Burnley is a small town in east Lancashire. It is typical of many towns in the north of England with its origins as a small village in the 18th century, rapid growth in the 19th due to the manufacture of textiles, decline in the mid twentieth as its factories struggled to compete with cheap imports and now finding its feet again with new industries. The story of its trams is also typical of many towns and cities across the UK.
I have in my archive a collection of almost one hundred glass, magic lantern, projection slides of Burnley and its trams, dating from the 1880s to the 1950s. I bought some of them, many years ago, from the son of a Burnley tram driver, along with other momentoes of his time with the ‘Corporation’.
The story of trams is one of technological progress leading directly to increased social mobility. The latter is an interesting phrase, loved by politicians and TV presenters but with as many definitions as people who use it. In this case though, trams really did change social mobility. The introduction of cheap, efficient, public transport enabled people to live further away from their work, shops and places of entertainment and to move out of town centres where the factories were located, to the outskirts where life was greener and healthier.
The technological story is one of horse drawn trams being superseded by steam powered and then electric versions, ultimately to be replaced by buses. Whilst we might look back at previous forms of transport with nostalgia, in reality, by the time trams finally departed from the streets of Burnley, most residents were glad to see the back of them as they were slow, noisy and uncomfortable compared to the new, quieter, warmer, more flexibly-routed buses.
In the 1960s, a lecturer at Leeds University (who was also a tram enthusiast) presented a paper on the history of Burnley’s trams, a copy of which was in the collection of slides that I purchased. As the author of many booklets on local history, I found that I had an authoritative script and wonderful photographs to accompany it, so I published another one!
The three slides shown are an early Burnley steam tram (it’s actually an enclosed steam locomotive towing an unpowered tramcar), an electric tram and a slide used in local cinemas during the transition from trams to buses.
Cities and towns all over the world are, of course, reintroducing trams to entice drivers out of their cars. Such projects require massive capital investment for the infrastructure and, as Burnley is a relatively small, Lancashire market town, I’m not expecting to see trams running along its streets any time soon!
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