History of Norwich Electric Tramways

Photo taken 1934 by George Plunkett


The Norwich Electric Tramways Company operated an electric tramway system (and later on, bus services) in Norwich between July 1900 and December 1930.

The service came about as a replacement for an earlier horse-drawn carriage service and was relatively success in its brief life.

Though, the negative effects from World War 1 would see the company unable to raise enough funds to expand to cover a city that was growing outwards, even though they could still fund the replacement of worn-out trams and to re-new the existing tramway tracks.

The company would throughout the 1920s and 1930s start replacing tram services with busses, ultimately being acquired by Eastern Counties in 1933 who would close what remained of the tramway network by the end of 1935.

Before the Tramways Opened (1879 to 1900)

A Horse-drawn carriage
Men getting on board a horse-drawn carriage. Not from Norwich, as there are no such images from the city.
(Painting digitised by Paul K)
23rd June 1879 - Norwich was a latecomer for local public transport. It would not be until twenty-two years after the railways came to the city until the first public transport system opened in Norwich, a horse-drawn omnibus service [1].

Though, horse-drawn carriages had their fair share of issues caused by horses pooping, peeing and dying on the streets. Famously, in 1894, it was predicted in The Times Newspaper that in fifty-years the streets of London would be buried under a nine-foot (2.75m) layer of manure. Those issues arising from working horses would affect all major cities and would spur the push towards electric powered transport [

19th January 1897 to 14th June 1898 - During the early part of 1897, two different proposals to replace the horse-drawn omnibus service were presented to the Town Council.

A proposal from the "British Electric Traction Company " to construct a light railway was put up against a proposal from "New General Traction Company" who wanted to build an electric tramway

The residents of Norwich showed their support for the tramway proposal over the light railway one with 23,500 of them signing a petition to the council to support that proposal.

A position that would also be backed by the councils "Parliamentary and By-laws Committee".

That on the 23rd April 1897 led to the council adopting the motion to bring the electric tramway to parliament for approval [

The resulting law which would create the local operating company (Norwich Electric Tramways company) and approve construction would be passed on the 14th June 1898 [

Construction and opening of the tramway

Unsurfaced road with tram-tracks laid.
Tram tracks being laid on a road in Norwich, circa 1900.
(Photo digitised by mira66)

22nd June 1898 - Construction on the tramway would begin just eight days after they approved the proposal in parliament (and before some amendments to the law were even passed). But before the tramways could be constructed, changes had to made to the medieval layout of the street in Norwich.

These layout changes meant many street had to be dug-up and buildings altered and demolished at a cost of £250,000 (£3.285m in 2020 prices), half of which was covered by the local council for the right to purchase the tramways after thirty-five years [
5] [6].

One of the buildings that would be demolished to make way for the tramway was an eighteenth-century pub named "The Three Pigeons". Which had already been marked for demolition since 1891 to allow for "public improvement" [

November 15th 1899 to 19th April 1900 - Over the months following construction on the tramway would continue. The Norwich Omnibus company who ran the horse-drawn carriage service ceased operations in November 1899, leaving Norwich without public transport until the tramways opened. The first trial of the new tramways would take place on the 19th April 1900 [8].

30th July 1900 - Crowds gathered to witness the opening of the new electric tramway, or at least the line completed at this point [12].

At the time, the fleet of the tramway comprised forty open-top trams, each with a passenger capacity of 52 people (26 pear deck). These trams were powered each by two twenty-five horsepower Westinghouse '46' motors [

The tramways got off to a very successful start with fifty-thousand passengers using the service within the first two months of operations.

By the end of 1901, the tramway network had expanded to around fifteen miles with eleven different lines that provided transport people from the outer areas of Norwich to the city centre itself (With the lines radiating from the main terminus at Orford Place) [

Downfall and closure of Norwich Electric Tramways (early 1915 to 1935)

1914 to 1918 - Before the first World War, extensions had been planned for the tramways to serve a population that was moving increasingly to the fringes of Norwich. However, that previously mentioned war and its effects would see that this extension never happened.

When time for expansion came in 1915, the operators of the tramway instead decided on a much cheaper option. The motor "petrol-powered" omnibus, a service that could be started at a fraction of the cost of an electric tramway line as no new infrastructure was needed.

The motor omnibus service would prove not to be successful and would close just three years later in 1918.

Later that same year, the war-effort would see disused tramway track along King Street being dismantled to build a light railway into Mousehold to provide a transport connection for the Mousehold Aerodrome and armaments factory [
6] [10].

1918 to 1923 - The years following the first world war would prove challenging for Norwich Electric Tramways. There were many factors working against the tramways at the time;

• Extremely high inflation that totalled 258% between 1914 and 1920 that was followed by years of deflation.

• High Unemployment rate of 17% by 1919 (from a pre-war 4%) an unemployment rate that didn't return to normal until 1940, that affected the poorest who used public transport.

• Over 700,000 British men being killed in the first world war, leading to a skilled labour shortage [

In 1919, the final expansion of the tramways would be constructed with a line between Orford Place and Thorpe St Andrew. This replaced the previously disused connection between Norwich and Thorpe that was dismantled for the light railway to Mousehold. A max length of 15.16 miles (stated as 17.5 miles in the EDP, but that might also include the light railway line to Mousehold).

1920 to 1930 - In 1923, the Norwich Electric Tramways were able to raise enough money from operating profits to "re-new" its tracks and replace many of its worn-out trams with brand new replacements built by the English Electric Co. Though this would not bring any new life into the tramways, which would soon go into rapid decline.

