Southampton Corporation Transport 1898-1986

Horse-drawn transport first made its appearance in Southampton at the commencement of the 1800’s, when horse-drawn omnibuses were introduced.

By the time the Southampton Street Tramways Act of 1877 authorised the construction of the first tramway in the town, horse-drawn omnibuses were operating on several routes, including to Shirley, to which destination William Bevis ran ten trips daily in 1879.

Construction of the tramway, built by the Southampton Tramways Company, led to the demise of many of the horse buses.

The first route to be opened on the new system ran from Alma Road, in a north-south direction, to Above Bar Street and commenced on the 5th May 1879.

The following day extensions were opened at each end of the line to Portswood and to the floating bridge across the River Itchen.

On the 9th June 1879 a second line was brought into use, running from the end of Above Bar Street (‘The Junction’) to Shirley High Street. Both routes were single-track lines.

The initial rolling stock consisted of six single-deck and nine double-deck cars (probably built by Starbuck), numbered 1-15 and housed at the Company’s depots at Portswood and Shirley.

In 1887 the Company began operating horse-buses purchased from Solomon Andrews of Cardiff, which were used to inaugurate a route between the Floating Bridge and the Common via St. Mary’s Road.

An hourly service was also operated from the Commercial Road Junction to Bitterne Park, which by 1892 had been extended to the Weighbridge (near the Clock Tower in Above Bar). The horse buses passed to Southampton Corporation with the rest of the undertaking in 1898.

In 1896 the Corporation purchased the Southampton Electric Light and Power Company and took control of the provision of electricity for the town. On the 30th June 1898, Southampton Corporation exercised its right to buy the tramway in order to electrify it.

Despite the fact that the Tramway Company had re-laid much of their track only a few years previously, all the tracks had to be renewed for the electric cars. Whilst this work was progressing, the horse-buses and horse-trams kept the service going.

The first section to be electrified was that between Shirley and ‘The Junction’, which was opened on the 22nd January 1900, followed in May of the same year by the section between Holy Rood and Stag Gates.

The Stag Gates service was extended to Portswood Junction later that year. In the meantime the horse-trams continued to be used and it was not until 3rd August 1901, when the stretch of line from the Ordnance College to the Docks was completed, that the last horse-drawn tram ran.

Further extensions to the system followed; in 1902 lines from St. Denys to Bitterne Park, and from the Docks to the Floating Bridge were opened.

The following year services to Bevois Hill from Onslow, to The Common from Stag Gates, and an extension from Portswood to Hampton Park commenced.

The first electric cars (Nos. 1-39) were special low-height open-top double-deckers, built by Milnes between 1899 and 1902, to enable them to pass safely under the Bargate. In 1903 a further 12 Hurst Nelson cars (Nos. 40-51) to a similar design were purchased.

In 1901 Southampton Corporation experimented with the motorbus and a route from the Clock Tower to Northam was inaugurated on the 5th August, but the hired vehicle (a Daimler) proved unsuccessful and the service was withdrawn on the 20th December.

By 1908 the Corporation had started to construct its own cars at the Portswood depot, which, along with the Shirley depot had been inherited from the Southampton Tramways Company, and 21 vehicles were produced before the advent of the First World War.

After the cessation of hostilities in 1918, Southampton Corporation embarked on a major expansion of the tramway system.

In the early 1920’s, extensions serving Burgess Road from Highfield Road, Millbrook via Waterloo Road, Swaythling from Hampton Park, and Buller Road from Bitterne Park, were all opened.

The last major route was opened on the 10th July 1930 from Basset Crossroads (at the northern end of the extended Avenue route) eastwards along Burgess Road to Swaythling (to meet the extended Portswood Road line), creating a network of services covering the whole of the town peninsula, with one route crossing the Itchen over Cobden Bridge to Bitterne.

Meanwhile the Corporation had introduced the motorbus once again, this time it was to prove more successful.

On the 31st July 1919, the first motor bus route, from St. James’ Road to the Clock Tower, via Archers Road, was inaugurated, with additional routes from the Dock Station to Tanners Brook, via Royal Pier, Western Shore Road and Millbrook, and from the Floating Bridge at Woolston to Bitterne Park tram terminus, following.

