A scheme to operate steam trams in Colchester was first promoted in 1883, and a provisional order for laying the track was obtained.
The first section, between North Station and High Street, had reached Middleborough when finances ran out and the scheme was abandoned. Colchester Corporation later purchased and removed the track.
In 1899 the British Electric Traction Company sought powers to operate trams within the borough, but the application was refused, since Colchester Corporation themselves were planning to operate trams.
The Colchester Corporation Tramways Order of 1901 authorised construction of 5¾ miles of track, although it was 1904 before track laying, to 3ft 6ins gauge, commenced.
A new depot was constructed in Magdalen Street to house the tramcar fleet, which consisted of 16 (Nos. 1-16) open-top double-deckers manufactured by the Electric Railway and Tramway Carriage Works of Preston, on Brill 21E trucks.
On the 28th July 1904 the tramway opened. It consisted of three cross-town routes all radiating from the Great Eastern Railway’s North Street Station.
The main line ran to the suburb of Lexden, along North Station Road, North Hill and Head Street as a double-track line, then as a single-track line along Lexden Road and Lexden Street; another section extended from the double-track section at High Street, where it ran as a double-track line until it reached East Hill where it became single-track and terminated just over the River Colne in East Street.
A further section ran from the junction of High Street and East Hill as a double-track line southward along Queens Street to St. Botolph’s Station, where it, too, became single-track and headed out to Hythe where it terminated.
On the 28th January 1906 a single-track line was laid from St. Botolph’s Station to the Recreation Ground, via Military Road, completing the Colchester system.
For the next 25 years or so, the trams provided the transport in the borough of Colchester. However, as happened elsewhere, little provision was made for the financial burden of replacing the infrastructure and rolling stock when it started to wear out and the Colchester Corporation Act of 1927 provided for the replacement of tramway services by motorbuses.
It authorised the Corporation to operate motorbuses anywhere within the borough and in the parish of Stanway (which was later absorbed into the borough). Provision was also made for the operation of trolleybuses along the tramway routes, although they were never used.
In October 1927 the National Omnibus Company (soon to be Eastern National), along with two local independent operators Blackwell’s and Berry’s, made offers to run the motorbuses on the Corporation’s behalf, but the offers were declined.
On 21st May 1928 the trams on the North Station to East Street route were replaced by four Dennis G’s (Nos. 1-4), with 20-seat front entrance bodywork by Strachan & Brown.
They provided two half-hourly replacement services operating between Parsons Heath and Shrub End, and between Greenstead Road and the Drury Hotel.
On October 1st 1928 the trams on the North Station to Lexden route were replaced by motorbuses, by which time five more single-deckers (Dennis E’s with dual entrance 32-seat bodywork by Strachan & Brown) and two double-deckers (Dennis H’s with open-top 48-seat bodywork, again by Strachan & Brown) had been delivered.
In 1929 more double- and single-deckers were delivered, enabling more routes to be opened. March 1929 saw the inauguration of routes between High Street and Bergholt Road, and High Street to Mile End.
An additional motorbus service from St. Botolph’s Station beyond the tram terminus to Old Heath was introduced in November, along with a service from High Street to Middlewick, via Mersea Road.
On December 9th 1929, the last Colchester trams ran on the North Station to Recreation Ground line, replacement buses operating along the route the following day, thus ending Colchester Corporation’s brief flirtation with the tramway era.
Further deliveries of motorbuses in 1930, included the first of two AEC Regal’s with locally built bodywork by Harold Willett, who had premises in High Street and was also responsible for converting the four Dennis H’s of 1928 and 1929 to fully covered vehicles.
On January 19th 1931 the Corporation commenced a new route between Ipswich Road and Maldon Road.
In January 1933 the existing bus routes were completely re-organised, with the service along Greenstead Road being withdrawn and others linked.