By 1924, Two more routes (Chapel Field Road and Heigham Road) and all bypass access-only routes would close.
Norwich Tramway Route 1924.
Map of Norwich tramway routes in 1924. Drawn by George Plunkett.

In 1925, Norwich would see the reintroduction of the motor "petrol-powered" omnibus service. This would directly lead to the closure of the Aylsham Road on the 19th April that year [

Throughout the rest of the 1920s, an unknown amount of other tramway routes were amended, with the electric motors cars substituted for petrol-powered buses [

1930 to 1932 - In 1930, the council (by this time referred to as the "Norwich Corporation") received a report that would signal the end of the tramways.

This report put forward the suggestion that the tramways should be acquired by the council who should then replace the service completely with a bus service as they saw the tramways as causing congestion on the street of Norwich.

1932 would be a year of uncertainty for the Norwich Electric Tramway Company. While the company was still making new investments as it purchased six new petrol-powered double-decker buses. That same year would mark thirty-five from when the first agreement under the local tramway act between the council and the tramway company.

This is important as part of the agreement to share road improvement costs, the council could acquire the tramways for a much reduced cost (value of undertaking and the tramways' half of the original road improvement costs), rather than full value of all the companies' assets.

On the 30th November 1932, a bill was put forward to the council that would the authority the permission to acquire the undertakings of the Norwich Electric Tramway Company (Trams, Buses and the tram network itself) and allow the borrowing required for the purchase and to dismantle the lines and convert to a all bus service.

A public meeting was held at St Andrews Hall for members of the public to vote on the proposal. Those attendees voted down the proposal (275 in support, 314 against) [

The Silver Jubilee tramway shelter and timekeeper’s office.
The Silver Jubilee tramway shelter and timekeeper’s office. Built 1925 at Orford Place for a cost of £650 (£40,400 in 2020 prices).
(Photo taken by George Plunkett in 1935)

January to December 1933 - The council had sought to purchase the undertakings for £175,000 (£12.8m in 2020 prices) and after hoped the service would produce a yearly profit of £35,000 (£2.56m in 2020 prices) if the service was completely converted over to motor buses.

Towards the end of 1932, the debate surrounding the planned purchase of the tramways undertakings would become more heated with people writing into newspapers with letter in both support and rejection of the purchase.

Opposition built up around the fact that this purchase would make local rate-payers (modern term: council-tax payer) responsible for the costs of dismantling the tramway network and conversion to buses.

The opposition claimed that if the public voted against the purchase, that either the Norwich Electric Tramway company would have to pay for this or a bus company would acquire the tramways and pay for the works in order to run their own busses on the old tramway routes.

The public vote on the proposal took place on the 10th January 1933. The public decided that the purchase should not go ahead (7,775 votes for the purchase vs. 11,033 against), mainly owing to ratepayers not wanting to pay for the dismantling of the tramways [

December 1933 to December 1935 - By the 1st December 1933, the Eastern Counties Omnibus Company had acquired a controlling stake of the tramway company.

In February 1934, the chairman of Eastern Counties made a statement to a local newspaper that the company intended to take trams off the street of the city with a "minimum of delay". The company then preceded over the next 22 months to close all the remaining tram-lines in Norwich [
Road with tramway track partially dismantiled. Partially dismantled tramway track. City Road, Norwich. (Photo taken 1934 by George Plunkett)

The 11th December 1935 would mark the last day of the tramways in Norwich with a crowd of 500 people gathered at Orford Place to witness the last tram leave for Cavalry Barracks (Mousehold extension) at 11:10pm. A journey packed with people who were glad the service was ending and just wanted to experience the last journey [
12] [16].

After this day, the Norwich Electric Tramways were no more.

Some might try to blame the Eastern Counties Omnibus Company for the demise of the system, but every party wanted the tramways gone and the alternatives would have not saved the network.


[1] Unthank, Reggie. 'Entertainment Victorian Style'. COLONEL UNTHANK'S NORWICH (blog), 1 December 2016.

[2] Johnson, Ben. 'The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894'. Historic UK. Accessed 23 February 2021.

[3] '1897 Norfolk Chronicle Newspaper Selections', 1897.

[4] 'NORWICH ELECTRIC TRAMWAYS BILL. (Hansard, 14 June 1898)', 14 June 1898.

[5] Norfolk Now. A Brief History of Electric Trams in Norwich, 2017.

[6] Birch, Ashley. 'Norwich Electric Tramways Uniform'. British Tramway Company Uniforms and Insignia. Accessed 24 February 2021.

[7] Bristow, Richard. 'THREE PIGEONS - St GREGORY - NORWICH'. NORFOLK PUBLIC HOUSES ....... a listing. Accessed 25 February 2021.

[8] '1899 Norfolk Chronicle Newspaper Selections', 1899.

[9] Prentice, John R. 'Norwich Car 35, Prince of Wales Road', 2000.

[10] Weston, Chris. 'When Trams Ruled the Streets of Norwich'. Eastern Daily Press, 24 January 2017.

[12] Plunkett, George. 'Norwich Electric Tramway'. Accessed 1 March 2021.

[13] Everett, C.G.G. The Story of Eastern Counties Omnibus Co. Ltd. 1939-1970, 1970.

[14] Everett, C.G.G. The Story of Eastern Counties Omnibus Co. Ltd. 1939-1970, 1970.

[15] Everett, C.G.G. The Story of Eastern Counties Omnibus Co. Ltd. 1939-1970, 1970.