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Twentieth Century


Technological changes throughout the twentieth century led to a huge growth in transport and transport provision in Dartford. The first cars appeared in Dartford at the turn of the century. In 1900, the Director of J. & E. Hall Ltd., bought himself a belt-driven Benz car. Later, in 1903, Dartfordian Dr. James Hamilton purchased a 4 cylinder Belgian 'Metallurgique' car, the first of its kind to be imported into Britain. This 24 h.p. car was fitted with a 5-seater open body. Little did the residents of Edwardian Dartford appreciate the extent to which the car, van, lorry, bus and other forms of motorised transport would revolutionise the future life of both Dartford as a town, and the lives of the town's residents.

The coming of motorised transport opened-up new leisure opportunities; provided a relatively cheap, efficient and effective means of transporting industrial goods long distances; and had a revolutionary impact on town planning. Motor transport required roads of a high standard. Towns like Dartford had to make provision for car parking, pedestrian road crossings, traffic lights and a network of good-quality roads that would facilitate the smooth flow of traffic. The horse and cart, which dominated the road transport scene in the nineteenth century soon disappeared.

Traffic accidents in early twentieth century Dartford were frequent as the motor car became popular. Heavy steam lorries, though slow-moving, had occasional difficulties. There were many comments on Dartford High Street's 'awful narrowness, miserable paving and ill-laid tramway tracks'. On 25 July 1928 a lorry of the Atlas Paving Slab Co. smashed its gearbox and ran away down East Hill. Fortunately the driver was able to hold it to the centre of the road. Later in July 1934 a Maidstone and District Motor Services coach crashed into Smith's furniture showroom on East Hill. In the mid 1930s there were local protests about the breaking of the 30 m.p.h. speed limit on Dartford Road.

The twentieth century also witnessed the introduction of new forms of public transport, which gave every resident the opportunity to travel long distances with ease. Trams, trolleybuses, motor omnibuses, Green Line coaches and taxis gave Dartford residents the chance to shop in other local towns and to venture further afield. Day-trippers from Woolwich, Welling, Bexley and other South London suburbs could travel to Dartford to do their shopping or to visit the town's popular market.

The invention of the locomotive and the opening-up of rail links between Dartford, London and other Kent towns in the nineteenth century laid the foundations for extensive rail facilities in the twentieth century. The electrification of the railway system and the up-grading of local station facilities encouraged widespread commuting. Local people no longer had to work for employers in and around Dartford. Instead, they could jump on a train at Dartford Station and in less than an hour could be in central London where there were better job opportunities and higher wages.

The people of Dartford could also enjoy new leisure experiences thanks to rail transport. Excursions and holidays by train to the coast and country became the norm for those who could afford the fares. The development of the rail network also opened up new economic possibilities. Freight trains could be used to transport raw materials and finished products to and from nationwide markets generating profits for local firms.

Considerable use was made of Dartford Creek in the 1920s and later. An ever-increasing quantity of goods was arriving in Dartford by water. In 1928 the Creek Commissioners considered making considerable improvements to the waterway, then much used by Dartford's paper mills for the import of pulp and china clay, and by Dartford Wharfage Company.

Dartford benefited from the new transport infrastructure that came into being in the 1930s and later. The local area was crossed by fast new roads. Dartford's enviable geographical location put all parts of the UK and the continent within easy reach via the M25, A2, and M20. Businesses in the area were also able to make use of the freight ferries operating from nearby Thames Europort in the 1980s and 1990s.

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Dartford's Light Railway or 'tramway' service commenced operations on 14 February 1906 and remained in service until November 1935. The tramway project was regarded as a controversial one when it was first discussed in 1900. Dartford Urban District Council had, at that time, been approached by several commercial interest groups who wished to obtain permission to promote the construction of a tramway system. The council considered these various requests but finally decided that they themselves should try to obtain the legal powers to set-up a tramway system in and around the town. An application was then made by Dartford Urban District Council and the Rural District Council to the Light Railway Commissioners.

An enquiry was held at Dartford's Victoria Assembly Rooms in March 1901. Unfortunately, the Rural District Council opted out of the project when faced with technical problems. Dartford Urban District Council were given outline permission for the project as early as May 1901. By November 1902, the council applied for extensions to the previously agreed tramway scheme. They wanted the
tramway to link directly with the Gravesend and Northfleet Tramways at Swanscombe.

The Light Railways' Commission held an enquiry in Dartford in February 1903 to discuss the proposed extension. Strong objections were made by the South East and Chatham Railways. The proposed new tram line would run parallel with the existing railway line and would therefore be in direct competition with the railway. The proposed extension was therefore rejected in favour of an extension which ended in the middle of nowhere at Horns Cross. This left a gap of over a mile between the end of the Dartford tram system and the start of the Gravesend and Northfleet Tramways at Swanscombe.

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Route of the Dartford Tramway
Click to enlarge


The construction of the tramways by Messrs. J. G. White and Company commenced in July 1905 at the Crayford junction with the Bexley Council Tramways. A special ceremony was arranged to mark the event and Mr. S. K. Keyes, Chairman of the Dartford Tramways Committee, performed the opening which was attended by hundreds of people. The official opening of the tramways was conducted on 14 February 1906.

Dartford's tram depot was sited in Burnham Road. The building housed sixteen tramcars. Twelve double-decker tramcars were manufactured by the United Electric Car Company of Preston; each car could accommodate 56 passengers. The interior was finished in maple; the exterior paint scheme was maroon with yellow panels. Featured on the tramcar's bodywork were the words 'Dartford Council Tramways' and the coat of arms of the County of Kent.

Trams in Dartford
Click to enlarge

Approximately two million people travelled on the Dartford tramway system during its first year of operation. Over 300,000 car miles had been run in just twelve months. Disaster struck the system in the early hours of 8 August 1917. The main tram depot in Burnham Road was totally destroyed by fire along with thirteen tramcars and other items of equipment. Not even the prompt intervention of the Dartford Fire Brigade was enough to save the depot from destruction. Damage was estimated at £17,000.

Dartford Council had to make immediate arrangements with Bexley Council for them to take-over operation of the service; this was done the following day. Sixteen double-decker trams were brought into service from the Bexley yard. Trams ran between Horns Cross and Woolwich with a shuttle service running between Dartford Station and Wilmington. This arrangement continued until 1933 when the system was taken-over by the London Passenger Transport Board.

In the 1920s, some local people thought the trams a costly mistake, but it was deemed more expensive to dismantle the system than to continue. Trams caused considerable inconvenience to other traffic including cyclists, for whom the rails could be death-traps.

A priority for the LPTB was to get rid of the local tram service. Dartford's tramcars were found to be in very poor condition and twelve were replaced immediately by ex London County Council trams. These were restricted to operating on half power owing to the appalling condition of the track. The last tram ran in Dartford in November 1935. Trams were quickly replaced by trolleybuses. These smooth, environmentally-friendly, quiet vehicles offered a faster and more reliable service between Dartford and Woolwich.

Document 1: Click the link below to view the document

Local tram fares in 1906

Document 2: Click the link below to view the document

Memories of Dartford's trams and trolleybuses


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