Southend-on-Sea Corporation Transport 1901-1986

The first tramway in Southend had started as long ago as 1846 when a small, wooden-railed trackway was laid on Southend Pier, to enable baggage trucks to negotiate the 1¼-mile length.

The trucks were hand-propelled, but by the 1850’s (the exact date is unknown), the tramway had been relaid with iron rails, and two small, enclosed passenger carriages, pulled by a team of two horses in tandem, were in use.

A notable feature of the tramway was that it ran through the pier’s entertainment tent – apparently even during shows!

However, the wear and tear caused by the horses hooves and the weight of the train, coupled with the light rails spiked directly to the decking, meant that by 1881 the line had become unfit for use and was closed.

Later, when the pier had been rebuilt, an electric railway replaced the tramway.

In 1899, the Southend-on-Sea and District Light Railways Order authorised the construction of Southend’s first street tramway.

The system was centred on Victoria Circus, just south of the Great Eastern Railway’s Victoria station and the first two lines, opened on 19th July 1901, ran from here via Victoria Avenue to Prittlewell, returning via North Road and London Road, and along Southchurch Road and Southchurch Avenue to the beach.

On the 9th August 1901 a third route westwards along London Road, via Chalkwell to Leigh-on-Sea was opened. The line was laid to a gauge of 3ft 6ins and on its completion was just under 9¼ miles in length. The tram depot was in London Road, about ¼-mile from Victoria Circus.

The initial rolling stock consisted of ten (Nos. 1-10), open-top double-deck cars, with seating for just 38 passengers, built by Brush on Brill 21E trucks, two (Nos. 11-12) open-top double-deck bogie cars, with seating for 58 passengers, again by Brush on Brill 22E bogies, and two (Nos. 13-14) single-deck saloon cars, seating 20, by Brush on Brill 21E trucks.

On 10th August 1908 an extension of the beach line along Southchurch Beach Road as far as Bryant Avenue was opened, and on 16th November a further extension to The Halfway House came into service.

On January 22nd 1912 the North Road section of the route to Prittlewell was closed because of poor patronage, but the remainder of the tramway continued to be developed and on February 10th 1912 an extension from The Halfway House to Thorpe Bay was opened, followed on the 30th July 1913 by an extension from the High Street along Southchurch Road and Southchurch Boulevard to Bournes Green.

On the 16th July 1914, Bournes Green was linked with Thorpe Bay, via Thorpe Boulevard, to complete the system.

Southend Corporation had obtained powers to operate motorbuses in 1912, and two demonstrators (a Tilling-Stevens and a Daimler) were duly inspected in February and March 1913.

Subsequently the Corporation placed an order for three Tilling-Stevens and three Straker-Squire single-deckers, along with an Edison battery-driven single-decker.

Although it had been intended to operate two routes with the new buses, in the event, just a single route, on a 10-minute frequency running from the Kursaal via Pier Hill, Alexandra Street, Cambridge Road, Station Road, Hamlet Court Road, Wenham Drive and terminating at the junction of Westborough Road and Eastwood Lane, commenced on 25th June 1914.

With the onset of the Great War in 1914, the three Straker-Squire chassis were impressed by the War Department and, due to the conflict, the Corporation were unable to purchase any replacement vehicles.

By 1916, mounting losses and the unreliability of the remaining vehicles forced the Corporation to terminate bus operations after the final service on 18th March, and it was to be many years later before motorbuses were again seen in Southend’s livery.

Southend Corproation operated its own municipal power station adjacent to the tram depot and in 1914 a spur from the existing tramway line to the Corporation’s loading pier at the junction of East Parade and Eastern Esplanade was opened.

To facilitate the movement of the coal required to generate the electricity, three powered coal cars, manufactured in 1915 by Grenshaw & Piers, of Bolton, and numbered 1A-3A, were purchased.

In 1931 the Corporation began to use diesel to generate the elctricity and the cars became disused.

By the 1920’s the ageing tramcar fleet was in need of replacement, and with the increase in the resort’s popularity, new rolling stock was needed to cater for the influx of visitors.

