Today (July 5) in London History – “They Gave Londoners Seven-league Boots”

London said farewell to trams on July 5, 1952. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

It was said that they gave Londoners seven-league boots. What a great way of putting it. 

It’s a phrase as pretty and charming and delightful and romantic as a wedding cake.

And what was it that gave Londoners seven-league boots? 


And we’re talking trams today – July 5th – because the last tram in London ran on July 5th, 1952. 

And what a scene it was. 

It’s sometimes forgotten or overlooked – or not understood – that Londoners can be soppy and sentimental. The prevailing notion is that they’re hardbitten and tough as old rope – all that World War II stiff upper lip and Londoners can take it business – but that’s just one side of their character. But they’ve also got a soft side. V. S. Pritchett, I quoted him yesterday, has probed deeper into the mysterious heart of the Londoner – and indeed the mysterious heart of his city – than any other writer or artist.

This short passage, for example. The payoff – for our purposes here – is his final image, the last seven words. It’s particularly to be admired, this passage, because of the deft way it weaves together Londoners and foreigners. And in particular, what Londoners make of foreigners. Here’s the passage. “Although London landladies are Britannias armed with helmet, shield, trident, and have faces with the word ‘No’ stamped like a coat of arms on them, the place is sentimental and tolerant. The attitude to foreigners is like the attitude to dogs: dogs are neither human nor British, but so long as you keep them under control, give them their exercise, feed them, pat them, you will find their wild emotions are amusing, and their characters interesting. They even have their own sometimes enviable life; they assume your habits and – such are the pleasures of British loneliness – they become a man’s best friend. The Bayswater landlady gazes at her spaniel and says with proud complacency, ‘He’s trying to say something.’ So is the foreigner. After a year or two of resentment, the foreigner recognizes that London is a place where we are all mongrels together, mainly on leash, but let out for short, mad daily scampers in the park.”

“Short, mad daily scampers in the park” – and the high emotions that accompany them – that’s precisely what London felt like – and what Londoners were feeling on the day it said Farewell to Trams. All day the surviving trams had been crowded with cheering, singing people. And at night the scenes were something out of Mardi Gras. This was to say goodbye to trams, remember.

Regulations were ignored. People rode on the front and rear bumpers. They chalked slogs and smoked inside. Souvenir hunters removed service number plates, blinds, used ticket boxes and bell-push signs. The last trams travelled in darkness, all the light bulbs having been removed. They – the trams not the people – were garlanded with wreathes or decorated with streamers. The last hurrah, the final tram, a No. 40 left Woolwich at 11.57 pm and was due to arrive at the New Cross depot at 12.29 am but was nearly 45 minutes late. Many of the crowd lining the route put pennies on the track to have them flattened as souvenirs. 

And here’s the thing, this mad scamper in the park wasn’t just a one-day affair. July 5th was the last day of London’s Last Tram Week. Londoners got stuck in. Partied for a week. Gave trams the send-off of send-offs. 

Bit of history. You’re hardly going to credit this first bit but it’s God’s truth. London trams were started, in 1861, by an American named Train. I kid you not. It was a horse tramway. It ran from Marble Arch to Notting Hill Gate. And Train’s first passenger was the famous artist Cruikshank. Do beginnings come any more auspicious – let alone oddball – than that? Is the penny dropping? Do you see why I’m so in love with this city. Why the place is endlessly fascinating. 

Anyway, despite some teething problems, Tramways – of the horse-drawn variety – were here to stay. Well, were here to stay for nearly 60 years. London had horse-drawn trams until World War I. By 1880 there were 63 miles of track, 479 cars and 4,178 horses. That year they carried 64 million passengers on ten routes. In 1884 London got the first cable tram in Europe. Sure enough, it went up Highgate Hill. The next year steam trams arrived. In due course, compressed air, electric batteries, coal-gas and oil-gas motors were used. Finally, just three years into the 20th-century proper electrification was on its way. 

By 1911 two out of every three Londoners using public transport were travelling by tram. 

Twenty years on, though, the system begin to shrink. Motorised buses slowly took over. 

It wasn’t all gain, though. There was a lot to be said for the trams. Londoners instinctively understood that and that accounts for the mad scramble and all the emotion of Last Tram Week. 

First of all, the trams were cheap. “Twopence all the way” was the slogan. And if you got a shilling all-day ticket – well it was exactly what it said on the tin. And the trams could move crowds very quickly. It took three buses to fulfil the service that two trams provided.

And these details I like very much. In fog the tram would persevere after every bus had retired. During an air raid drivers and passengers were often happier in a tram than in any other vehicle because through its clatter they couldn’t hear bombs falling. indeed, to anybody living near a curve on a tram route the familiar groan was a heartening sound on a wartime night, just as trams running without window glass after Camberwell depot had been struck by a flying bomb made a gallant and encouraging sight.

Trams. I wish I’d seen that London. It’s happened again, hasn’t it. We’ve had our short, mad daily scamper in the park. We’ve remembered. London remembers.

Today in London? Well, the London Transport Museum is out. We ticked it off yesterday. Or is it? Hey, we’re in luck. Say hello to the London Transport Museum depot in Acton. You’ll have to catch them on one of their open days – but it’s well worth zeroing in on. The depot holds the majority of the Museum’s collections which are not on display in the main museum in Covent Garden. There, don’t say London Walks doesn’t look after you.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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