Fast trolleys kept us going silently through war and peace

IT IS 50 years since the East End saw its last electric trolleybus running through the streets. Peter Golds, a Tower Hamlets councillor who has had a passion for trolleybuses ever since he rode on one to Aldgate as a schoolboy just before they were scrapped in January, 1961, takes a nostalgic look back at what was the world’s most advanced public street transport that has never been equalled since:

IT SCARCELY seems half-a-century since my parents brought my brother and me to Whitechapel to buy clothes for our birthdays in January back in 1950s post-war Britain.

Mum and dad took us to Gardiner’s department store in Whitechapel High Street, on the ‘cheese-slice’ corner of Commercial Road.

That’s when we travelled on the last of the 653 trolleybuses that ran through East London that week—1961 saw London’s most eco-friendly buses being scrapped.

Trolleybuses were unique, never rivalled since. They were powered by overhead electric wires running along the street, silently, smoothly, fast—and eco-friendly, decades ahead of their time.

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Trolleys also were not restricted to tracks in the road. They were manoeuvrable and could weave in and out of traffic.

You could tell if a trolley was on its way by the overhead wires twitching. Put your ear to the upright standards supporting the lines and you could sometimes hear them before you could see them.

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To my father, pre-war Gardner’s Corner was a permanent traffic jam as tram-tracks terminated in the middle of the road where the trams just stopped for the return run to Hackney, Barking, Leyton and Ilford. All that clutter vanished when trams switched to quieter, smoother trolleybuses at the end of the 1930s.

The trolleys, like the trams before them, were barred by the City Corporation from going any further into the Square Mile than Aldgate.

But unlike trams, they needed to make sweeping u-turns for the return journey, so a depot was opened opposite St Botolph’s Church in 1939, just before War broke out.

The first tram to be switched in East London was the 47, replaced by the new 647 trolley which crossed Gardiner’s Corner from the London Docks and ran along Commercial Street to Shoreditch and Dalston, up to Stamford Hill.

The Aldgate trolleybus terminal opened shortly after, when the 53 tram became the 653 trolley running along Whitechapel Road to Hackney and Holloway.

The 653 was perhaps the oddest route—it didn’t run in a straight line east from Aldgate, but rather a ‘bow’ shape turning north at Mile End Gate to run along Cambridge Heath Road and Mare Street to Stamford Hill, swinging westward to Finsbury Park and Holloway, then south to Tottenham Court Road. So no-one really stayed on it for the full route.

The 677 trolley from Smithfield was another odd route, running north passed The Angel, then east along Balls Pond Road to Dalston and Victoria Park, then south along Burdett Road to the West India Docks.

Trolleybuses were at their best and worse during the Second World War. They were powered by overhead electric wires which saved on imported fuel.

But the wires were exposed and vulnerable to air raids, often brought down during the Blitz which put the vehicles out of action until the lines could be repaired.

But they did well and somehow managed to keep London on the move.

The 567 from Aldgate to Barking and its sister routes the 565, 569 and 665 were the ‘dockers’ trolleys’ that kept going right through the worst the Luftwaffe could chuck at the docks.

They ran along Commercial Road passed Limehouse Basin connecting with all the docks from Millwall to the Royal Docks.

After the war, Aldgate became the busiest trolleybus terminal on the whole London network. As many as 124 trolleybuses left Aldgate between 7.30 and 8.30am every weekday in 1947, with a total of 1,358 departures during the day, according to the transport historian Hugh Taylor.

What a service that was—fast, smooth, cheap to run, clean—no doubt making today’s public transport planners green with envy!

Trolleys were the most efficient of all public transport, in addition to their eco-friendly credentials. Each one could carry 70 seated passengers, more than the Routemasters that replaced them half-a-century ago.

But nothing lasts for ever and the trolley soon found its way into the history book of London transport.

The first to be scrapped in East London was in 1959, route 677 from Smithfield to West India Docks—just 20 years after its introduction—and replaced by today’s 277 bus.

In August that year, we lost the 661 and the 663 to Ilford and Becontree, replaced by more buses on the 25 route.

Three months later, the 567 along Commercial Road was scrapped and the first mass-produced Routemasters were seen in London.

This left just the 653 from Aldgate for another 18 months, until January 31, 1961, when the East End finally gave up the ghost of trolleybuses.

On that Tuesday evening, the last trolley to leave Aldgate was driven out by 36-year-old Peter McMorrow, now living in retirement in Cricklewood aged 86. He was surrounded by crowds in the street on that last journey. Peter later spent two years driving Routemasters, but the bus fumes affected his chest and he quit London Transport.

The very last trolleybus to run in London on May 8, 1962, from Wimbledon to Fulwell, was originally based at Poplar and West Ham depots and would have been seen frequently along the Whitechapel Road.

The 653 lives on as today’s 253 bus, while the 647 is identified as the 67 and the 649 from Liverpool Street as the 249.

Bow depot, which was home to the 661 and 663, remains the terminal for buses on route 8. But Poplar and West Ham depots are long gone, along with the complex routes they operated.

Trolleybuses remain elsewhere in Europe, Asia and north America, cheap to run, clean, quiet, fast and eco-friendly.

They were reintroduced in Athens for the 2004 Olympics. What an idea to reintroduce trolleys back to East London for the 2012 Olympics—billed as the ‘greenest’ Games to date.

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