The Luton Corporation Tramways Order of 1905 authorised the construction of 5¼ miles of tramway, consisting mainly of single-track routes, which had the distinction of being Bedfordshire’s only tramway.
The lines radiated from the Town Hall, northwards along Manchester Street and New Bedford Road to Wardown Park; north-eastwards along Midland Road and High Town Road to Stockingstone Lane, Round Green; south-eastwards via George Street, Park Street and Bailey Street to the depot; southwards off George Street, Chapel Street, Hibbert Street and Ashton Road to London Road; and north-westwards along Upper George Street and Dunstable Road.
The entire system opened on the 21st February 1908, operated on behalf of the Corporation by J. G. White & Company (who had constructed the tramway).
The initial fleet, owned by the Corporation, consisted of 12 (Nos. 1-12) United Electric Car open-top double-deckers and were the only new tramcars purchased for the system.
They operated from the outset in a green and white livery with Luton Corporation Tramways displayed on the rocker panels.
In 1909 Balfour Beatty took over operation of the tramway and continued to operate it on behalf of Luton Corporation until 21st February 1923, when the Corporation withdrew the lease because of the general deterioration of the system and took over the running of the tramway.
An ex-Glasgow Corporation double-deck tramcar was added to the fleet in 1923, but was rebuilt to single-deck with single entrance/exit for one-man operation before entering service.
Subsequently, the local Council considered extending the routes and replacing the tramcars, with both trolleybus and motorbus schemes also mooted.
Nothing had materialised from these discussions when, towards the end of 1930, the Eastern National Omnibus Company, who was by then the principal motorbus operator in the area, made an offer for the transport department.
The Council readily approved the offer of £64000 for the goodwill (Eastern National did not want the tramway system and the Corporation would have had to dispose of it themselves), but local objections resulted in the matter being referred to the Ministry of Transport, who ruled that the deal contravened section 44 of the Tramways Act 1870 and the offer had to be declined.
In consequence of this decision, Luton Corporation decided to order nine motorbuses (Nos. 1-9 on Daimler CH6 chassis) with which to introduce routes to augment the existing tramway. The application for licences to operate on the new routes was made in December 1931 but refused.
As a result the Corporation decided to use the motorbuses to replace some of the ageing trams.
On 28th February 1932, the trams on the London Road, Dunstable Road and Wardown Park routes were replaced by motorbuses, and two months later on 16th April 1932, the line from Round Green to the depot saw the last car (No. 7) run and after 28 years the tram disappeared from the streets of Luton.
The livery chosen for the new motorbuses was maroon (although the shade varied over the years) with white relief. The fleetname Luton Corporation was applied with the coat-of-arms centrally underneath.
In 1952 the maroon was replaced by pillar-box red with cream relief, although by the time of the United Counties take-over in 1969 the buses were all red.
In 1933, Luton Corporation acquired three companies controlled by Mr. A. F. England, the Union Jack (Luton) Omnibus Company Ltd, of Dunstable, X.L. Motor Services and Bluebird Services.
This would have enabled the Corporation to operate to such destinations as Leighton Buzzard, Tring and Pegsdon, with excursions to the newly opened Whipsnade Zoo.
However, following objections by Eastern National, a 21-year agreement was signed dividing the services between the two undertakings and laying out the terms for future expansion by both operators.
On the Corporation’s part they were allowed to operate without objections by Eastern National to Houghton Regis, Dunstable and Streatley, as well as on numerous services within the borough.
A service (No. 23) to Luton Airport was introduced in 1937, after negotiations with London Transport, which commenced with just a solitary Bedford WTB (No. 60).
With the onset of World War II, the Corporation suffered a series of setbacks, including the loss of over 40 vehicles in an enemy air attack in 1940.
Although only 1 vehicle was actually destroyed, 46 others were rendered unfit for service and the Corporation had to seek replacement vehicles elsewhere, including some Bristol vehicles from Eastern National.
It was to be 1942 before any new vehicles were delivered. A wartime service connecting Luton to the villages of Kensworth and Studham was authorised by the Ministry of Defence, even though the route ran into London Passenger Transport Board territory.
It ceased in 1950 when the permit expired.
With the onset of peacetime there was a demand for new and improved services, although new vehicles were still difficult to obtain.
The first postwar deliveries were twelve double-deckers; four of Bristol manufacture (Nos. 88-91) with Weymann H30/26R bodywork, and the remainder (Nos.92-111) were Crossley-bodied Crossley DD42’s.
Applications for new services had been made (and approved) in 1947 by both Luton Corporation and Eastern National, some of which had gone against the 1932 agreement.
As a consequence, both operators signed the Luton & District Transport agreement in 1948, which provided for 50% of the mileage in the agreed area to be worked by each operator, with each receiving 50% of the revenue from the pooled fares.
From 1st May 1952, Luton area operations of the Eastern National Omnibus Company were transferred to the United Counties Omnibus Company, who subsequently became party to the agreement.
In 1950 the Corporation abandoned the old Bell Punch ticket system and introduced the more modern Ultimate system.
A number of Leyland double-deckers (Nos.124-138) were purchased in 1953 and 1954, which enabled the last of the prewar vehicles to be withdrawn.
The Leyland bodywork was to the lowbridge layout adopted as standard since the purchase of the first double-deckers in 1932 (the only highbridge layout double-deckers were those delivered during the war and immediately afterwards), a policy continued until the introduction of two Dennis Loline (Nos. 163-164) vehicles in 1960.
Park Street depot, which was the original tramway depot, had become short of space by the early sixties and so a new depot was constructed in Kingsway.
It opened officially on the 28th April 1963. The following year, in August 1964, Luton Bus Station was opened, but just five years later it closed down, to be replaced by another on 9th August 1969.
In January 1966 the newly appointed Transport Manager put in an order for high-capacity single-deckers capable of being one-man operated. On 2nd July 1967, using Almex ticket machines, the first of the one-man operated vehicles entered service.
Plans were soon announced for the withdrawal of all existing rear-entrance double-deckers to be replaced by one-man operated single-deckers in an effort to reduce the mounting losses sustained by the Corporation. By the end of the following year 30 single-deckers had been purchased.
In 1968, with the Luton & District Transport agreement, signed in 1948, due to expire in January 1970, negotiations were commenced with the United Counties Omnibus Company over its future.
At the same time tentative enquiries were made about the possible disposal of the undertaking to the Company. By now losses were approaching £¼ million a year and labour relations in respect of one-man operation were strained, making the financial situation worse.
United Counties replied in October 1969 with a firm offer for the undertaking, which was rapidly approved and accepted by the Council.
The official take-over date was 4th January 1970, on which date Luton Corporation Transport was consigned to the history books, although vehicles remained in Luton Corporation livery with Corporation fleet numbers until February 1970 when the first ex-Luton vehicles began to appear in United Counties livery.
In preparing this history reference has been made to the following sources;
The Directory of British Tramways (Keith Turner, PSL 996); PSV Circle Fleet History PN3/3A (1980); Municipal Buses in Colour (Reg Wilson, Ian Allan 1997); Buses/Buses Illustrated (various editions).