The later nineteenth century was a period of very rapid growth in suburban London, and there was often a misfit between the newly populated areas and the existing public transport system. Sometimes there was an adequate road and rail service already in existence. But often a main road or railway line was some distance away, and the private companies that provided the services were slow to respond to changes in demand.

Rye Lane, looking south

Progress towards better local communications could be particularly slow where the terrain was difficult, where the local authorities were lukewarm or dilatory, or where private landlords or residents were obstructive. Middle class folk with their own carriages were generally unsympathetic to the travel needs of their poorer neighbours.

East Dulwich was a case in point. Land became available for building from the mid-1860s, and by 1880 the district had a large number of lower-middle class houses whose inhabitants required cheap, quick and regular transport to work. However, not all the houses were occupied. ln the slump of the early 1880s many were standing empty, and poor rail and road services were held to be at least partly to blame.

For the somewhat better off residents the answer lay in a new railway line. ln 1881 a loop line was proposed, to run from Champion Hill (later East Dulwich) station to Nunhead, with a stop near Barry Road. Not surprisingly the railway companies showed no interest in this complicated and expensive project. (1) Much later, at the end of the century, attempts were made to entice the new underground tube railways into the district, but with equal lack of success. (2)

More persistent, though frustrated in the end, were proposals to run a line of tramway down Rye Lane, which was seen as the obvious outlet for a large area of East Dulwich. Trams starting at the Plough could use Rye Lane to reach Peckham High Street, where since the early 1870s a horse-drawn tram service had been running to Camberwell and on towards the Elephant and Castle.

The main stumbling block, however, proved to be the widening of Rye Lane that was necessary for a double line of tramway. The compulsory purchase of frontages would certainly have been expensive, but it seems that other factors were also at work. The local paper referred to the “inert viciousness of the vestry system”, meaning the creakiness of the responsible local authority, the parish of Camberwell. (3) One suspects that the influential shopkeepers of Rye Lane were none too keen. They had seen the disruption caused in the High Street by the road widening scheme that followed the introduction of the trams – a disruption from which they had themselves benefited – and they no doubt dreaded the same thing happening to them.

One local scheme did get further than the drawing board. In 1885 a single line of tramway was laid from the Plough to Queen’s Road. It did not run down Rye Lane, but crossed using Choumert Road and Atwell Street. But not only was it a failure, it also served to complicate and stultify other more practicable projects for the Rye Lane area for the next fifteen years. (4)

Other proposals were made at this period in the hope of by-passing Rye Lane, but they too came to nothing. The most serious of these was for a route linking Grove Vale with the Old Kent Road, via Bellenden and Sumner Roads. It was aired in 1889 and again in 1898, but it would have meant much road widening, not to mention the purchase of land to link the southern end of Bellenden Road with Grove Vale. (5)

What was not advocated before 1900 was a tram route from the Plough to Camberwell, via Grove Vale, Dog Kennel Hill, Grove Lane, Champion Park and Denmark Hill. The physical difficulties were considerable, since Dog Kennel Hill was narrow, and had a gradient of one in eleven, too steep for a horse-drawn vehicle laden with passengers. There would also have been strong opposition from the leafy areas of Champion and Denmark Hills.) Trams were considered to be an essentially working-class form of transport, and the noise of their bells was particularly disliked.

By 1900, however, conditions were rapidly changing. The carriage folk were retreating from their leafy strongholds, and a new vigorous local authority had emerged in the form of the London County Council. The LCC took a special interest in trams, buying out the private companies, planning new routes and, in 1901, committing itself to electric traction. At least a partial solution to the problems of East Dulwich was now in sight. A line from Camberwell to the Plough was opened in 1906, with a branch from Goose Green to Peckham Rye in 1907 and an extension from the Plough to Forest Hill in 1908. The clerks of the district could now get to the City more easily, and there was also an increased opportunity for travel to attractions such as Peckham Rye and Dulwich parks and the Horniman Museum.

However, the scheme had not been cheap. The corner from Champion Park into Grove Lane was improved, and an extensive widening of Dog Kennel Hill was undertaken, taking a strip of land from the De Crespigny estate on its western side. The tracks up Dog Kennel Hill were quadrupled in 1912, and tram enthusiasts admired how the specially adapted cars coped with the gradient. (6)

In the mind of the LCC the tram network was closely connected with another issue: the provision of working-class housing in the outer suburbs. In Tooting, for instance, the arrival of the electric tram coincided with the building of a new housing estate. In what has been Peckham since 1917, the residents of the then recently built Grove Vale estate no doubt benefited from the tram’s proximity — as did the residents of the Dog Kennel Hill estate from the mid-1930s, although by then the LCC had surrendered its trams to London Transport, and the glory days of the electric tram in London were over.

Richard Olney

1. South London Press 29 Oct 1881.
2. South London Press 21 Feb 1891, 26 Jan 1901, 31 Jan 1903.
3. South London Press 20 Jan 1883.
4. Transport in Peckham and Nunhead, John D. Beasley, p 27.
5. South London Press 6 Apr 1889, 22 Oct 1898.
6. LCC Electric Tramways, Robert J. Harley, 2002, pp 7-8,15.


Reprinted from Peckham Society News, Issue 117 (Autumn 2009)