MOTAT’s ‘I Am The Last Tram’ exhibition – provides remarkable view of Auckland in 1950s – and reminds us that history is never over

1950s Auckland - a decade of enormous significance for modern Auckland

1950s Auckland – a decade of enormous significance for modern Auckland

The ‘I Am The Last Tram’ exhibition at MOTAT, resurrects the memories of the 1950s – a critical time in the history of New Zealand.

Though most of Auckland’s present day population was not alive during that decade, for those of who were, the MOTAT exhibition is like a glimpse into another world.  A world of our childhood, peopled by grown-ups like our parents who have now sadly passed on.  A world both familiar and yet strange – a world now lost forever.

The 1950s, coming after the hardships of the world depression of the 1930s and the sacrifices of World War II, was a time of great prosperity for Auckland.  In those times when much of Asia and Europe was in ruins New Zealand had attained the second-highest standard of living in the world – second only to the USA.

Historian and tram buff Graham Stewart & chairman Mike Lee with 'the last tram' at MOTAT

Historian and tram buff Graham Stewart & chairman Mike Lee with ‘the last tram’ at MOTAT. It is fair to say that but for Graham’s prescience and willingness to go to extraordinary lengths to rescue as many trams and equipment as he could, Auckland would have lost virtually all of its tramway heritage.

This was a world where people, even New Zealanders famous for being casual and easy-going, were much more formal with each other. People always dressed up to go outdoors, men wearing ties – ladies and gentlemen almost always wore hats – especially to the city.  First names were rarely used outside the family.  Everyone was Mister or Mrs or Miss.  Manners were drilled into young people.  Always raise one’s hat (or school cap) when meeting a lady, stand up when a lady walks into a room. Men should always stand to give up one’s seat for a lady, and children always should stand for adults on public transport.

Crime was extremely low – houses could be left unlocked and the rare murders that did occur were widely covered in the newspapers (both a daily morning newspaper NZ Herald and a daily evening newspaper Auckland Star).  The stories of such crimes because of their rarity were followed with horror and fascination by the whole population for weeks, sometimes months.  Drinking alcohol in bars was forbidden after 6pm.  This gave rise to a famous and unique New Zealand institution known as ‘The Six o’clock swill’.   Men (woman were not admitted to public bars and sometimes had their own area – known as ‘cats bar’) poured out of their work places at 5pm and into the hotel bars and drank as much beer as possible before 6pm.  Of course in those days, drugs and drug abuse was virtually unheard of.

There was no television so families would sit around the fireplace in the evening, reading or listening to the radio.  Authority was not normally questioned.

In those days before television – everyone went to the movies, ‘pictures’ as we used to call them.  At the start of every movie the National Anthem was played (the British anthem ‘God Save the Queen’) and everyone was required to stand.  Only a handful of non-conformists or communists would be brave enough to stay seated.

This was a time of a male dominance, social conformity and indeed a certain narrow-mindedness when it came to matters of race and culture – and prudishness when in came to matters of sexuality. These matters were rarely spoken of openly.

In terms of immigration – more recent Asian immigrants to Auckland might be interested to learn that in the 1950s there was quite a lot of resentment of immigrants by Aucklanders.  The immigrants in those times were nearly all British, who quite often were referred to openly as “Pommie bastards”.  As the Exhibition points out “The slightest criticism of New Zealand by these immigrants was deeply resented by New Zealanders”.

Most people would be aware of the Chinese ‘Cultural Revolution’, the mass social convulsion instigated by Chairman Mao in 1966.   Though little emphasis seems to be placed on it, co-incidentally the whole western world went though its own, quite separate and much more spontaneous, ‘cultural revolution’.  This culture revolution was definitely not instigated from the top – but was the outcome of complex social cultural and economic factors which especially related to the very large youth population – the baby-boom generation – brought up in a time of unprecedented prosperity.

During this time young people learned to question authority and this impulse of change even resonated with ideas picked up from Mao himself – “Dare to rebel’ etc.

But by the end of the 1960s the whole world had changed and New Zealand along with it.  To be sure great social improvements were attained which created a more open-minded and tolerant society where women were able to take an equal part in society.  But also in hindsight much was lost along the way, especially old-fashioned standards of social discipline, manners and ethics.

Aucklanders farewell their beloved trams 1956 (photo Graham Stewart)

One of the most wonderful features of 1950s Auckland was the electric tram network. Due to New Zealand’s huge national effort in World War ll, there had been little money to improve civic infrastructure so the tram fleet of the time was rather run down – though still very popular with the travelling public.   In the early 1950s the city fathers instead of comprehensively renewing the tram fleet were persuaded that electric trams were ‘old-fashioned’ and needed to be replaced with diesel buses.  As a mark of how popular and effective trams were, up until that time when Auckland’s population was less than 400,000 people Auckland had over 100 million passenger trips per year – and 80 million trips of those were by electric tram.  Nowadays with 1.4 million people we have only 60 million public transport trips per year, mainly by diesel bus and at a huge cost in ratepayer/taxpayer subsidies.  Sadly the popular electric trams were removed from the city streets in 1956 along with 72km of tracks – a terrible mistake in my opinion but because this was New Zealand of the 1950s there was little questioning of authority.

It was a mistake that Auckland has never recovered from.

This was not the only mistake.  The decision to abandon a long planned electrified metro rail system, and the decision to build a four lane – cars-only Harbour bridge was compounded by redirecting SH 1 right though the inner city, with enormous disruption to inner city suburbs.  SH1 was originally planned to run along the alignment of where the unfinished SH20 is intended to go now – in other words to loop around the city rather than slice through the centre of it.  Of all these decisions though, the removal of electric trams and the tramway was clearly the most destructive.  Auckland public transport patronage collapsed virtually overnight and Auckland went from being one of the best public transport cities in the world to one of the worst – a city famous for its traffic congestion.