The Corporation now operated seven routes; Parsons Heath to Drury Hotel (No.1); Ipswich Road to Shrub End (No.2); Lexden to North Station (No.3); Hythe to Mile End (No.4); Bergholt Road to Shrub End (No.5); Old Heath to North Station (No.6) and Mersea Road to High Street (No.7).
On the 29th June, following the opening of the Colchester by-pass, a new circular service from High Street to Lexden, along the by-pass, returning via Lexden Road to High Street, commenced, although it had been withdrawn by October.
A similar fate befell the circular service from High Street via Butt Road, Goojerat Road, Circular Road and Mersea Road to High Street, introduced in 1937 but withdrawn the following year due to lack of patronage.
Eastern National again offered to purchase the borough routes from the Corporation in 1937, but again the offer was refused.
Although a livery of blue and white had been proposed in 1939, subsequent deliveries, five AEC Regent’s with Massey H26/26R bodywork, appeared in the traditional tuscan red and cream, a livery that continued to be used.
With the onset of World War II in 1939, services had to be curtailed and reduced. Wartime deliveries consisted of Bristol K5G and K6A chassis along with Guy Arab I and II models, with utility bodies by a number of manufacturers.
By September 1945 the services had been restored to pre-war levels, although in November 1946 several changes were made.
Service 1 was extended to Reed Hall Avenue from Drury Hotel, via Layer Road; service 3 now operated from Lexden to Ipswich Road; service 4 had alternate journeys diverted along Mill Road; service 5 became a circular route serving North Station, Shrub End, Straight Road and Lexden to North Station, with route number 5A being used for journeys in the opposite direction, whilst service 7 was extended from High Street to Bergholt Road.
The first postwar deliveries with relaxed specifications were four AEC Regents (Nos. 51-54) with Massey H30/26R bodywork, which were basically similar to the prewar Regents, arrived in March 1947.
A new circular service (No. 8) was introduced in December between Head Street via East Hill, Greenstead Road, St. Andrews Avenue and returning back via East Hill to Head Street, with journeys in the reverse direction being numbered 8A. This route was withdrawn in June 1948, again because of lack of patronage.
More route revisions occurred in April and May 1949, when some journeys on service 1 were extended to Berechurch Camp, via Layer Road and Berechurch Hall Road.
Service 2 was extended to Dugard Avenue incorporating sections of service 3, which was withdrawn, and services 5 and 5A.
Service 5 was revised to operate from North Station to Borough Boundary or Dugard Avenue, whilst service 4 journeys to Mile End were extended to Severalls Hospital.
In April 1949, five Daimler CVD6’s (Nos. 1-5) arrived to bolster the fleet, but because of their comparatively high fuel consumption they were not frequently used, and this may have been a factor in the cancellation of an order for a further five due later in the year.
Another new circular service commenced on 27th December 1950, travelling from High Street via North Hill, Cowdray Avenue, returning to High Street by way of East Hill. The service was numbered 3, with journeys in the opposite direction taking the route number 3A.
Additions to the fleet in 1951 and 1952 consisted of four (Nos. 6-9) Crossley DD42/7’s with Crossley H30/26R bodywork, although in 1953 the AEC Regent was again in favour, no doubt due to Crossley’s merger with AEC.
For the next few years AEC’s continued to be the standard choice, until a forced change to the Leyland marque was made in 1960, since AEC no longer produced a 7ft 6ins wide chassis.
Services were again revised in 1953 when all journeys on service 4 were re-routed along Mill Road to Defoe Crescent; service 5 was extended, with alternate journeys operating to Bergholt Road, or via Turner Road and Defoe Crescent to Severalls.
Service 7 was shortened to operate between Head Street and Mersea Road, although on an increased frequency, with alternate journeys serving the newly built Monksea Estate.
Throughout the 1950’s the bus services were continually revised as the postwar boom in passenger numbers began to fall. From May to August in 1956 and 1957 circular tours of the town were operated on Sunday evenings, but these were not a commercial success and were withdrawn at the end of the summer season in 1957.
