Launceston's tramway battle a story of persistence

By Nigel Burch
December 2 2023 - 3:00pm
The No. 4 Gorge tram on Elphin Road, probably at Christmas 1913. A 1912 Hupmobile is parked under a tree. Picture by Launceston Library, LPIC147-6-330
The No. 4 Gorge tram on Elphin Road, probably at Christmas 1913. A 1912 Hupmobile is parked under a tree. Picture by Launceston Library, LPIC147-6-330

As the Duck Reach power station approached completion in 1894, city surveyor Charles St John David took on a new project, producing a detailed study for a Launceston tramway network.

While being much discussed and confirming its viability, and despite Hobart having begun tramways the previous year, his report did not lead to construction.

One problem was the need for an enabling bill to pass parliament, which in turn required plebiscite approval with a two thirds majority.

Though the fact that Duck Reach made a big annual profit gave us confidence in large public works.

Public interest increased over the following years, culminating in a huge rally at the Albert Hall in 1906, with 800 people crowded in, stirred up by the organ and city bands.

On September 14, 1906, a plebiscite was held, resulting in a huge turnout and achieving the two thirds majority, despite being boycotted by Trevallyn residents, who were annoyed by the proposal to terminate the line at the South Esk Bridge.

Two weeks later, another plebiscite overwhelmingly voted for private ownership, rather than being built and run by Council.

Unfortunately, voting for something doesn't always mean it will happen - especially when it needs private companies to come to the party.

While parliament did their bit, passing the Launceston Tramways Act authorising us to proceed, Council's call for expressions of interest closed without anything being received.

Subsequent long negotiations resulted in a deal being reached to float a new company to take on the project, contingent on more favourable terms being granted by Council.

This then required an Amendment Bill being passed by parliament.

When we finally thought all was well, the new company failed to raise the finance.

In 1908 another company put a proposal, which was accepted by Council, and then approved by a third plebiscite, but then they reneged and we were stuck again!

Finally, a fourth plebiscite in July 1909 authorised Council to build it themselves, at a cost of £60,457 and limited to the flat parts of the route.

J&T Gunn immediately commenced building the first 14 tramcars, while Council began purchasing and stockpiling materials.

A trackworkers' strike delayed things a bit, but finally, on July 11, 1911, three cars quietly exited their Invermay Road shed and glided towards Brisbane Street.

"The trams are coming!" people shouted, and shoppers flooded out of the stores.

8. Extending the line to Trevallyn in 1912. Picture: QVMAG 1986-P-0215
8. Extending the line to Trevallyn in 1912. Picture: QVMAG 1986-P-0215

The whole city was agog with excitement, as Mayor William Oldham, who'd secretly been taking driving lessons, drove the lead car into the centre.

A sea of spectators ran alongside, with some jumping on board as the cars slowed at corners.

"Make the most of it!" one Alderman called out jokingly to the freeloaders, "As it'll be your only free ride!"

On August 16, 1911, six cars line up in Brisbane St for Mayoress Mrs Oldham to cut the ribbon, and our tramway service was officially launched.

5. Mayoress Mrs Oldham cuts the ribbon to officially launch our tramways on August 16, 1911. Picture: Weekly Courier, August 17, 1911
5. Mayoress Mrs Oldham cuts the ribbon to officially launch our tramways on August 16, 1911. Picture: Weekly Courier, August 17, 1911
  • Connect with the past, visit Launceston Historical Society - Facebook.com/launcestonhistory

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