Here’s everything we learned from this map of London’s defunct tram network

Those were the days: London’s lost tram routes. Image: Getty.

In 1860, George Francis Train, an eccentric American rail magnate who seemed to be in the grip of some form of some form of nominative determinism, created London’s first tram: a horse-drawn route along Victoria Street. The following year, he was nicked, for “breaking and injuring” the Uxbridge Road.

That wasn’t enough to stop the rise of the tram, of course. In 1870 they were officially authorised by act of parliament, and for the next eighty years, they were a big part of London life.

But the last routes of that original network closed in 1952. Since then they’ve been erased so completely from our mental image of London that more than one person has acted surprised when I told them there were trams on the streets of south London today.

Part of the problem is that there was never a tram equivalent of the tube map, to lock them into the city’s cultural memory. On scattered corners of the internet you can find photographs of old maps, but they’re generally so tiny it’s all but impossible to see where the trams actually went.

Normally here we say click to expand, but not much point to be honest.

Luckily then, that somebody’s done it properly:

You can zoom into this on ShareMap.org, to check exactly which roads the trams served (though sadly, not which trams served which routes). But in case that sounds like a lot of effort, here are some thoughts.


Trams didn’t go to posh places

There are almost no trams in Westminster: one route down Vauxhall Bridge Road, another on the Embankment, but that’s about it. They’re even less of a factor in chichi Kensington which, best I can tell, had not a single inch of track.

This might have reflected lack of demand, due to private cars or the tube. Or it might simply be that the locals didn’t allow anyone to build the bloody things.

Trams barely went to the City

At Aldgate, Moorgate, the north ends of the bridges: time and again, the boundaries of the square mile mark the end of the line. Again, this might reflect the fact the tube was providing transport instead – but it’s hard to miss the whiff of NIMBYism to which the Corporation of London remained committed right up until around 2000, when it realised Canary Wharf was about to eat its lunch.

Trams didn’t go to Hampstead

I was going to suggest this might be because they didn’t cope well with hills, but they made it up to Highgate okay. Once again, I suspect the influence of posh residents is at work here.

Trams refresh the parts other transport modes cannot reach

Nonetheless, it’d be silly to ignore the influence of the Underground on the map of London’s tram network altogether.

By the 1930s, the tube was all but complete: no Victoria line, and no Jubilee (although the bit from Baker Street to Stanmore was already running, as part of the Bakerloo), but otherwise the map would have been pretty recognisable to the modern commuter. That means that, at the peak of the tram network, the tube was already showing its prominent north western bias.

And this, one suspects, is one reason the tram network was so much more extensive to the east and south of the city centre. Places like Lewisham, Brixton or Hackney weren’t on the tube – but that didn’t matter so much because they had trams instead.

At any rate, back in the day, north east London had a tram on almost every significant road:

If the big gap around Hackney Wick looks like a hole in the network, it’s worth remembering that, as recently as 10 years ago, that was still basically industrial wasteland.

Similarly, while the area round the Old Kent Road may have neither tube nor rail lines, it did at least have trams back in the day.

So it’s probably no coincidence that…

Trams served the parts of town now dependent on buses

…many of London’s busiest bus corridors are routes which were once served by tram. On this map, you can trace the route of the 38, all the way from Clapton Pond to Holborn, or the 53 from Plumstead to Westminster.

The Kingsway Tunnel was the Crossrail of its day

Okay not really, but it felt like a good tagline.

As noted a few paragraphs back, very few trams penetrated into either the City of Westminster. That meant that, just like their bigger, heavier train counterparts, very few trams could cross central London.

There was, however, a single line which ran from one side of London to the other, using which trams could travel from north London to south. At Southampton Row, just north of Holborn, trams would drop into a tunnel under Kingsway, serving two underground stops at Holborn and Aldwych, before emerging on the Embankment under Waterloo Bridge. From there, they would use Westminster or Blackfriars Bridges to continue their journey south. (I’d always assumed they’d cross the bridge, but turns out I assumed wrong).

The southern part of the tunnel is still in use, as the Strand Underpass – but now it is used entirely by cars. Which feels horribly fitting, somehow.

If you’d like to explore the map in greater detail, you can do so here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.