In 1959 a complete revision of Colchester’s bus routes was made, due to the continued financial pressures on the department. Frequencies were generally reduced and services linked to provide a more viable network. From September 13th the services were as follows;
|1||Parsons Heath to Dugard Avenue, via Shrub End|
|1A||Parsons Heath to Prettygate|
|2||Ipswich Road to Severalls, via North Station|
|2A||Ipswich Road to Mill Road, via North Station|
|3||High Street to St. Andrews Avenue|
|4||Hythe to Layer Road Estate (Hedge Drive) or Berechurch Camp|
|5||Dugard Avenue to Bergholt Road, via North Station|
|5A||Lexden (Borough Boundary) to Turner Road, via North Station|
|6||Old Heath to Prettygate or Shrub End Estate|
|7||Mersea Road or Monkwick Estate to North Station|
The service frequencies, however, proved inadequate, and in January 1961 many were increased.
Further development in the early 1960’s meant that services were still subject to revisions and alterations, with large housing estates, notably, Greenstead in 1961; Barnhall in 1962; St. John’s in 1967 and St. Michael’s in 1968, all being served by new routes.
These revisions necessitated an increase in the fleet size, which, until the early 1960’s, had always been around 40 vehicles, but now was approaching 60 vehicles.
In order to economise further, a move to one-man operation was made in the latter part of the decade.
Ten Leyland Atlantean PDR1/1’s were acquired in 1967 and 1968, along with a number of additional vehicles acquired second-hand in 1971, including six ex-Salford Corporation AEC Reliance’s, and five AEC Reliance’s from Leicester City Transport.
In May 1973 more service revisions took place, with an increase in one-man operated services, including the diversion of one route (No. 12, which was renumbered 12A at the time) to take in the University of Essex at Wivenhoe, formerly the preserve of the Eastern National Company, but this was withdrawn in December due to poor patronage.
In order to implement the full-service revisions, buses were hired from various operators until the remaining Bristol RELL6L’s on order had been delivered.
In 1974 the title of the undertaking was changed to Colchester Borough Council Transport Department, and the long established tuscan red and cream livery was experimentally changed to cherry red and ivory, although the Council later decided to retain the traditional colours.
By the following year, however, the livery had been changed again, to crimson and cream, ostensibly because of the higher cost of obtaining tuscan red.
To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the commencement of municipal operations in the borough in 1979, Leyland Atlantean No. 75 (TPU75R) received a special version of the crimson and cream livery, along with the first version of the Colchester Borough Transport roundel worn by a public service vehicle.
At the same time, 1968 Leyland Atlantean No. 48 (YWC648F), was converted to open-top for use on tours of the town, but did not enter service in this form until 5th April the following year.
Throughout the 1970’s, services continued to be converted to one-man operation so that by late 1980 only one service remained crew-operated, and the last rear-entrance vehicles had been withdrawn. Buses purchased in this period consisted mainly of double-deck Leyland Atlantean AN68 chassis (Nos. 55-90), with ECW bodywork.
On the 26th October 1986, along with many other local authority undertakings, Colchester Borough Transport became an ‘arms-length’ limited company, effectively ending municipal involvement in local transport.
The company was named Colchester Borough Transport Limited, and, like so many other municipalities, finally ended up being sold in 1993 to one of the large transport groups of the time.
This history covers the period of municipal operations of Colchester Corporation, which effectively ended on 26th October 1986 with the enactment of the 1985 Transport Act (de-regulation) and in preparing this history reference has been made to the following sources;
The Directory of British Tramways (Keith Turner, PSL 1996); Colchester Corporation Transport (RN Collins and GR Mills, Buses Illustrated No. 91, Oct 1962); Municipal Buses in Colour 1959-1974 (Reg Wilson, Ian Allan 1997); PSV Circle Fleet History 2PF7 (1986); Buses (various editions).