History of the Tramway

The Douglas Bay Horse Tramway is the oldest remaining horse-drawn tram service in the world.

1876   Founded as the Douglas Bay Tramway by Thomas Lightfoot at the peak of the Victorian tourist trade in 1876, by that summer a single line 3ft gauge track had been constructed from the Iron Pier (then at the foot of Broadway) to Burnt Mill Hill (now Summer Hill) terminating adjacent to a wide grassed area known as the ‘Playground’. 

Highroads surveyor James Garrow inspected the line on 7 August 1876 and it is believed the line began carrying passengers that day and that the first driver was Jack Davies from Onchan.

Manx National Heritage / iMuseum

Three tramcars were delivered to commence the service, two open-top double-deckers (no.2 & no.3) and a single deck saloon (no.1). By December 1876 the tramway had been extended along Harris and Loch promenades to the foot of Victoria Pier; permission to open this new section was given in January 1877.

Fifteen horses were used and stabled at Lightfoot's residence, Athol House (near to the present Queen's Hotel), its sea-front walled garden was used to keep the three tramcars when not in use.

1877   Lightfoot purchased three terraced houses at the bottom of Burnt Mill Hill and proceeded to build new larger stables behind to accommodate the expanding stud of horses.

1882   To help finance his other Douglas real estate developments, on 6 January 1882 Thomas Lightfoot sold his horse tramway to three local businessmen who formed a new company, Isle of Man Tramways Ltd.

1883-84   Five more double-deckers were acquired for the service, no.4 in 1882, no.5 & 6 in 1883 and no.7 & 8 in 1884. Also in 1884, original tramcar no.1 was converted into a double-decker, and the first of the cross-bench 'Toastrack' cars (no.9 & no.10) were introduced, a design so popular with tourists through to the present day.
Sadly none of the original ten tramcars have survived, but ‘Toastracks’ no.11 dating from 1886 and no.12 delivered to the Island in early 1888 both have.

Manx National Heritage / iMuseum

1886-87   The end-of-the-line track then along Tramway Terrace was diverted off Queen's promenade to a newly built terminus shed and tramcar depot on the seaward side of the promenade at Burnt Mill Hill.  By 1887, a double track section was completed between the Falcon Cliff and this new terminus (actually named Derby Castle, but still somewhat short of the Derby Castle Pleasure Grounds entrance). It was not until 1897 that the horse tramway was double track along its full length between Victoria Pier and Derby Castle.

In 1887 the company purchased six second-hand double-deck tramcars (renumbered no.13 to no.18) from a failed South Shields tramway concern. Five of these had been built by the Metropolitan Railway Carriage Co of Saltley, Birmingham, which also supplied many of the Isle of Man Steam Railway carriages and wagons. The sixth car (no.18) was built by the
Falcon Engine & Car Works of Loughborough, albeit to a similar design.


Manx National Heritage / iMuseum

Passenger numbers were growing at an exceptional rate: 360,000 in 1885; 550,000 in 1888; 630,000 in 1891; 805,000 in 1892.

1889-92   By late 1890 after protracted negotations with a number of land owners, the tramway was finally extended along Strathallan Crescent, the track ending near to the castellated entrance to the Derby Castle Pleasure Grounds.

A further eight ‘Toastrack’ cars (no.19 to no.26) were purchased between 1889 and 1891, followed by three new elegant single-deck winter saloons (no.27 to no.29) in 1892.

1894   The horse tramway was sold for £38,000 to the Douglas & Laxey Coast Electric Tramway Co, later that year renamed Isle of Man Tramways and Electric Power Company Ltd., builder and operator of the fledgling Manx Electric Railway which had started operating in September 1893 from Derby Castle to Groudle.

1895-96   The 12-road horse tramcar depot seen today at the end of Strathallan Crescent was built as a single storey structure in 1895/6, with a traverser system and capacity for 36 tramcars, together with an ornate cast iron terminus canopy with clock tower over the horse tram tracks adjacent to the Derby Castle attractions and the new Manx Electric Railway.

The new owners then purchased six additional tramcars of a 'sunshade' type (no.32 to no.37), basically a 'Toastrack' car with fixed canopy roof.

Over 1,500,000 passengers were first carried in 1897, rising to a staggering 1,620,000 in 1898.

1900-02   As a result of the failure of Dumbell’s Bank in February 1900, the Isle of Man Tramways & Electric Power Company was forced into administration and Douglas Corporation was able to buy both the horse and upper Douglas cable tramways from the liquidator for the sum of £50,000. At the time of takeover on 2 January 1902, the horse tramway comprised 36 tramcars and a stud of 68 horses, plus the tracks, stable building and new Strathallan depot and terminus.

