The first tramway in Exeter was operated by the Exeter Tramways Company and opened on the 5th April 1882. Built to a gauge of 3ft 6ins, the single-track horse-drawn tramway extended just over 2½ miles.
By 1892 the company was in financial difficulties and control passed to a group of London financiers, who formed the Tramway Purchase Syndicate. In 1899 they offered to sell the tramway system to Exeter Corporation, but the offer was declined.
In 1902, the Corporation reconsidered the position and made an offer that the company deemed derisory.
The matter went to arbitration before a satisfactory agreement could be reached and it was not until 1st February 1904 that the tramway finally passed into Exeter Corporation ownership.
Exeter Corporation immediately set to work electrifying the system and relaying the track. On the 4th April 1905 the last horse tram ran and the new electric services commenced.
The two inaugural services were from the Guildhall along Heavitree Road to Livery Dole (which was extended at either end on the 29th April to East Wonford Hill in Heavitree and to Cowick Street at the foot of Dunsford Hill), and from St. David’s Station to Pinhoe Road.
A new depot was constructed in Paris Street to accommodate sixteen cars, the first of which, (Nos. 1-12), had been delivered by March 1905.
Built by Dick Kerr they were four-wheeled open-top double-deck cars, finished in green and primrose livery, with Exeter Corporation Tramways in gold lettering on the lower rocker panels and the city crest above. Five similar cars (Nos. 16-21) were purchased in 1906.
By September 1906 the system was operating three main routes; from Pinhoe Road to Alphington, via Sidwell Street, High Street and the Exe Bridge; from Heavitree to Cowick Street, via Paris Street, High Street and the Exe Bridge, and from St. David’s Station to Queen Street via Hele Road.
With the onset of the First World War in 1914, many of the staff enlisted in the armed forces and Exeter Corporation had to recruit staff from other sources, including the medically unfit, young boys and women.
Wartime restrictions meant that the tramcars were running under very adverse conditions and maintenance was basic. By the end of the war the fleet was in dire need of overhauling, with much of the overhead and track needing to be renewed.
Two new tramcars were supplied by Brush in 1921, part of a surplus Plymouth Corporation order, which alleviated the pressure on the other rolling stock to some extent.
With postwar operating costs increasing enormously, the City Council was unable to authorise the full renovation of the fleet and a tentative approach was made at the time to the National Electric Construction Company and the Devon General Omnibus Company about the possible sale of the undertaking.
Both companies declined the offer to purchase, mainly because of the financial difficulties they themselves were undergoing and the Council was forced to retain the system and attempt to make it viable.
Over the next seven years the fleet was completely overhauled and renovated, and, in 1928 extensions to the depot were completed to provide additional workshops.
The track was relaid and overhead renewed where necessary, and at the same time lengths of double-track were put down in High Street, Sidwell Street and York Road. Additional rolling stock (Nos. 28-34) was ordered from Brush of Loughborough and put into service.
The Devon General Bus Company had been operating motorbus services in the Exeter area since 1924, under an agreement with the local council. In 1928, when the Corporation was considering operating its own motorbuses, the company was given three months notice of termination of the agreement.
By 1st April 1929, having inspected three types of chassis and purchased examples of them all (two Leyland Lions, two Bristol B’s, and three Maudslay ML3’s), Exeter Corporation was ready to inaugurate the first of its own bus services.
The initial three routes ran from Bedford Circus to St. Matthew’s Vicarage and the Deaf and Dumb Institute; the Theatre (Longbrook Street) Circular, via Iddesleigh Road and Belmont Road, and from Paul Street to Redhills via the Exe Bridge and Okehampton Street.
In 1930 there was an abrupt change of policy by the local council. Due to increasing traffic congestion in the city’s narrow streets, caused principally by the centre of street operations of the trams and the continual halting to wait to enter single-track sections, the council decided not to incur any more expense on the tramway system and replace them with motorbuses.
As a result, the next track renewal planned for the Alphington Road section was abandoned, the terminus cut back to Alphington Street and the old track lifted.
At the time three double-deck vehicles were on loan and the Council were particularly pleased with the performance of an AEC Regent, on loan from Leicester Corporation, and placed an order for six of these buses.
The closure of the tramway in Alphington Road presented a problem, since there were no available buses to work the lifted section. A 20-seat Commer Invader (No. 15) was purchased as a stopgap measure and ferried passengers from the end of the tramway to their destination.
Three Maudslay ML3’s (Nos. 11-12, 14 – No. 13 being omitted because of superstition) were delivered in July 1930, enabling the Commer to be withdrawn. The extra buses also enabled a new service to Whipton to be introduced.
On the first day of 1931 the AEC Regent double-deckers started to arrive (Nos. 16-21) and were used to replace the trams on the Pinhoe to Alphington route. Later that year, part of the roadway on the Heavitree route was re-surfaced, causing the trams to be curtailed at Broadgate, where they remained.
