Hooves and iron: Melbourne’s horse trams

Melbourne’s trams were not only powered by cable and electricity. In the first four decades of tramway operation, seven horse tram routes were operated by a number of different organisations.

The advantage of a horse tram over a horse omnibus is its much smoother ride, together with the ability to haul much greater loads, due to the lower rolling resistance of iron wheel on steel rail as compared to rough road surfaces. However, horse trams were not ideal, as the horses left an unwelcome trail of manure and urine in their wake. This aspect of horses contributed to the distinctive odour of ‘Smellbourne’, as an un-sewered Marvellous Melbourne was known to Sydneysiders at the time.

This was one of the reasons why Melbourne embraced cable trams rather than horse trams. However, horse trams would still have their place in the golden city of the South.

Supporting the land boom

Many of the horse tram routes were established in order to support the interests of the land speculators in the 1880s. Horse trams proved ideal for these purposes, as they were characterised by low capital costs that proved very attractive to unscrupulous operators.

These routes were based on very shaky economics, and were notable for either early closure or by intermittent operation, due to the high operating costs of horse haulage. Unlike steam engines, horses had to continue being fed even when they were not earning revenue. In fact, MTOC figures show that operating costs of horse trams were 54% higher per car mile than cable trams.

The first of these routes, and indeed the first tramline of any type to open in Melbourne, conveyed passengers northwards from Fairfield railway station from 20 December 1884, to a real estate development in Thornbury known as Fairfield Park. This line was closed by 1890, leaving those who were foolish enough to purchase in this area totally without public transport.

Another similar company, the Beaumaris Tramway Company commenced operations in 1887 between Sandringham and Cheltenham railway stations, and managed to survive until 1914. The Caulfield Tramway Company operated its services between Elsternwick and Glenhuntly railway stations from 1889 until shortly after the turn of the century – albeit with some breaks in service due to lack of finance.

The Penny Struggle

In early 1889 the Northern Tramway Company opened a single-track horse tramline along Sydney Road from the Brunswick cable tram terminus at Moreland road to Gaffney Street Coburg. The line was duplicated in 1891, the original four ‘six window’ single deck cars being supplemented with two ‘five window’ cars purchased from MTOC.

Horse tram in Sydney Road, Coburg, in front of St Paul's Church. Photograph Coburg Historical SocietyHorse tram in Sydney Road Coburg, in front of St Paul’s Church.
Photograph courtesy Coburg Historical Society.

This was another tram company to fall under the shadow of the 1890s depression, becoming locally known as the ‘Penny Struggle’. It was placed into voluntary liquidation in 1894, when the former manager of the company, William Ewins, undertook its operation. In October 1901 he sought a buyer for the tramway as a going concern, advertising it as having five tramcars and 24 horses. A ten-minute service was provided, carrying around 8,000 passengers per week.

Ewins was finally successful in selling the tramway in 1909 to Hubert Junker, who sold it on to Archibald Peers within only a few months. Finally, Coburg Council purchased the tramway in September 1911 for the sum of £2,100, spending a further £1,400 on rehabilitation. The council appointed Mr W.F. Skinner as the manager of the horse tramway.

On the formation of the Brunswick & Coburg Tramways Trust in 1914, the horse tramway was vested in the Trust, being sold outright to it twelve months later for £2,646. The line was closed on 5 December 1915 in preparation for the conversion to an electric tramway, which opened on 27 April 1916.

The Great Tram Robbery

During the planning of the Melbourne cable tram system MTOC took a very hard-headed approach towards the proposed routes. Extensive surveys were made of population density of municipalities, as well as reviews of patronage of its existing horse omnibus routes. This approach was taken due to the high capital cost of cable tramways, and a desire to ensure an adequate return on capital.

As a result, two of the proposed MTOC lines were planned as horse tramways – the Kew and Hawthorn lines. The first of these lines opened in 1887 from the Victoria Bridge cable tram terminus to Boorondara Cemetery in Kew. Due to the life expectancy of the time, particularly infant mortality rates, cemeteries were popular destinations and could demand consistent patronage of public transport.

MTOC horse tram outside depot at Hawthorn. Photograph Public Record Office Victoria.MTOC horse tram outside depot at the corner of Auburn and Riversdale Roads, circa 1910.
Photograph courtesy Public Record Office Victoria.

The second of the these lines ran from Hawthorn Bridge via Burwood Road, Power Street and Riversdale Road to Auburn Road, opening in 1890. Both of these lines were much more soundly financial than other Melbourne horse trams, and operated without incident, with one dramatic exception.

