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A 'Tram Massacre': institutionalised destruction in Sydney, 1955-1961.


At its peak the Sydney tramway system was the second largest in both the British Empire and the Southern Hemisphere. During its busiest years in the mid-1940s over 404 million fares were sold but despite this popularity the last tram in Sydney ran in 1961, just sixteen years later. This research makes use of the archaeological remains, landscape remnants and a study of the processes of removal of the Sydney tram system as a case study in destruction. By using Buchli and Lucas' (2001) framework of the material processes of remembering and forgetting, an understanding of the processes of destruction, as well as the reasons for removal of specific parts of the system is developed. The framework shows that the symbolic and strategic removal of a system can be used to ensure that it is made unworkable as well as removing it from the public consciousness. Such actions ensured that the system could not be easily restored.

Keywords: tram, destruction, Sydney, remembering and forgetting


In 1945 over 404 million people travelled by tram in Sydney (Keenan 1979:87) In spite of this, just sixteen years later in 1961, the Sydney tram system (Figure 1) ceased to exist. The system was progressively dismantled over several decades and replaced by bus services, with the vast majority of this removal occurring from 1955 onwards. It was carried out in such manner that by the end of the process it would not be possible for trams to return to Sydney's streets (Sun Herald 1957; Carroll 1980: 148, 149; Keenan 1992:54). This paper analyses the processes by which this system was destroyed using Buchli and Lucas' (2001) framework of remembering and forgetting. In doing so, this paper uses historical sources and field survey to address the question of why the tram system was so quickly and comprehensively dismantled.

Two aspects of human behaviour make the case study of the Sydney tram system interesting from an archaeological point of view; firstly the sheer speed with which removal of infrastructure occurred and secondly, the processes of destruction which were utilised in order to ensure the permanency of this removal. Buchli and Lucas' (2001) analysis of the material processes of remembering and forgetting highlights how the symbolic and strategic destruction of monuments can be used to ensure forgetting and erasure. Their theoretical approach has been interpreted more widely in this paper to show how a targeted program of destruction can be utilised to make a system unworkable, as well as removing it from public consciousness. The actions taken by the NSW Department of Government Transport ensured that the system could not be easily restored at any time in the future.

The archaeology of urban destruction

Existing archaeological approaches to destruction have largely been concerned with radical, frequently militant behaviour (Moshenska 2009; Coward 2009: 18). The scale of this behaviour culminates in the detonation of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki as an example of destruction on a large and extraordinary scale. This is not to suggest that the extreme acts of 'urbicide' which have occurred up to the present day are more demonstrative of the process of destruction, it merely acknowledges that the scale and scope of urban destruction which occurred during the Second World War was at a level not previously experienced (Coward 2009:1,8, 18). Explorations of the way destruction has come to form a part of everyday life outside the realm of conflict in the second half of the twentieth century come from what Gonzalez-Ruibal (2008:247) has dubbed the archaeology of 'supermodernity', or 'modernity become excessive'. By looking beyond war to development projects, emigration and displacement, and industrialisation and deindustrialisation, it is possible to form a clearer understanding of the processes of change which have occurred in the latter half of the twentieth century. Urban development in particular is seen as a driver of these changes, processes through which even the most recent past can easily be forgotten.

For the purposes of this study the framework used to analyse the reasons and methods for the policy of destruction have been developed from Buchli and Lucas' (2001:81) exploration of the material implications of remembering and forgetting. Their focus on the materiality of remembering and forgetting sets out how the processes of memorialisation and anathematisation are constituted and unconstituted (Figure 2). In their study they used the examples of memorialising and remembering events such as the Holocaust, apartheid and wars, and how memorials and heritage sites are used to sustain memory after those who experience the act are gone (Buchli and Lucas 2001: 82, 83).

Buchli and Lucas (2001:79, 81) argue that the destruction of memorials and monuments acts as a form of imposed forgetting or 'anathematisation', with the monuments, objects or sites embodying society's collective memory. The crux of their argument is that because material culture embodies the larger part of our personal and collective memories, then the decay or destruction of that materiality objects creates the conditions for forgetfulness (Buchli and Lucas 2001:80). If memorials such as a monument or commemorative statue form the major basis of remembering an event, the destruction of these memorials will render the event itself forgotten. If this argument works for memorials and monuments constructed to remember a point in time or event, why can it not be applied to other areas of material culture and human behaviour? This observation forms the theoretical underpinning of this research which examines the destruction and removal of the Sydney tramways as an officially sanctioned act of anathematisation.



The Sydney tramway system

A brief overview of the Sydney tramway system shows that it formed a key part of life for many Sydneysiders in the period from 1879 to 1961, when it was operational. At its peak the Sydney tramway system was the second largest in both the British Empire and the Southern Hemisphere (Keenan 1979:5, 6). The system commenced as a temporary way of transporting people from the railway station at Devonshire Street to the Garden Palace Exhibition at what is now the Botanic Gardens, near Circular Quay, a distance a little over two miles (Keenan 1979:7).