In 1921, Brush supplied a roofed toastrack (No. 43) and twelve top-covered double-deckers (Nos. 44-55), and, in 1924 six more top-covered double-deckers (Nos. 56-62) were purchased from the English Electric Company.

Although the original tramway system had been single-track with passing places, the system was gradually converted to double-track between 1907 and 1920, apart from the route to Prittlewell, which had remained single-track.

Part of this route had been closed in 1912, and by 1928 the future of the remaining line was in doubt. In order to attract additional passengers it was thought necessary to increase the frequency of the service, but the single-track line, which had only one passing place, prevented this.

Experiments with trolleybuses had taken place during 1925 and 1926, when two hired single-deck Railless vehicles were placed in service along part of the Prittlewell route, and, because of the lower capital cost were seen as an ideal replacement for the tramcars.

As a result, on December 18th 1928, the Prittlewell route was closed and trolleybuses took over.

By this time, the trolleybus fleet consisted of Nos. 101 and 102, the two Railless vehicles of 1925, with Short Brothers 29-seat bodywork, and No. 103, an AEC 603T with Strachan & Brown 30-seat bodywork. In 1929, five Garrett 6-wheel trolleybuses (Nos. 105-109) with Garrett 60-seat bodywork were purchased, along with a similar vehicle (No. 104), which had been on hire.

These enabled further services to be introduced, including an extension of the Prittlewell service from High Street to the Kursaal, which opened on 2nd August 1929.

In January 1932 the route was extended to serve Eastwood Boulevard, along Fairfax Road, and on 31st July a new service from Victoria Circus to the junction of Hamstel Road and Crossfield Road was inaugurated, extended in 1935 to Wellington Avenue.

These extensions enabled some of the tramcars to be withdrawn, although in 1934 second-hand cars from Middlesbrough and Accrington were purchased.

About this time, the ticket system, which had been Bell Punch, was changed to the TIM system, using paper rolls. This system was replaced again in 1955 by the Setright Speed system, and in 1971, the Almex system was introduced on one-man operated buses.

In the meantime, motorbuses had been reintroduced, but not without some difficulty.

The 1930 Road Traffic Act had introduced a national system of licensing for bus services, a fact that the Corporation had evidently failed to appreciate when they placed their order for seven AEC Regal chassis with English Electric 30-seat bodywork, in that year.

Their first application to run a bus service was refused, and the second was only partially authorised.

Eventually, however, after the Corporation had lodged an appeal, the service, between Prittlewell Square and Southchurch Park, was approved and began to operate on the 5th July 1932, some 16 months after the buses had been delivered.

Subsequently the Corporation purchased a number of routes from private bus operators (who had objected to the original applications) to build up their network, and negotiated an agreement whereby private operators were allowed to develop services in the west of the town, whilst the eastern part of the town would be Corporation-controlled.

Further vehicles were not purchased until 1937 when four AEC Regents (Nos. 157-160) with English Electric L27/26R bodywork arrived. This enabled a new service to Shoebury Common to commence on 9th September.

By 1938, the Corporation was faced with the cost of renewing the deteriorating tramway track and the decision was taken to phase out the tramcars in favour of the trolleybuses and motorbuses.

The delivery of seven AEC Regents (Nos. 211-217) with Weymann L27/26R bodywork enabled the section of tramway between Southchurch and Thorpe Bay to be closed on the 6th July 1938, motorbuses taking over the following day.

On June 4th 1939 the trolleybuses on the Prittlewell route were extended to Thorpe Bay replacing the trams, although the onset of the Second World War in 1939 delayed the immediate closure.

The ageing and deteriorating track, however, was unable to see out the war years and on 7th January 1942 the Southchurch section closed and, on 8th April 1942, the system closed completely when the Leigh-on-Sea section ceased to operate, both routes being taken over by trolleybuses, bringing to an end over 40 years of tramway operations in Southend-on-Sea.

The livery, which had originally been in two shades of green, was eventually refined to green and ivory, but in August 1939, the first vehicle appeared with the familiar blue and cream livery, which remained basically the same thereafter.