History, as someone once said, is never over and in one of the last major decisions of the Auckland Regional Council we have decided to build a heritage tramway in the Wynyard Quarter by the waterfront and extend it to Britomart Transport Centre on Queen Street.  A small and modest step to be sure.  But after this the tramway could go anywhere. The tramway project is being managed by Sea + City, an ARC subsidiary as part of the Wynyard quarter redevelopment. Once it is built as well as heritage trams we can start looking at modern Light Rail Transit vehicles which can carry more than 100 people at a time.

New Zealand’s foremost expert on the 1950s and the history of trams is author Graham Stewart.  Graham was the key note speaker at the opening of the MOTAT ‘I Am The Last Tram’ exhibition along with MOTAT CEO Jeremy Hubbard and chair of MOTAT electoral college Cr Vanessa Neeson.  Graham was a photographer for the NZ Herald during the 1950s and covered all the major news events of that remarkable decade. It is fair to say that but for Graham’s prescience and willingness to go to extraordinary lengths to rescue as many trams and equipment as he could, Auckland would have lost virtually all of its tramway heritage.

As Graham has kept the memory of Auckland’s wonderful electric trams alive for nearly 60 years, it would be wonderful if we can have him come and open our waterfront tramway next year.  Congratulations to Jeremy Hubbard and the MOTAT staff for organizing such a brilliant exhibition.

The 1950s has a special resonance with today I feel – the wheel of history has turned and once again just like the 1950s, sixty years on Auckland finds itself at an historical cross-road.  For a number of reasons to long to go into here,  Auckland now has the opportunity to make huge advances in our transport infrastructure, projects like completion of the SH20 loop road around the city, electrification of rail, which are under way and new initiatives like the CBD rail loop tunnel, rail to Auckland international airport, and returning trams to our inner city streets.  This time we have an opportunity to at last correct the short-sighted decisions made in the 1950s.

I recommend everyone to see the MOTAT, ‘I Am The Last Tram’ which will gives revealing and sometimes insights into the almost forgotten history of Auckland – and reminds us that history is for us to make.

For more on Auckland’s trams – both past and future visit:

‘Sins of the Fathers – the decline and rise of rail transit in Auckland’

and ‘Trams set to make a come back to Auckland’s streets’.

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10 Responses

  1. George Martin Tinker says:

    My father was manager of The Star Hotel, Newton in the fifties. I went to Newton Central, and I remember the old pre-motorway inner city suburbs, Newton, Kingsland, Grey lYnn Poansonby and Freeman’s bay.
    And I can remember trams.
    However I would like to find out more specific details of the closing down of trams and removal of the tracks. Where do I go for more specifics on this topic, and other information about Auckland in say 1956?

    • Colleen Rose says:

      Hi Martin, I remember that your Dad worked in the Star Hotel. Even though I am writing from Australia, do you know who this is writing to you. Regards,
      Colleen Rose

  2. Martin Plom says:

    We have just bought a Tram (bach) at Thames and over the weekend we took out a few windows in search of the Tram number. To our delight stamped on two window ends was 53 & on two of the surrounds in pen was written Car 53.

    Yippee – like the birth of a new child! Very exciting.

    How can we source some information & photos on tram 53.

    Hope you can assist in our adventure.

    Martin & Lynn Plom
    09 575 0447 (home)
    09 298 8338 (business)
    021 575 044

    • Mike Lee says:

      Congratulations Martin and Lynn,
      I am sure I know people who can certainly help – I will contact you by email.
      Kind regards,

    • Mike Lee says:

      Hi Martin,
      53 sounds like its quite an old tram – circa 1920s. I am not an expert in these matters – but I there are certainly experts around who would know. I am pretty sure there would be photos (at least of this class of tram if not the tram itself) too. I have already started to make inquiries. Mike

  3. Mike Donovan says:

    hi there we own tram number 117 it’s in great condition just thought you may be able to give us some history on it or point us in the right direction thanks for your time

    • Liz says:

      Hello Mike,

      I am currently doing some research for a programme that will air on TVOne called Coast NZ. We are doing an episode on the Coromandel and I am very keen to get in contact with anyone that owns one of these wonderful slices of history.

      AUCKLAND 1010
      + 64 9 374 2900
      + 64 21 861 157

  4. Robin Stephenson says:

    My late father, Cyril Stephenson, bought two trams, one for a batch at Turakina Beach near Wanganui and the other for shearer’s living quarters on our farm in Manganoho near Hunterville. One of these had sign writing on the side “I am the last tram”

    • Mike Lee says:

      Dear Robin, You raise a very interesting part of our history. Here is tram expert Leyton Chan’s response:
      Hi Mike;

      “Yes, Cyril Stephenson would have purchased Auckland’s last tram No. 242, a 1930 type tramcar and it was located at Turakina Beach near Wanganui up until around late 2006. I was one of the last to visit it though I did not go inside. Spoke to the neighbour as there was a for sale sign on the property and left a business card. A few weeks later I got a phone call from a lady who had just purchased the property, looking to build a new holiday home on the site. The tram was surplus. I then approached MOTAT saying the tram was available but there was little interest and it lapsed. A few months later I decided to call the lady back as I thought I may as well save it if no one else, she said that it got demolished a week earlier. Some of the interior fittings went to her son who incorporated them into a kitchen/cabinet of some description, and some of the parts may have gone to the Wanganui Tramway people (who had only just formed their trust).

      The last tram exhibition at MOTAT obviously was not the last actual tram, in this case Auckland No. 89 was pulled out of storage and painted to look like No. 242. Few people would know the difference.

      It would be interesting to find out what the body number of the other tram that went to Manganoho was, and is it still around?



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