Passenger demand was still on the rise in the early 20th century, the Corporation ordered five additional open 'Toastracks' no.38 to no.42 delivered between 1902 and 1905, then a series of five covered 'Bulkheads' no.43 to no.47 delivered between 1907 and 1911.

In 1913, the Corporation acquired an additional single-deck winter saloon and numbered it no.1, the original no.1 having been converted to a double-decker, withdrawn and then scrapped at the turn of the century.

1915-18   The tramway survived the Great War, albeit with greatly reduced services, but visitors returned in huge numbers by the mid-1920s.

1927-27   The introduction of omnibuses on the promenades in 1926 led to the cessation on 2 November 1927 of winter horse tram services. Yet
2,500,000 passengers were carried on the horse tramway in 1927.

Ever since it has been a seasonal service (generally May to September) supplemented with some out-of-season weekend and special event services.

1935   The final purchase of new tramcars was made by Douglas Corporation in 1935 when three all-weather 'convertibles' (no.48 to no.50) were acquired, later to become affectionately known as ‘tomato boxes’. These were likely the last horse tramcars to be built in the United Kingdom.

Also in 1935 an upper floor of offices was built on the tramcar depot at Strathallan. Three of the twelve tram roads were by now closed off to allow for ground floor offices and new stairs to be installed, limiting storage capacity to twenty-seven tramcars.

1936   The fleet in service by 1936 comprised 46 cars, all with roller bearings now fitted, and a stud of 135 horses.  A record 2,750,000 passengers made journeys on the horse tramway in 1938.

1939-45   The outbreak of war in 1939 led to an immediate slump in Island visitors and the horse tram service was suspended. Barbed wire fencing was erected across the promenades for creating compounds for internees and prisoners of war. The entire horse stud was sold off and the fleet of tramcars put into storage for six years.

1946-52   Services resumed in late May 1946, made possible by the purchase of 42 replacement horses from Ireland. Fourteen of the out-of-use tramcars were broken up between 1948 and 1952, including many of the early double-deckers after animal rights campaigners raised concerns about the loads having to be drawn by single horses.

By 1955 the only remaining double-decker no.14, no longer in use, left the island for the British Transport Museum (later part of the Science Museum) who restored it for static display.

1956   The tramway marked its 80th anniversary in 1956 when 80 horses paraded at the Victoria Pier in front of the Lieutenant Governor. Guests included international horsewoman Miss Pat Smyth and Mrs D'Echevarria, grand-daughter of Tramway founder Mr Thomas Lightfoot.

1965-74   A series of Royal visits in 1964 (The Queen Mother), 1965 (Princess Margaret), 1970 (Prince Philip) and 1972 (The Queen, Prince Philip, Princess Anne and Earl Mountbatten) publicised journeys made on the horse trams and appeared to spark some renewed interest in using the service, as passenger numbers again climbed past the 1,000,000 mark in 1974.

1976   On 9 August 1976, the Douglas Bay Horse Tramway proudly celebrated its first 100 years of passenger services along Douglas promenades with special cavalcades of tramcars and horses. Double-decker no.14 returned to the Island to lead the main centenary procession, but was rightly considered a museum piece so was afterwards mainly kept in the Derby Castle depot until in 1990 it was moved to the Manx Museum, Douglas, for more suitable permanent indoor display.

In 1980, the ornate station canopy at the Derby Castle terminus had finally succumbed to the ravages of age and salt spray. It was judged unsound and not viable to repair, so shared the fate of much Island transport heritage at the time and was demolished without replacement. 

1988   The attraction of having a working double-decker for special event days and occasional normal service use led to Douglas Borough Council converting tramcar no.18 back into a double-decker in 1988, with sponsorship provided by a local brewery. It had been one of the second-hand South Shields' cars purchased in 1887, converted into a single deck winter saloon in 1903, now reverting to the double deck tramcar seen today.

2001   The Tramway celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2001, again with cavalcades of trams this time led by double-decker no.18. More recently the Olympic Torch was carried by horse tram along the Douglas promenades in 2011 as part of its tour around the British Isles.

2016   In January 2016, after 114 years of ownership and operation, Douglas Borough Council announced that it would no longer continue operating the Douglas Bay Horse Tramway due to financial constraints.  The long term future of the remaining original tramcars, 20 heavy horses and the Victorian stables and tramcar depot is yet to be determined.  However, for the 2016-18 seasons, the Manx Government has agreed to operate the horse tram service as part of its Isle of Man Heritage Railways portfolio.

The Tramway celebrated 140 years of service along the Douglas Promenades on 7 August 2016 with a fine procession of heavy horses along Strathallan Crescent to the depot for a photographic event alongside current and former staff, followed by a cavalcade of nine tramcars (led by double-decker no.18) from Derby Castle to the Sea Terminal and back.