The trolleybus system was now almost complete. On 3rd April 1944 the line to Hamstel Road was extended to the White Horse, returning via the Southchurch Road tram route to form a circle, in 1945 a short section off North Road at Lonsdale Avenue was installed to allow vehicles to reverse and the system was basically complete, consisting of eastern and western circular routes which were linked in November 1951 to enable cross-town services to be worked.

However, in 1954, the same factors that caused the closure of the tramway system some 12 years earlier were to play a part in the decision to cease operation of the trolleybuses altogether.

By now much of the equipment was in need of replacement, and the fleet was beginning to age. In December 1951 the trolleybus services to the Kursaal were withdrawn, although some works services continued to run for a while, eventually being taken over by motorbuses.

On February 10th 1954 the eastern circular route was turned over to the motorbus, and finally, on 28th October 1954, the western circular route ceased to operate, bringing to an end almost 30 years of trolleybus operation.

In the middle of the 1940’s an agreement with Westcliff-on-Sea Motor Services had provided for a limited amount of co-ordination of bus services, but the Company’s main rivals effectively vetoed this, although it was revived again in 1953, by which time the Company had acquired its main competitors.

The agreement was to be known as the ‘Southend & District Joint Services’, and receipts were pooled and then distributed in a 63%: 37% ratio, with the Corporation having the smaller share.

The scheme finally came into operation on the 2nd January 1955, by which time all the trams and trolleybuses had gone, and continued to operate until de-regulation in October 1986, allowing Southend buses to operate well outside their normal area.

The co-ordination agreement allowed Southend to consolidate the bus network and to pursue the traditional policy of gradual fleet replacement, which saw AEC, Albion and Leyland vehicles enter service.

By the late 1960’s, although there had been regular route revisions, the services were still basically the same.

Southend still preferred the traditional crew-operated double-decker, as witnessed by their purchase of three Leyland PD3/4’s in 1967, but the introduction of the Government’s bus grant which promoted one-man operation, led to the demise of the traditional design.

In 1971, 26 new Daimler Fleetlines (Nos. 348-373) with Northern Counties H49/31D bodywork, entered service heralding the change to one-man operation.

In 1974, local government re-organisation, led to Southend losing its county borough status and the name of the undertaking was changed to Southend Transport.

In common with most other operators in the 1970’s Southend was faced with the inevitable spiral of rising costs and declining traffic, resulting in more and more fare increases and service cuts.

The Transport Act of 1980 abolished the licensing (brought in by the 1930 Road Traffic Act) altogether for express services, which were defined as those carrying passengers for at least 30 miles.

Southend, which was a little over 30 miles from London, proposed a limited stop service to Reading, via London, to be worked jointly with Reading Corporation.

The service was duly registered to start on 6th October 1980, although initial results were disappointing.

However, in 1982, a strike on British Railways, led to passengers switching to the new service, resulting in an increase in the required number of vehicles.

On 17th May 1982, due to operational differences, Southend and Reading began to operate each half of the route separately, with Southend now terminating close to Piccadilly.

The increase in passenger numbers rose steadily throughout the 1980’s to such an extent that by 1985, Southend was running 45 coaches a day on the service, necessitating a rise in the coach fleet to around 60 vehicles.

On the 1st April 1984, Southend began operating on Green Line’s service 795 (Southend to Brighton), at the time the only example of a joint service with a transport undertaking outside the National Bus Company.

Under the 1985 Transport Act, Southend Transport became an ‘arms-length’ limited company on the 26th October 1986, effectively ending municipal involvement after 85 years. The undertaking was eventually sold to the British Bus Group in 1993.

This history covers the period of municipal operations of Southend-on-Sea 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); Southend Corporation Transport (Richard Delahoy;Yarnacott, 1986); PSV Circle Fleet History 2PF7, 1986; Municipal Buses in Colour (Reg Wilson; Ian Allan, 1997), Buses (various editions). Some of these publications also draw on material from earlier works which are acknowledged in the relevant publication.

Tram Fleet List 1901-1942 | Trolleybus Fleet List 1925-1954 | Bus Fleet List 1914-1986 |