BEXLEY TRAM LETTER BOX
By Peter Bathe
Peter has also asked us to point to all his old friends in Greenwich that he now lives in France
Between 1910 and 1935, a special letter box was attached to the last tram each night from Bexley to Woolwich to give a later collection of letters than was then being made from the street letter boxes.
the history of the trams in the area was outlined by E. F. E. Jefferson in “Woolwich and the Trams”, an article in Woolwich & District Antiquarian Society Proceedings of 1954, two years after the last London trams had run to Woolwich. In it he says that Bexley Urban District Council began to operate its own tram service in October 1903, starting at Gravel Hill and going towards Woolwich, at first terminating just inside the old LCC area at The Plume of Feathers, Plumstead, but, from 26 July 1908, running to Beresford Square, Woolwich, very near the Woolwich District Post Office, at that time in Greens End. The route from Gravel Hill was via Bexleyheath Clock Tower and Bexleyheath Broadway to Welling High Street, then at Welling Corner it turned along Upper Wickham Lane and Wickham Lane to Plumstead High Street, where it turned again towards Woolwich via the High Street and Plumstead Road to Beresford Square.
In her book “The Letter Box” (1969), Jean Farrugia says the idea of putting letter boxes on trams and buses in Britain was first mooted in 1889, after such a service had been established in the USA a few years earlier. The system was in use in Paris before 1891, but the Postmaster General did not like the idea of a similar scheme in London, although he did agree to tram and bus letter boxes being used in provincial towns. The first was in Huddersfield (20 March 1893) on its trams. By the outbreak of World War I, 20 towns and cities had tried letterboxes on corporation transport, including Bexley, which started in 1910. A lot of the schemes were short-lived, but the Bexley service survived into the 1930s.
Farrugia, who shows a Manchester Corporation tramcar post box of 1935, says: “Tramcar and omnibus letter boxes were never of any standard pattern, the majority being manufactured locally at the expense of the Post Office. Some boxes were fixed at the rear of the tram or bus; others were hung on the side, or even placed on the conductor’s platform. Normally, the boxes were intended for use only after the last collection from ordinary street letter boxes had been made, and on services coming into the centre of the town from outlying parts.”
Jefferson in “The Woolwich Story” (1965) says: “It was at this time [just prior to World War I] that arrangements were made for the posting of letters up to 11pm in a special box fitted on the Bexley tram arriving in Woolwich at that hour. Only the usual 1d stamp was required if the posting was done while the tram was at a stop, but persons desiring to post between stops had to pay 1d extra.”
According to the Bexleyheath & District Local Handbook for 1932, the last tram then left the Market Place at 10.26pm.
The charges appear to be no different from those applied to the first tram letter boxes in Huddersfield. Farrugia says: “A special charge of one penny was levied by the Council if a would-be poster stopped the tram merely for the purpose of posting his letter – the penny being dropped into the tramcar guard’s fare box.”
The original Bexley tramcars produced in 1903 “… had very large copper cased oil head lamps with parabolic reflectors which were hooked on to the dash at whichever end of the car was leading, the intention being that these would continue to give illumination even if the power supply failed,” according to The Light Railway Transport League & Tramway & Light Railway Society’s 1962 publication “The Tramways of Woolwich & South East London, Southeastern” (edited by G. E. Baddeley). This book continues: “Before these cars has been in service many years, certain modifications were carried out, for example, the ungainly oil head lamps were replaced by conventional electric ones set high on the dash with the car number painted beneath them…
“In 1924, the metal catches which had formerly supported the oil head lamps were refitted to a number of cars, but to the left of their former position and used to support the letter posting box carried on the last car at night. Presumably one of the open topped cars so fitted had always to perform the last journey.”
This book also has an illustration that “shows clearly…catches for the letter box”. As the letter box was only put on the last tram at night, it is unlikely any photographs exist of the box in situ, although, of course, if anyone has one, the author would be very interested in a copy!
That the tram letterbox was put on the late-night car from Bexley to Woolwich when it was established in 1910 is not surprising: in 1875, Woolwich had been created the head post office of a district that included Bexley, Bexleyheath, Erith and Welling as well as Charlton, Plumstead and Eltham. That it should continue long after 1913, when Woolwich had been returned to London control, and Bexley put under Dartford, is much more interesting, especially after 1917 when a fire destroyed Dartford’s trams in their depot and Bexley and Dartford started to operate their trams under a joint committee. It would have been logical then, in both postal and tram-operation terms, for the Bexley late-night letters to have gone to Dartford by tram, rather than to Woolwich.
It would appear that there were a large number of nocturnal letter writers in the area and it is reported in the August 1929 issue of “Record”, the Bexley Chamber of Commerce’s journal, that a later collection had been introduced for ordinary street letter boxes. “It is thought that the later collection from pillar-boxes will reduce the posting in the tram letter box to an amount within the capacity of the box.”
The Bexley letter box service ceased on 23 November 1935, when the London Passenger Transport Board, which had taken over the Bexley trams two years earlier, replaced them with trolleybuses. At the outbreak of World War II, any remaining posting boxes on buses and trams elsewhere in the UK were also withdrawn.
This article appeared in the March 2002 GIHS Newsletter