Oxford History: The High


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 seen in the postcard below dating from 1905, there was a single set of tramlines in the middle of the High Street that split into two to allow passing. Hansom cabs for private hire are waiting for customers outside The Queen's College.

Tramlines in 1905
Francis Frith & Co postcard No. 45181

The postcard below entitled “A bit of Old Oxford” was posted in November 1903, and shows a horse-drawn tram carrying weary policemen coming home from their shift after pounding the streets. 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 first tramway in Oxford, from the railway station, over Carfax, and along the High to the end of the Cowley Road, was opened on 28 November 1881: see full report in Jackson's Oxford Journal of 3 December 1881.

The Oxford Tramways (Extension) Order of 1898 led to early trams for workers from 19 June 1899. Henceforth from the Cowley Terminus a tram ran to Kingston Road at 4.55am, to Hinksey at 5am, to the railway station at 5.10am, and Summertown at 5.30am.

Failed proposal for electric trams

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.

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 (probably in 1906), shows 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 the controversial bridge that his college had just built over Logic Lane to link the Durham Building to the older parts of the college.

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 postcard below, also produced by Davis's, is dated 1906, but it is hard to understand what the function of the loop near Queen's Lane would have been. The electric tram that is upside-down in the loop is advertising Davis's Oxford souvenirs:

Looping the loop

Another Davis postcard, below, shows that trams were no more welcome in St Giles. Here the heads of members of the city council can be seen rising out of an explosion beside an electric tram just north of the Martyrs' Memorial:


Horse-drawn trams, however, were not without problems and could themselves be quite dangerous, as the following photographs published in the Oxford Journal Illustrated indicate:

  • Tram collision in Cornmarket (24 July 1912)
  • Broken-down tram at the west end of Queen Street (16 October 1912)
  • Tram accident in St Aldate's, when one horse slipped and both became trapped under the tram (11 June 1913).

In the event, escalating costs meant that the electric trams never materialized. The horse-drawn trams continued to operate, but the strike by employees of the Oxford Tramways Company in 1913 probably helped to hasten their demise (photographs of strikers in Oxford Journal Illustrated of 26 March, and 2 & 9 April 1915).

The Motor bus

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.

The tramlines were soon removed: the Oxford Journal Illustrated reported on 16 December 1914 that the tram rails were being taken up in the Cowley Road as far as the tramway stables in Leopold Street, and by the time they published this photograph on 10 February 1915 the workers had reached Cornmarket Street.

Poem about the new Motor bus by the Public Orator of the University

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):


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

©Stephanie Jenkins

Last updated: 31 August, 2020

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