After midnight on the morning of 18 August 1901 the Hawthorn horse tram was held up by four masked men as it was proceeding east along Riversdale Road just after leaving Power Street. One of the men leapt on board and held a revolver to the cheek of the driver, Thomas Taylor, demanding that the tram be stopped.

Taylor complied, but pleaded with his assailant that he be allowed to apply the handbrake to prevent the car from rolling backwards and dragging the horses with it. He was allowed to do so, but was then thrown into the saloon to join the seven male passengers inside, together with a solicitor (Leslie Park) who was smoking on the end platform.

The urban bushrangers, all wearing slouch hats and tweed coats, demanded that the passengers and Taylor hand over their valuables. After assaulting one of the passengers (Charles H. Jones), they stole £2.10.0 in fares from Taylor and £21.19.0 in cash from the eight passengers, as well as a number of watches and watch chains.

They then disappeared into the night, leaving Taylor to drive the horse tram to the terminus at Auburn Road, where he reported the crime to Hawthorn police. The horse tram bandits were never captured. It was hypothesized in newspapers of the day that they were after a certain individual who regularly travelled on the line, and who was in the habit of carrying large amounts of cash.

This was to be the only dramatic incident to occur on either of these two tramlines.

The Kew line was purchased by Kew Council in 1914 as a major contribution to its role in the PMTT, which replaced it with an electric tramway in 1915. Similarly MTOC disposed of the Hawthorn line to the HTT, who closed it on 31 January 1916, replacing it with an electric tram six months later.

The Zoo Line

Prior to the opening of the Brunswick cable tramline, MTOC operated horse omnibuses along the same route. During weekends and holidays, diverting these omnibuses to the Melbourne Zoological Gardens in Royal Park generated much additional traffic.

As a result of this experience, the management of MTOC was eager to ensure that the Brunswick cable tramway benefited from the same traffic. However, the traffic did not justify the capital expense of a branch cable tramway.

Instead, it was decided to build a double track horse tramway from the intersection of Gatehouse Street and Royal Parade in Parkville adjoining the Brunswick cable tram route, to the main gates of the Zoological Gardens. This line extended through the park for a distance of one kilometre along level ground, describing an elongated ‘S’. The car shed and stables were adjacent to the Zoo entrance.

MTOC horse tram No 43. Photograph courtesy Coburg Historical SocietyMTOC horse tram No 43, Royal Park Zoo service, with driver Mr Richardson of West Brunswick.
Photograph courtesy Coburg Historical Society.

Unlike the cable tram system, this line was not paved with wood blocks, instead having a tarred macadam surface covered with loose road metal.

The line opened on 10 March 1890. Transfer tickets were available between the Brunswick cable line and the zoo line until this concession was withdrawn on 7 March 1921.

Like the other MTOC horse tram routes, no conductors were used on the Zoo line, instead the driver was responsible for collecting the fares as well as driving the two-horse teams hauling the cars. At each terminus, the driver would unhitch the horses, lead them from one end of the car to the other and hitch them up again.

The line opened with two open cross-bench cars numbered 252 and 253, originally built in 1889 for cable tram service on the St Kilda Esplanade line. However, they soon proved unpopular with the public, despite being tried on the Esplanade, High Street and Brighton Road routes. Therefore they were converted for use as horse cars on the Zoo line.

Weather protection was minimal, being provided by canvas curtains that could be drawn across the car entrances.

The Zoo line soon proved to be a success. As traffic on the Port Melbourne cable tram route was below expectations, cable saloon trailers 42 and 43 were modified for horse haulage and transferred for use on the Zoo line.

The Zoo line was the only horse tram route still in operation in Melbourne at the time of the formation of the M&MTB in 1919, and as such faced an uncertain future. Costs of horse haulage were rapidly increasing, so in the same year one of the saloon cars was fitted with a petrol engine. However, the experiment was not a success, and the Zoo line continued to operate in a state of limbo. But this was not to last – instead the line was to end in a blaze of publicity.

The Victoria Police strike of November 1923 occasioned much civil unrest, vandalism and looting in Melbourne, particularly to shops in the City. The Zoo horse tram depot and stables were also victims of the violence. They were burnt to the ground, destroying all four horse cars. Fortunately the horses all managed to escape injury.

This made it very easy for the M&MTB to close the Zoo line. The Zoo was not be serviced by trams again until the opening of the West Coburg line through Royal Park in 1925. The route of the horse tram may still be followed through the park along Macarthur Road and Marconi Crescent.


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