The thread about the last days of the old Edinburgh and Leith tramway network; how and why the system was deliberately run down at breakneck speed

On the 16th November 1956, (64 years ago, on this day when this was first written), at around 720PM, the last of the old electric trams in Edinburgh and Leith set off on their final journey.

Commemorative tickets from the last week of trams in Edinburgh, November 1956. © Edinburgh City Libraries
Commemorative tickets from the last week of trams in Edinburgh, November 1956. © Edinburgh City Libraries

Here is a colour photo of that car, taken at Shrubhill Works off Leith Walk.

A specially painted and illuminated car – no. 172 – had been touring the network for the previous week in an odd celebration of the future.

Edinburgh Tram No. 172 at Shrubhill (in 'Last Week'  white livery), 14th November, 1956 (the late P D Hancock's collection).
Specially painted no. 156 tram car, at Shrubhill Works. Embedded from the Flickr of Kenneth G. Williamson

Edinburgh, Leith and Musselburgh’s tramway networks had grown steadily since the first line in 1871. Right up until the outbreak of war in 1939, the Corporation was still planning for its expansion. However, after the war, the network had very quickly gone through a politically-motivated crash course in running down in the 3 years from 1953-56. The last service to run was no. 23, from the Braids to Shrubhill depot via. Morningside Station.

The rise and rise and fall of Edinburgh, Leith & Musselburgh’s tram networks

In the 3 years to 1956, Edinburgh’s tram network was cut back from 28 routes to just 2 after the Council’s decision in 1951 to abandon the trams. The peak year was 1948, when 330 cars worked from 5 depots. The system was deliberately run into the ground and shut down at the peak of its efficiency and popularity. Contrary to popular narrative, it wasn’t clapped out; maintenance during the war was good, new rolling stock had been built and 1948 was a record year for passengers.

Public Transport passengers on the Corporation/Council owned networks, 1920-2016

The Corporation shut down tram routes by “busification”; it had bought in large numbers of new buses, and they replaced the trams routes as they were withdrawn, running the same routes and numbers. Buses initially enjoyed a surge in use; but they were never as popular or convenient and people quickly abandoned them for personal cars. Despite the heroic efforts of Lothian Buses to run a quality bus service over the last 30 or so years since deregulation, they have never recovered their share of the market.

Over that short, 3-year run-down period, hundreds of trams were driven unceremoniously over the rails to Maybury to be hauled onto low loaders and taken by road to Connel’s in Coatbridge to be cut up.

Loading a tram onto a low loader for scrapping at Maybury. Still from a video in the NLS Moving Image Archive film, “Into the Mists”.

After the line to Corstorphine was lifted, cars were loaded in north Leith, and when that too was cut back they directly left the gates of Shrubhill depot on the lorry.

Leaving Shrubhill for the last time. Still from a video in the NLS Moving Image Archive film, “Into the Mists”.

In the ultimate indignity, the tram cars bodies were first set on fire to burn out the wooden components prior to salvaging the metalwork.

A sad sight, Edinburgh trams being scrapped at James N Connell's Scrap Yard in Coatbridge, date unknown.
Edinburgh trams being scrapped at James N Connell’s Scrap Yard in Coatbridge. Embedded from the Flickr of Kenneth G. Williamson

As soon as the services over a section of route were cancelled, the cutters came in to pull down the overhead wires for scrap. Shortly after they would come and lift the rails, or even just tarmac directly over them in some cases. One of the issues facing the tramway network was that it had the liability for repairs and maintenance of the carriageway on which the tram tracks were laid; this meant it not only had to do its own maintenance but was also facing a greater burden as a result of the increasing weight and volume of private motor vehicle traffic using the roads.

Lifting the rails on Portobello High Street. in 1956. © Edinburgh City Libraries
Lifting the rails on Portobello High Street. in 1956. © Edinburgh City Libraries

The trams very nearly got a temporary stay of execution due to the Suez Crisis (Glasgow did get a deferral in their run down for this reason), but the Council’s mind was set and not for changing. 16th November 1956 was to be the day. Here is a gloomily atmospheric photo of one of the last scheduled services on route 23, leaving Granton Square in the chilly murk of a cold November evening. The car looks bright and warm in contrast.

Edinburgh Tram No. 219 on Service 23 to Granton Road Station is seen at Morningside Road Station at 6.15pm on 16 November, 1956 (last day). (Hamish Stevenson collection).
No. 218 at Granton Square. Embedded from the Flickr of Kenneth G. Williamson

Special yellow ticket rolls were used in the final week with “LAST TRAM” printed on the back. The trams flew pennants from their current poles. Everyone and their dog took a final ride and requests were taken for invites on the last run.

Last run invite and Last Week commemorative ticket. Picture via Heart Radio

On the final day, a restored horse bus (not a horse tram) appeared, hauled by two horses from the St. Cuthbert’s Cooperative Association’s delivery stable. Special tours were given and the crew wore vintage uniform.

The Horse Bus. Still from a video in the NLS Moving Image Archive film, "Into the Mists".
The Horse Bus. Still from a video in the NLS Moving Image Archive film, “Into the Mists”.

