A story of Sydney’s Steam Trams

Once upon a time there were no automobiles; no buses, no trucks, no motor bikes. In those distant days the horse and horse traffic reigned supreme in the streets of Sydney. If you wanted to travel, the chances were you rode a horse, or went by horse omnibus or cab, walked or possibly by bicycle.  Unless you were lucky enough to live close to one of the few train routes, people were largely forced to live close to their work places in what were often expensive and overpriced areas. A weekend trip away would require meticulous planning.

All this changed when the steam trains came to Sydney.

Within the space of a few years, the city became the steam tram capital of the world. Only Paris could boast a system to match Sydney’s. Steam trams went on to dominate the street6s of Sydney for the next 20 years until their gradual decline from the end of the last century.

Many people say that the ‘Americanisation’ of Sydney began with the introduction of the trams when a 24 year old Philadelphia boy introduced the first imports into Lane Cove.  The trams were to become a source of a great deal of Sydney’s cultural identity in the early days, the phrase that went onto become a national lexicon – ‘shooting through like a Bondi tram’ was often used to reference anything that was fast paced at the time.  Many also believe the trams were responsible for the famous ‘wolf whistle’ when the drivers sounded their horns at the sighting of an attractive girl.

Citizens were alternately captivated and terrorised by the steam trams. They were known as the ‘manglers’ and ‘Juggernauts’. Cartoonists frequently depicted them with an angel of death at the throttle, or with the visage of a flesh eating demon! Pedestrians and horse traffic were their victims; newspapers seemed to relish gory descriptions of the latest set of accidents.

The first batch of steam trains reached Sydney from the famous Baldwin locomotive works in 1879. The government had purchased them as an urgent but temporary measure to carry patrons from the inconvenient Redfern railways terminus to the International Exhibition in the Botanic Gardens.

The Exhibition came and went but the Sydney trams stayed.  Citizens had become so enamoured by this new, swift and convenient mode of street transportation that they wouldn’t let go of them.

So the lines reached out to Bondi, Balmain and Botany, to Leichardt and La Perouse, to Abbotsford, Coogee, Marrickville, Newtown and Woolahra. At the peak, more than 100 steam ‘motors’, (as the engines were know) were in service, weaving around them a unique folklore of friendly drivers, larrikin conductors, accusations of scandals, frauds and misbehaviour, and the machinations of sly politicians and land-shark developers of a wild past country.

Down narrow streets came the snorting little monsters with whistles shrilling, alarm bells ringing, steam hissing from beneath the wheels, stampeding the horses and scattering the pedestrians. Behind them they tugged, double deck, ungainly open coaches, where women on the upper level could call the conductor to supply them with a modesty lace to tie down their skirts.

The steam trams contributed a little known episode to the history of early Sydney however through the efforts of www.tramscrolls.com.au , we are seeing some of this history refreshed. Tram Scrolls recently launched a unique range of tram scroll destination art. These bus and tram banners are replicas of the old 1950’s and 1960’s bus signs that used to adorn most Bus and Tram stations across Australia.

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