Oxford History: The High

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Public transport in the High Street, 1881–1915


Horse-drawn trams

Before 1913, the only form of public transport within the city of Oxford was the horse-drawn tram. In 1881 two lines opened:

  • East–west: From the Magdalen Road cricket grounds to the Park End Street railway stations, via Cowley Road, The Plain, Magdalen Bridge, High Street, Carfax, Queen Street, and New Road
  • North–south: From Rackham's Lane (now St Margaret's Road) to the bottom of St Aldate's, via Banbury Road, St Giles', Cornmarket, and Carfax.

PictureOxon: Photograph of a horse-drawn tram at the Magdalen Road terminus

As can be see in the postcard below dating from c.1905, there was a single set of tramlines in the middle of the High Street that split into two to allow passing. For the more wealthy, hansom cabs for private hire are waiting for customers outside The Queen's College.

Tramlines in 1905

The postcard below entitled “A bit of Old Oxford” was posted in November 1903, and shows a horse-drawn tram carrying weary policemen. The sender wrote on the back, “I am sending you this to show you how they take the policemen off when they go off duty, how they fill up the trams.”

Old horse tram

The people of Oxford dreamed of motor-buses, but the Corporation considered these vehicles too dangerous and dirty, preferring the cleaner electric tram. The University, needless to say, wanted no change, but considered particularly unthinkable the prospect of overhead power lines in the High.

Proposal for electric trams

In 1905 Oxford Corporation put forward a proposal to take over the (horse) Tramways Company and to introduce electric trams.

Cartoon showing electric tram

The postcard above, published by Davis’s of 2 Cornmarket Street (presumably in 1905), show’s the University’s horror at the idea of an electric tram. The don on the left, Dr James Bright (Master of University College) is saying ”Johnnie, I shall have to build another bridge”, referring to (1) Magdalen Bridge, which had already been widened in 1899 by the Oxford Local Board to accommodate horse-drawn trams, and (2) the smaller bridge that his college had just built to link the Durham Building to the older parts of the college across Logic Lane.

The tram is packed with members of Oxford Corporation: the gentleman second from the left is probably Alderman Walter Gray, leader of the Conservative group, and top right at the head of the stairs Alderman Robert Buckell, leader of the Liberal group.

The Motor bus

In the event, however, escalating costs meant that the electric trams never materialized. William Morris (later Lord Nuffield) dramatically broke through the impasse when he brought a dozen motor buses from London overnight in November 1913; the Oxford Motor Omnibus Company was formed; and buses are still dominating the High today.

Alfred D Godley (1856–1925), Public Orator at the University of Oxford from 1910 to 1920, wrote the following poem, in which the word “Bus” is treated as a Latin second declension noun, and appears in all ten of its possible case variations (dative and ablative being the same):

MOTOR BUS

What is this that roareth thus?
Can it be a Motor Bus?
Yes, the smell and hideous hum
Indicat Motorem Bum!
Implet in the Corn and High
Terror me Motoris Bi:
Bo Motori clamitabo
Ne Motore caedar a Bo –
Dative be or Ablative
So thou only let us live:
Whither shall thy victims flee?
Spare us, spare us, Motor Be!
Thus I sang; and still anigh
Came in hordes Motores Bi,
Et complebat omne forum
Copia Motorum Borum.
How shall wretches live like us
Cincti Bis Motoribus?
Domine, defende nos
Contra hos Motores Bos!

With thanks to Dr Malcolm Graham, former Head of Oxfordshire Studies, for additional information


English Heritage: Horse trams in the High in 1905

©Stephanie Jenkins

Last updated: 18 June, 2018

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