d to Chatham Cemetery; 2d to Strood; 2d to Borstal; 4d to Rainham. And not for a short time this, as in these days, when fares seem to increase once or twice every year. These fares remained constant throughout half of my lifetime – certainly well on into the time of the buses. Incidentally, when the trams gave place to the brown and creams buses of the Chatham and District Traction Company (which in due course was taken over by the Maidstone and District) the buses were compelled, by stature, to follow the same fares and routes as the trams. The only modification was that certain routes had to be slightly extended at the terminus, notably at Borstal and Chatham Cemetery, to allow for the turn-around. This had been no problem for the trams, for the conductor and driver simply reversed the power arm, changed places and the trams crossed over to the other track for the return journey.
Road surface conditions in those days were not improved by the inclusion of tram lines – although to see finely surfaced streets carrying trams on later visits to Holland was quite a revelation. In many places cobbles went hand-in-hand with our rails, and, as a life-long pedal cyclist, I speak rather feelingly on this aspect of the trams. How many times I have found myself with my front wheel caught in a tram-line and unceremoniously thrown off! One afternoon, I was descending Star Hill, Rochester, on my way to school, when I was thrown off twice. On the second occasion, such was the impact that the front forks of my machine were broken. A particular hazard was the stretch of Watling Street known as Rainham Road, between the top of Chatham Hill and the junction of Canterbury Street. For here, the trams “hugged” the left, going east, and we had to try to steer our bicycle wheels along the foot width of cobbles and the first tram-line. No easy feat this. For the cyclist, the art of negotiating the tram-lines, if one wished to deviate left or right, was to attempt to cross them nearly as possible at right-angles. Once caught in the groove of a rail, there could be only one result…!
The only competition that the trams had in my boyhood was from the solid-tyred “boneshaker” buses of the Maidstone and District Motor Services – and from a small fleet of motor launches operating between Sun Pier, Chatham and Upnor beach. These had landed at Upnor Pier until its demolition – then, much more romantic for schoolboys – on portable mini-landing jetties on the pebbly beach of our local resort – “Upnor-on-the-mud” as we always knew it. For out day’s outing had but one objective – crab-fishing. We used primitive lines, baited with mussels, and usually returned home triumphant with buckets of water occupied by cramped, crawling crabs. These we transferred to a large galvanised iron bath standing in our back-yard. Here we fed them – probably on a most unsuitable diet – until they all died one by one. Then followed a “state funeral” as we buried the poor crabs, wrapped in shrouds of newspaper, in a mass grave the bottom of the garden.
And what, you may ask, has all this to do with local transport? Simply this – that sometimes, instead of launching out on the few extra pence charged by the motor-boats, we would take a tram to Frindsbury, then walk the remaining mile to Upnor. On one such occasion, we mounted to the upper deck of the returning tram at Frindsbury, and carefully put our buckets under our seat at the rear end of the trams Unfortunately, as it later proved, this was above the conductor’s platform, and, as we were passing Rochester Cathedral, an angry conductor appeared at the top of the stairs, demanding “who’s pouring water down onto my cap?” I then found that I had inadvertently kicked over my bucket and the water was trickling through the cracks in the floor. What happened to the crabs escapes me!
As time went on the original routes were slightly extended. The laying down of the new road of Priestfields, Rochester, enabled the line previously terminating at Delce Grange Farm to be extended into Borstal Village, much of it single track, with here and there (as a passing loop) a short distance expanding to double track. One feature was the stationing near certain line junctions of an employee to “throw” the points to ensure the next tram following the correct route from the junction. Many remember a boy who used to stand by the shops near the Luton Arches and would dash out into the road after the passing of each tram to perform this essential function. At least in the Medway Towns, the poor pedal-cyclist did not have to cope with six lines, as in Inner London. For here, after trams had arrived from the outer suburbs, the power-arm was disconnected from the overhead wire and tied down to the upper deck. A little trolley, rather like the power “shoe” of a Southern electric trains, was inserted under the tram. This aligned with a middle power rail, which ran from this point into Inner London – and provided an additional trap for the unwary cyclist!
Times change and, in September 1930, I – and many other excited schoolboys – ran down into the town to see the wonderful new brown and cream double-deck motor buses that were to take over. Before many years, the unnecessary comfort – for such short trips – of such refinements as plush seats (very unhygienic, these, anyway) – must all have contributed to the increase of fares which has never since ceased.
Now the wheel has turned full-circle. The ancient trams, about which, in their day, we probably grumbled a good deal, have now become museum-pieces, and they, and any literature and photos on the subject have become real “collector’s pieces”. For all our nostalgia, I wonder how we would react if we suddenly found ourselves wafted back into the era of the trams?