Laying the Ghost

The ghost of Isaac Nathan still haunted the streets of Sydney.

Isaac was riding home upon the horse tram on the evening of 16 January, 1864. The tram reached his stop at the corner of Pitt and Goulburn streets, where Isaac prepared to alight. His foot somehow caught in the step, the tram moved off and in a trice he was crushed to death beneath the wheels of the heavy saloon car known as Young Australia.

The demise of Australia’s finest musician; the man who had played and composed for George IV; who brought a whiff of artistic excellence to a colony barely 20 years out of convict transportation, was enough to drive the final nail into the coffin (to mix metaphors) of allowing a tramway to run through the streets of Sydney.

Already the Pitt Street horse tram had been suffering the depths of unpopularity, hated by shopkeepers for the turmoil it caused in front of their doors, condemned by those who rode or drove horses over the rails projecting dangerously above the pavement.  No matter that it had begun in 1861 with the admirable purpose of connecting the Semi Circular Quay with Redfern railway terminus. After an existence of but five years, it was banished, the line ripped up, the saloon cars sent to the railway, the staff returned to the victorious horse omnibuses that provided an uncomfortable yet more acceptable brand of transportation for the city’s travellers.

Never again, they vowed, would another tram clutter the streets of Sydney! Never again, that is, until September 1879 when in a flurry of smoke and shrill whistle, Sydney entered upon the age of the steam tram. Twenty tumultuous years of urban transportation lay ahead, during which time Sydney would claim to have the world’s largest steam tramway network.

Rivalry with gold-rich Melbourne lay behind the change of mind that brought the tram back to Sydney. In the desire to outsmart ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, hurried arrangements were made to host an International Exhibition housed in an opulent Garden Palace located in the Botanic Gardens. No matter that certain sceptics questioned such extravagance – that Melbourne planned a similar exhibition the following year was reason enough. The great International Exhibition took shape just a cooee-call from where the First Fleet and its convicts had landed 91 years before.

Between Redfern railway terminus and the Garden Palace lay a gap of about a mile and a half (2.4 km). With a capacity for 15 passengers, the lumbering horse omnibuses, especially in climbing the Goulburn Street hill, would be hard pressed to carry a couple of hundred, let alone thousands to the Exhibition each day. What was needed was a street tramway. Forget horses – it would have to be steam.

The debate over who would run the tram had already been settled.  Not the omnibus owners (even though they embraced ‘tramway’ in their company name) but, by popular demand, the government. Parliament passed the required legislation on 13 March 1879.  Soon after, day labour gangs organised by the railway department began digging the permanent way behind Christ Church St Laurence. They had just six months until the Exhibition opened.

The route was kept well clear of the hostile shopkeepers in Pitt Street. Instead, the line led from the railway at Devonshire Street, across Belmore Park and along Elizabeth Street to a terminus at Hunter Street corner, with the Garden Palace only a short walk away. A ticket office, managed by James Roberts, was installed at Temple Court in Elizabeth Street, with separate waiting rooms for men and women, ‘and every convenience is to be found in each, including lavatory, mirror, filter, etc, both apartments having quite a superior look.’

Once the decision had been taken to use steam traction, the only company capable of filling an order within six months lay at the other end of the world; not with the British builders who dominated the colonial railway market hitherto, but the Baldwin Company of Philadelphia, where engines were turned out at the rate of almost 100 every month.  The carriages, too, would be American – double-deckers from New York, ungainly to the eye but with seating for 90 passengers, 30 of them on the canvas-roofed upper deck.

By August, Ove Gjedsted, the Danish engineer in charge and his foreman track layer, John Paton had the line true to gauge – 4 ft  8 ½ in, (1435 mm), the same as the railways – and ready for test. The first trams operated on 16 September; not by steam, unfortunately, as the ‘motors’ were still under assembly in the railway workshops, but using a team of four horses hauling two single-deck saloon cars built locally by Hudson Brothers of Regent Street.

In a reminder of the bad old days – or perhaps a harbinger of things to come – a frightened horse collided with one of the saloon cars on the first day of operation. The Sydney Morning Herald reported ‘The cart horse hit the front rail of the vehicle, bending it, and bled a great deal’.

After a test run on 23 September, steam was ready to take over from horse traction and commenced carrying, on a 12-minute ride, the multitude who were beginning to arrive from the suburbs and countryside to visit the mammoth Garden Palace. By the month’s end, the steam motors had taken over completely, running up to 36 trips, or an average of 4182 passengers each day for a 3d cash fare, or 2d for prepaid tickets bought from the ticket office. The first day of the Exhibition set the pattern – crowded steam trams, ‘but the horse buses were deserted’.

Yet the horse omnibus proprietors believed they had no real competition. The tramway, though it had cost £22 269, would be used for six months only (they had the government’s word) and at the close of the Exhibition the whole affair would be pulled up, the little motors and their cars locked away. And Mr Whitton, the Engineer-in-Chief, would probably continue with his frustrated campaign to extend the railway from Redfern to Hyde Park.

Public opinion was the one factor that the horse companies underestimated. Sydney’s population had risen to 210,000; and of these 120,000 were living in the surrounding suburbs. Within two months, deputations from these ‘outer regions’ were visiting Macquarie Street, seeking an extension of the trams. The bus operators decided to retaliate with a lottery, using the numbers appearing on each ticket. But printing the tickets cost more than the added patronage provided and the initiative failed. Hercules himself could not stem the public clamour for more tramways. People realised now that they could really move about. They could commute. They could escape the city!

The Evening News of 6 October reported a petition signed by Surry Hills residents ‘praying that the government would immediately take steps to extend the tramway in their direction…’ And just a week later, a deputation to the Secretary (Minister) for Works urged him to make a tramway to Randwick racecourse. On 25 November a meeting at Waverley called for an extension of the tramway to serve the eastern suburbs.

Around the streets the delivery boys and housemaids were singing a little ditty, from Sydney Punch of 30 August:

“That we from Redfern station

ne’er should travel more by bus.

But that the ‘Circular’ should

be our terminus.”

This article is courtesy of the great book called  ‘Juggernaut’, by david Burke’ and is brought to you by Tram Scrolls Australia, specialists in premium quality replica tram and bus destination art. 1300 632 332 or

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