A Knight’s Tale (26: Town Halls, Trams, And Trolley Buses)

We were dependent in those days on trolley buses to take us to school or the first leg of the journey to Auntie Gwen’s. From Merton’s splendid Art Deco Town Hall we would take a tram to Latimer Road, and occasionally continue along Wimbledon Broadway by tram.

Years later I was to discover that the hand carved fitted furniture for the above-mentioned building had been removed when its inside was gutted to accommodate the current Tesco supermarket. Only the facade remains. The solid oak curved fittings were transferred to the mayor’s rooms in the ’60s tower block that now houses council offices. Needless to say they fitted in neither sense of the word.

It is perhaps no coincidence that I watched the removal of a splendid wood panelled staircase and its circular landing smashed up and removed from what had been my Social Services Area Office to make way for the aluminium and laminate structures of the Westminster Council Leader, Tesco heiress, Dame Shirley Porter’s “One Stop Shop” in the 1980s. This had been a Victorian Town Hall.

Now to return to the trolley buses.

(Photo: David Bradley Online)

Trolley buses were a post tram invention, utilising overhead wires providing the current which was fed to the buses through long connecting rods.  These were much longer than the links used by today’s Intercity trains.  Much delight was taken by all us children when the rods became dislodged.  It was a major undertaking to reposition them, which was an entertainment in itself, and, of course, if it happened at the right time and in the right direction, the bus couldn’t take us to school.  In modern football parlance I’d say that was a result.

These buses ran along Worple Road, providing a transport link between Wimbledon and Raynes Park.  Until the early 1950s Wimbledon sported both trolley buses and trams.

(Photo by Norman Hurford, 1950, scanned by Peter Brabham on Flickr.)

I am proud of a story featuring my paternal grandfather, John Francis Cecil Knight, who was walking alongside one of these open-topped vehicles during the early 20th century. A man on the upstairs deck gobbed overboard. The phlegm landed on Grandpa’s sleeve. He jumped on the tram, ran upstairs, and made the offender wipe off his deposit.

These were the days when you could freely board public transport on the move.

Trams have been widely reintroduced in England. Those between Wimbledon and Croydon make use in part of disused railway tracks.  They do not glide down Wimbledon Broadway as did the early trams of my boyhood.

In May 2012, whilst waiting on a red light at the ungated level crossing being approached by a tram in each direction I sensed that a young oriental jogger was going to continue on through the path of the trams.  She didn’t look from side to side and ignored the light.  I held up my hand indicating that she should stop. She took no apparent notice of me, glanced to her left, and ran on.  The tram that was the most dangerous missed her.  She was wearing specs with very thick lenses.  Maybe she couldn’t see.  Maybe she had confidence in her speed.


  1. Wow / that jogger is taking a lot for granted by cutting things so close
    And omg! Imagining your dad going up in the tram to have the man wipe off the loogey (spit) is a fun story and shows his tenacity

  2. Your grandfather was lucky that the phlegm landed on his sleeve and not in his face. Very unpleasant, indeed. That young jogger probably didn’t know how close she had come to being run over. Not an incident to witness.

  3. I share your frustration regarding the loss of antique hand-carved furniture and fittings, Derrick. I have never realized that the famous British two-level buses were actually trolleys, rather than buses.

      1. Ah, so you do; makes me feel better because I remember one of my friends ad libbing on a show I produced, ‘Double deckers do not really exist; it’s a British joke.’ It was a complete non sequitur, but it went on national television. I was later blamed for the line.
        My pleasure, Derrick.

  4. Amazing what things we remember. Love the anecdotes. Here’s one of mine. I was 6 and my mother and I were about to get on a double decker bus. I got my hair caught in a business man’s waistcoat button. He was wearing a pinstiped suit and blower hat and umbrella. And he was most annoyed. We all missed our busses while I was getting untangled.

  5. I love and also think “ewww” at the story about your grandfather. 😀
    There used to be trolley tracks on Philadelphia streets, but I think they’ve pulled them all up now.
    My mom first met my dad at a party and he followed her to the trolley. Then he got on with her–going in the wrong direction from his house. He wrote her phone number on his hand.

  6. I remember trolley buses operating in Johannesburg when I was still very young. Tesco has received a bashing – so many building contractors (or their clients) smash rather than preserve these days.

  7. It’s so disheartening seeing old buildings “vandalised” all the while knowing we will never see such craftmanship again. Interesting story about trolleys, and that 1950s B&W photo of open-top trams (?) looks like it belongs at the beginning of the century.
    I don’t have quite the story to match your grandfather’s, but yesterday I was “gobbed” on from above. We have some naughty cockatoos that have been perching on the building roof and higher balconies, throwing rocks over. Yesterday, they had perfect timing. Smashed the car windscreen as I was driving in to the underground carpark.

      1. I had pelican splat on the car once and thought that was bad enough.
        A gorgeous bird is the pelican,
        It’s beak can hold more than it’s bellycan …
        But that belly can sure process a lot of ‘you know what’!

  8. Every now and then in Houston a pedestrian gets hit by one of the electric ‘trains’ that run from one part of the city to another. They’re so whisper-quiet that they’re impossible to hear, and if someone misses seeing a signal, it can be dangerous.

  9. In the California desert, it is common to have unusual yard decorations. One family has a caboose, others have metal replications of animals or early historic scenes — a friend of mine has a London bus, which they have renovated. It is a special bus because ,although it is double decked, it it is small enough to go under the stone bridges. It’s quite a decoration and she has installed a phone booth near it and a little sitting garden. She often has tea parties or coffee parties on the bus!

  10. I enjoyed reading how disconnected trolley buses were a fun to be in when one was headed to school. I did not know trams have been reintroduced in London.

  11. Your poor grandfather! That is worse than being pooped on by a pigeon!

    That jogger was very lucky she wasn’t run over. I see cyclists here doing similar things.

  12. I have never been able to work out what was so terrible about trolleybuses. The modern tram system in Nottingham apparently cost in excess of £700,000,000, most of which was spent on digging up the road. The overhead wires were the smallest expense apparently. Perhaps the planners were too young to have ever seen a trolleybus? Perhaps they didn’t know that it wasn’t necessary to dig the road up if you had trolleybuses.

  13. Oh, my gosh! Your poor Grandpa! I think he handled that well…way better than most people would today! 😮
    How scary for that jogger! She was so lucky! You did your best to warn her and help her.
    Many joggers, walkers, bicycle-ers today have their phone or other tech-devices tethered to their ears 🙁 …I worry about them not paying attention or hearing properly.
    I loved reading these memories and the history you shared, Derrick!
    I’ve always been fascinated by trollys, trolly cars, buses, etc., and have ridden a few in some large cities. 🙂
    (((HUGS))) 🙂

  14. I remember trams very well, I think it was mid to late fifties that they disappeared from Leeds.
    We still don’t have new trolley buses or trams, nor do we have an underground railway. Disputes about new trams/trolley buses and routes have been ongoing for years.

    A friend’s house was up for sale, then the council announced plans for the possible route for the planned trolley buses, it included demolishing her house and others. She was stuck, no one wanted to buy her house and the council took its time on furthering the plans.Five years later the council changed its mind, the route would go elsewhere.

    The damage was done and she still couldn’t sell her house. Eventually she sold it to her grandson for less than its true worth.

  15. They had trolley buses in Auckland in the 1960’s when I lived there. It was always a fascinating commute on those buses as they ground to a halt and the driver raced out to put the swaying rods back up. Not the most efficient method of transport.

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