In July and August more double-deckers (AEC Regents and Leyland Titans) arrived and finally enabled the remaining trams to be replaced.
On the 19th August 1931, tram No. 14, suitably decorated, toured the remaining tramway system and returned to the depot, the current was switched off and the tramway era in Exeter was over.
Route letters had been adopted towards the end of the tramway system and it was proposed to change these to route numbers starting at No. 1, however, the Devon General Omnibus Company was also operating in the area using route numbers from 1 onwards and it was felt that numbers might be confusing, so the route letters remained in use.
At the end of 1931 routes A to H were in operation, with a route mileage almost five times that of the tramway system. Additional buses had now been delivered (Nos. 22-30 were AEC Regents and Nos. 31-40 were Leyland TD2’s) and all were put to work on the tram replacement routes.
Apart from an influx of new vehicles between 1937 and 1939 there was little change in the Exeter Corporation bus network until the advent of World War II in 1939, when severe restrictions prompted the Corporation to cutback some of the routes.
Routes A (Alphington Road to Whipton) and B (Alphington Road to Polsloe Bridge) were combined; routes C (Burnthouse Lane to Redhills) and D (St. David’s Station to South Lawn Terrace) were cutback, isolating some districts, and route H (St. David’s Station to Bedford Circus) was withdrawn altogether.
By 1943 services were ending at 9.00 pm in order to conserve fuel and the inevitable wartime Bedford OB’s (Nos. 71-76) made their appearance along with seven Daimler CWA6’s (Nos. 77-83) with utility bodywork.
At the end of the War thirteen more Daimler’s (Nos. 84-96), which had been sanctioned during wartime but delayed, were delivered.
With services beginning to return to normal, Exeter Corporation began talks with the Devon General Omnibus Company about the possibility of operating joint services into and out of the city to avoid duplication and unnecessary expenditure.
On the 14th January 1947, an agreement was signed between the two parties covering services within a ten-mile radius of the city centre. Later that year the first of seventeen new Leyland PD2/1’s (Nos. 3-19) began to be delivered.
It was around this time that the fleetname was changed from ‘Exeter Corporation’ to ‘City of Exeter’, and advertisements were allowed on double-deck buses for the first time.
Many new postwar housing estates were springing up around the city at Hill Barton, Stoke Hill and Wonford and new services were required. In 1948 new routes, including route ‘K’ (to Pennsylvania); route ‘CW’ (to Countess Wear), and route ‘J’ (to Crossmead), were introduced.
At the same time the antiquated Bell Punch ticket system was phased out and replaced by the more modern Insert Setright system.
Although on the outside the Transport Department seemed in good shape, the reality was that it was a financial burden on the Council.
In 1954 the Council approached the Devon General Omnibus Company with a view to selling the undertaking and the sale was agreed, although the lack of guarantees from Devon General to safeguard the jobs and pension rights of Corporation staff led to it finally being abandoned.
In 1955 a new Transport Manager was appointed and given the task of reducing the substantial losses.
Ten new Guy Arab (Nos.50-59) double-deck vehicles were ordered and delivered in 1957, with five more new buses delivered each year until 1965 (with parallel withdrawals) to spread the age of the fleet evenly.
Despite this the losses continued. In 1966 a change to high capacity single-deckers was tried, with five (Nos. 1-5) Leyland PSU4/2R Leopards being delivered. This paved the way for possible wholesale conversion to one-man operation.
More single-deckers (Nos. 6-10) were delivered in 1968, this time they were Leyland PSUR1A/1R Panthers.
On the 1st January 1969, the National Bus Company was formed to take over the assets of the Transport Holding Company, who had acquired the Devon General Omnibus Company along with other members of the BET Group, of which the company had been a part.
At the same time negotiations were commenced with Exeter Corporation about the possible purchase of the undertaking. With the Transport Department making continual losses, the Council, considering the burden on the ratepayers, agreed to the sale.
The last bus (No. 73, a 1960 Guy Arab IV) returned to Exeter from Crediton at around 23.30 on the 31st March 1970, and the depot doors closed for the last time on Exeter Corporation Transport Department.
On 1st April 1970, the vehicles and services of Exeter Corporation were absorbed into the local National Bus Company subsidiary of Devon General and municipal transport in the city had come to an end after 65 years.
For a short while buses still appeared in the traditional green and cream Exeter Corporation livery, some until as late as 1977, but gradually they received NBC livery and all traces of Exeter Corporation slowly vanished.
In preparing this history reference has been made to the following sources;
The Directory of British Tramways (Keith Turner, PSL 1996); Exeter – A Century of Public Transport (RC Sambourne, Glasney 1976); Municipal Buses in Colour (Reg Wilson, Ian Allan 1997); Buses/Buses Illustrated (various editions).