Australia’s Horse Trams

More than any other form of urban public transport, the tram allowed Australian cities to spread out beyond their inner suburbs. In only 30 years Australia’s trams progressed from horse, steam and cable to electric traction. The first trams in Australia were hauled by horses. A horse could pull a greater load over a smooth track and give passengers a more comfortable ride than in a horse bus. The first horse trams (also known as horse cars) to operate in Sydney began in 1861. They were pulled by four horses and operated along Pitt Street. With low floors they were easy to access, and held 30 passengers inside and another 30 on the roof, reached by an iron ladder. Unfortunately the tram rails were laid on the surface of the road instead of being recessed causing numerous accidents among other horse- drawn vehicles crossing the tracks. Following the death of a prominent citizen in a tramway accident, the unpopular service was withdrawn in 1866.

Only Adelaide and Brisbane developed horse tramways on a large scale. They operated successfully in Adelaide from 1878 where they replaced horse buses and continued in use until electric trams replaced them in 1909. The flat plain on which the city is constructed lent itself to this form of transport. Drivers had to be at least 17 years of age and conductors, 12. There were no scheduled stopping places and drivers obligingly picked up and set down passengers wherever they wanted. Lunch buses, which took workers home for a midday meal, did not stop at all and the passengers got on and off as the bus moved along. Light or medium draught horses pulled the horse trams. At steep locations a spare horse was attached to an outrigger on the tram for the duration of the hill. Beginning work at four years of age, horses were retired to the country at seven, where apparently the only way to get them to move on or stand still was to ring a bell!

Horse trams began operating in Brisbane in 1885 but had gone by 1900, replaced by more efficient and profitable electric trams. They were briefly resurrected in Sydney for operation at Newtown in 1894 and Manly in 1903. A horse tramway operated from Victor Harbor, in South Australia, along a causeway to Granite Island from 1894 to 1954 and reopened in 1986 for tourists.

This article is courtesy of the great book ‘On the Move, a history of transport in Australia’, by Margaret Simpson’ and is brought to you by Tram Scrolls Australia, specialists in premium quality replica tram and bus scroll art. 1300 632 332 or

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