By this time, services number 23 (Granton Square to Morningside via the Mound) and 28 (Newhaven to Braid Hills via Pilrig Street and Lothian Road) were all that remained, and ran as usual that day. People patronised them as usual, as if it was all a bad dream and they would wake up and get the tram again tomorrow as they always had done.

At 8 minutes past 6, an ominous figure appeared at Granton Road Station. It was a bus, running the first bus-replacement service 23. Trams continued to run as usual for the next hour and 21 minutes though. At 7:29PM the last service tram ran only as far as the Mound.

Driver James Kay and Conductor Andrew Birrell, pose with the last service tram before running its last service. © Edinburgh City Libraries

The remaining cars on the network and at Tollcross depot then turned out their lights and rolled their route and service numbers blinds to show a blank screen and headed quietly to Shrubhill depot for the last time. A pool of cars headed the other way to Braids terminus to start the special final runs. Ten cars made the run up to Braids, including that in the special “last week” livery. A further car, no. 217, left from Morningside Station “carrying town councillors and their invited guests“.

The Lord Provost Sir John Garnett Banks with some tramway drivers in their best and the microphones of the BBC infront of the commemorative white tram. Note the horse bus in the background. © Edinburgh City Libraries

Huge crowds lined the route, and people came from far and wide to the Mound to see the convoy go down the hill. Buses had to be diverted and the trams were halted as the crowds were managed. The horse bus lead the way, pulled by a pair of white horses. The BBC were present. A brief ceremony was conducted at the foot of the Mound, when the Lady Provost handed over specially inscribed control keys to the crew of tram 217 carrying the councillors. They then ran onto Shrubhill, unceremoniously ejected their passengers, and rolled on into the depot by Dryden Street.

The crowds are reported to have been well behaved and there was no surge of souvenir hunters, but many people put pennies down on the tracks in order that they were flattened by the last trams. The switch was pulled in Shrubhill at 9:40PM and the traction current was turned off for the last time. The Scotsman ran an evening editorial wondering if “electric traction might not return again in time“. And out into the night went the gangs of workmen, and pulled down the cables on Princes Street, dug up the boarding islands. Early the following morning they started loading the final cars onto the scrappies’ lorries. Only one, No., 35, would survive to be preserved. For many years it lived in a small transport museum at Shrubhill Depot, but has now passed on to the Crich Tramway Museum.

No. 35 at Crich Tramway. CC-by_SA 3.0 THTRail2013

So why was a popular, comprehensive and seemingly good quality system run down with quite such enthusiasm? There are a number of factors, a big one of which was money. The Ministry of Transport would not give or lend or allow the Corporation to borrow for required capital works. But another was will. Despite having cut his teeth on the Edinburgh trams, the General Manager W. M. Little had gone to St. Helens Corporation in 1941 – who had closed their tramway in 1936 and replaced it with a combination of diesel and electric trolley buses. He returned to Edinburgh in 1948, chomping at the bit of a bus-first future.

It was Little, the man in charge of the Corporation’s trams, who put forward a proposal in 1950 recommending that no further extension be considered and 25% of the route and services be replaced by buses. And Little had an ally in the form of Councillor George Learmonth Harkess, newly elected in 1949 to the Liberton ward for the “Progressives” (the small-c conservative, anti-Labour coalition who dominated Edinburgh politics into the 1970s.) Let’s be clear here that the Progressives were a municipal party and do not have a straight ancestral lineage with either the Conservatives (or Unionsts as they then were) or the Liberals who formed much of their core. It would be wrong and simplistic to lay the blame for the demise of the tramway at the foot of the current parties in that space.

Despite being a funeral director by trade Harkess found himself propelled into the chair of the Transport Convenor (or perhaps – it was appropriately?). Despite immense popular and press opposition, Harkess and Little between them conspired to carry the dominant Progressives with them and vote for scrapping. If one of the authoritative sources on the subject is to be believed, the tactics of the “antis” delved deep into “alternative facts” and steadfastly refusing to countenance any alternatives. There are certainly plenty of articles quoting Harkess and/or Little in the Edinburgh local papers at the time carrying a clear pro-bus, anti-tram rhetoric.

The Last Week tram. Still from a video in the NLS Moving Image Archive film, "Into the Mists".
The Last Week tram. Still from a video in the NLS Moving Image Archive film, “Into the Mists”.

In a 1952 local election, the councillor for Dalry stood on an anti-tram ticket and lost his seat. Harkess, his job done, had stepped down from the Transport committee by this time. His unfortunate successor lost his seat at the 1955 election. With the Ministry of Transport financially strangling the Corporation though, they didn’t realistically have an alternative. They simultaneously had fares capped at a below-cost level – so were running a loss – and were unable to borrow for capital funding. Once the initial round of cutbacks were completed, total closure was inevitable as every time it was cut back, the financial position would just get worse and not better. Any economies of scale were lost, and the remaining tram services found themselves competing against the Corporation’s own buses.

I will leave this with a link to a wonderful 10 min home movie called “Into the Mists”, a colour record of the final few days of the network, preserved by the National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive. You can watch it all for yourself and mull over a great public folly committed all those years ago.

Sardonic destination blind for Coatbridge. Still from a video in the NLS Moving Image Archive film, "Into the Mists".
Sardonic destination blind for Coatbridge. Still from a video in the NLS Moving Image Archive film, “Into the Mists”.

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