You can walk, catch a bus, or even drive along the promenade, but the horse tram is a unique experience. It is great fun and much the best way to travel along the promenade BUT you do need a good day. Don’t consider it is it is blowing a gale and raining… After nearly 150 years they are as popular with visitors as ever.
By the mid C19th, the Isle of Man was becoming a popular holiday destination. Hotels and guest houses were being built along the sea front in Douglas. In 1875, Thomas Lightfoot planned to build a horse pulled tramway to serve the length of the promenade to carry visitors between the ferry terminal and their accommodation. The tramway opened the following year with two tramcars on a single track with passing places. This was later doubled and the tram fleet expanded to 12 cars. Two enclosed saloons were bought for use in bad weather. By 1893 the northern terminus was built at Strathallan Crescent, where it still is today. The tram fleet had expanded to 31 trams.
The tramway passed through a series of owners until 1900. The collapse of Dumbell’s Bank led to the tramway being placed in the hands of a liquidator and it was sold to Douglas Corporation for £50,000. The outbreak of World War One led to a drastic fall in visitor numbers. Trams continued to run, but operated on the diminished winter timetable.
Visitor numbers grew rapidly in the interwar years. Omnibus services were introduced and there were proposals to replace the horse trams with buses. It was agreed they would continue but on a seasonal basis. In 1935 three ‘convertible’ trams, closed toastracks, arrived and were colloquially called ‘tomato boxes’. They had folding shutters which could be opened or closed depending on the weather. These are the still the most commonly used tramcars.
Services were suspended during World War Two and many of the boarding houses along the sea front were requisitioned as camps for ‘Enemy Aliens’. The tramway reopened in 1946 with much needed track repairs and maintenance of vehicles. At first there was a limited service as a result of shortage of horses. There were questions asked about overburdening one horse pulling double decker trams and these were withdrawn. All were scrapped apart from two.
During the 1980s, visitor numbers were dropping again and the island’s economy became much more dependent on the finance industry. Advertising on tramcars became a major source of income.
The trams stopped running in 2014 during the redevelopment of the promenade. Trams ran again in 2015 but Douglas Borough Council confirmed there would be no further services in 2016 as the trams were not financially viable. After an on line petition received over 2000 signatures, The House of Keys set up a committee to look into ways of retaining the horse trams. The operation of the tramway was taken over by the Isle of Man Heritage Railways which has run a summer service since 2016. There are plans to reduce part of the route to single track as part of the redevelopment of Douglas Promenade.
Trams have been using the terminus by the Sea Terminal for over a century. The first part of the route runs along the Loch Promenade next to the sunken gardens. This is built on reclaimed land and developed in the late C19th. Beyond Loch Promenade is Harris Promenade with the Gaiety Theatre, Opera House and Villa Marina with its gardens. There is nothing left of the pier that was once here.
Beyond is Clarence Terrace with its boarding houses set back from the road with gardens in front, as well as Castle Mona. Beyond Harris Promenade is Queen’s Promenade with more boarding houses. The route begins to climb to the terminus at Strathallan Crescent, which is also the terminus of the Manx Electric railway. The horse tram cars are stored here.
The stables are a short distance away at the junction of Summer Hill. Each horse does two round trips before returning to the stables and have one day off a week.
The stables are open 8-4 while the trams are running. In the winter months, the horses spend their time out in the fields. Visitors can walk in and see the horses, but are asked to let a member of staff know. Stable tours are run occasionally during the season.
The horses all have a name and their own stable. There collar, harness and bridle hang in the hallway. On the door is information about each horse, how old they are and any foibles. The horses have very distinct characters. Philip dislikes cold water and has to be sluiced down with warm water when he returns from duty.
There are also boards listing the diet of all of the horses. This includes spent hops and barley from Bushy’s Brewery and are mixed in with oats to provide a high protein diet. Another board lists any ailments.
The smithy is at the back of the stables and is very much a working forge. The horses are shoed at the start of the season and need reshoeing every four weeks while working.
When the tram horses are too old to work, they ‘retire’ to the Home of Rest for Old Horses at Richmond Hill, on the outskirts of Douglas. The Home is run entirely by volunteers and is open for visitors mid May to Mid September 10-4 but not Saturdays.
There are over 60 horses and donkeys here. The tram horses are always pleased to see visitors and stand by the fence waiting to be fed. Bags of food are available from the shop.
Unfortunately the trams are not designed for people with reduced mobility or pushchairs. It can be quite a climb on and off them.
There is a lot more information and pictures about Heritage transport on the Isle of Man “here.”:http://wasleys.org.uk/eleanor/man/transport/index.html