No further routes were opened until almost 6 years later in 1926, when, on the 3rd June, the Floating Bridge to Sholing route commenced.

When the Corporation acquired the Northam Bridge from private proprietors in 1929 it opened up the way for the expansion of bus services across the river.

At the same time the Corporation decided against the expense of extending tram tracks into new areas and resolved that all new routes would be operated by motorbuses.

On 29th September 1934 the Corporation also acquired the Southampton and Itchen Floating Bridge and Roads Company, becoming one of the few municipal transport undertakings to operate a ferry service.

Early motorbus preferences were for Guy and Thornycroft chassis, but later both AEC and Leyland made an appearance. In 1929 six, six-wheeled Thornycroft HC’s (Nos. 37-42) with English Electric H30/26R bodywork, introduced the first route across the Northam Bridge, establishing the high capacity double-decker in Southampton.

In 1930 six more double-deckers were ordered, three AEC Regents and three Thornycroft BC’s.

Although the existing Transport Manager was reported to have preferred an order for six AEC Regents, when local Councillors discovered that the castings for the Thornycroft chassis were made locally in Woolston they reacted with patriotic fervour and insisted that local industry should be supported!

On the 2nd October 1935 the Roberts Road to Millbrook section of the tramway system was closed except for workmen’s services, followed on the 4th June 1936 by the short section from the Clock Tower to Northam Bridge, and the Southampton Corporation tramway system was in decline.

The Southampton Corporation Act of 1937 gave the Corporation powers to abandon the trams in favour of trolleybuses, which would have enabled them to maintain electric traction without major works on the tram tracks.

In the event this option was not exercised, since the development of the diesel engine had improved the reliability of motorbuses and, in addition, the Council learned that it would soon lose control of its Electricity Department under nationalisation plans.

It had been planned to close the system progressively over the next few years, but the Second World War intervened and the tramway system remained largely intact until 1948, when wholesale closures commenced. Within two years the trams had gone.

Amidst great celebrations, the final service tram (No. 9) ran on the last day of 1949 on the Floating Bridge to Shirley line, which was converted to motorbus operation the following day.

On Saturday the 4th February 1950, two Southampton trams (Nos. 21 and 101) ran together from Shirley Depot to Portswood Depot using the sole remaining overhead line with No. 101 (being at the rear) the last Southampton tramcar to run on Corporation tracks.

By this time the network of motorbus services had been largely established and no major changes were to be made for a number of years.

In 1954, the Transport Manager, Percival Baker retired. He had overseen the modernisation and subsequent decline of the tramway system, and the creation of the modern bus network.

His successor, Gilbert Armstrong, continued the development of the bus network into the many new housing estates (such as Millbrook, Harefield and Thornhill) that were built in the 1950’s.

Both the Shirley and Portswood depots underwent major changes to convert them to bus instead of tram operation, although it was not until the 1970’s that plans for the complete modernisation of the Portswood complex could be instituted.

Southampton gained city status in 1964 and the title of the undertaking was changed accordingly to the ‘City of Southampton Transport Department’.

In common with most other operators, Southampton Corporation suffered from a serious staff shortage in the late 1960’s, with the result that one-man operation was introduced in 1968.

With the opening of the Itchen Bridge in 1977, replacing the floating bridges, it was possible to extend services over the new bridge and a major re-organisation of routes took place.

On the 26th October 1986 the municipal involvement in local transport ended when an ‘arms-length’ limited company was formed.

The coat-of-arms of the City of Southampton was removed from all of the vehicles and the fleetname changed to Southampton Citybus, ending almost 90 years of municipal transport in Southampton.

This history covers the period of municipal operations of Southampton Corporation, which effectively ended on 26th October 1986 with the enactment of the 1985 Transport Act (de-regulation) and in preparing this history reference has been made to the following sources;
The Directory of British Tramways (Keith Turner; PSL, 1996);
 100 Years of Southampton Transport: Southampton City Transport (1979); PSV Circle Fleet History PH12 (1993); Buses (various editions).

Tram Fleet List 1899-1949 | Bus Fleet List 1919-1986 |