The popularity of this service led to its retention and to its expansion, to the point where route mileage reached a maximum of 181 miles in 1923. Over this period suburbs in Sydney spread out along tramlines, partly as a result of the cheap and readily available transport which the service offered (Keenan 1979:7). This led to a 'finger-like pattern of city growth' in Sydney which only changed when the motor car became the dominant form of transport, after the close of the Second World War (Jeans 1972:302) (Figure 1). While railways did play a role in the expansion of Sydney's suburbs, their relatively sparse stops and infrequent service compared with trams, coupled with the lack of a direct link to the city centre until 1926, limited their role in creating the dense urban growth facilitated by trams (Bradfield 1926; Keenan 1979; Ice 2010).

The speed and cleanliness which were features of electric tram services attracted people to outlying suburbs where a better lifestyle and fresher air were possibilities while still remaining only a short tram ride away from the workplace (Blake and Jackson 1917:304- 305; Davison 2004:75). Tram services literally shaped the development of Sydney in this era.

While ordinary weekday ridership in 1931 was an average of 860,000 per day, weekend and holiday traffic could exceed one million passengers on a fine summer's day (Timmony 1934, Keenan 1979). This statistic is staggering when it is compared to the population of Sydney in 1931 of approximately 1.4 million people (ABS 2008). Dividing the ridership numbers by half to account for return trips gives a rough figure of over 500,000 people travelling on trams each day. This is in excess of one-third of the population of Sydney using the trams in a single day, showing just how fundamental a part of life the system was to the people of Sydney.

Whilst trams provide a better level of service in terms of speed and comfort in comparison with buses they require a much more complex set of infrastructure to operate, and with their fixed routes are less flexible than a bus system, let alone the private motor car (Davison 2004; Lee 2010). Although Sydney's established tram network carried a great number of passengers, its infrastructure, some of which dated from before 1900, was placed under a severe burden during the Second World War, when personal transport was limited and fuel rationed. The system was subject to its heaviest usage while also suffering from a lack of maintenance, meaning that by war's end much of the system was requiring heavy expenditure to provide ongoing service (Keenan 1979). People were also tired of being forced into old trams, often being forced to hang off the side, and craved the independence of the cars which they could now afford (Davison 2004:2-3). Instead of retaining a functional and efficient service, it was decided to remove trams and allow road transport--both car and bus--to fulfil Sydney's transport needs (Davison 2004; Lee 2010:200,260-261).

Destruction of the Sydney tram system

The Sydney tram system had been in decline since the mid 1930s when tram services along outer portions of routes and isolated systems began to be replaced by diesel bus services. The first major closure was in 1939 when the Manly system closed, with other closures occurring after the end of the Second World War. These minor closures continued, although the main core of the system remained untouched. However, in 1949 the outer section of the Watsons Bay line, from Rose Bay to Watsons Bay in the Eastern Suburbs, was closed. This closure led to a series of well-organised protests which resulted in the reopening of the line within a year. This seemingly trivial event is pivotal to this study because it marks the point in time when the NSW Government began to implement a policy which ensured that lines in the future could not be easily re-opened. Such measures included running final tram services in the early hours of the morning with a heavy police presence to discourage protest, immediately removing overhead wiring on the passing of the final tram and the paving over or removing of track at junctions (SR NSW 13/8036 and 13/8039; Keenan 1979:51, Keenan 1992:54; Carroll 1980:148, 149).


Figure 3 is representative of how the NSW Government dealt with closed tram lines prior to the implementation of the policy of destruction in the 1950s. The photograph in Figure 3 shows a portion of the Summer Hill line, closed in 1933. The photograph shows that the tracks and overhead wiring are still in place. This image was taken in 1954, more than twenty years after the line's closure. The line has simply been abandoned, showing that the NSW Department of Government Transport was in no hurry to remove infrastructure from lines closed prior to 1950. With a little cleaning and minor maintenance a tram could conceivably have run along this line again in a very short time.

A few sources give an indication of the situation after the policy of destruction was implemented. The Sun Herald of 29 November 1957 reveals something of the process of removal, specifically in regard to the Pitt Street and Castlereagh Street lines in Sydney's CBD. What happened upon closure is perhaps best explained in an interview with a newspaper correspondent. A spokesman from the NSW Department of Government Transport explained:
   Pitt and Castlereagh Streets will have an entirely new
   look when people go to work on Monday morning. The
   Department's gang will have taken down all the overhead
   wires in both streets and the tracks will be tarred over.

A tram driver had a different take on the situation:
   You could call this a tram massacre! The department is
   making sure, no matter how the buses behave, that trams
   can never run along Pitt and Castlereagh Street again. It
   will be impossible for trams to run again no matter how
   many people protest.

These captions are revealing. Not only do they demonstrate the NSW Government's attitude towards the system but they also outline the process of removal. Of more interest is the concern of the tram worker, which gives the reasoning behind this process.

Such treatment was not restricted to the above location as these processes were applied on all line closures from at least 1957. Figure 4 shows the last tram to Bronte in 1960. The overhead wiring wagon and its crew stand by on the left, waiting to remove the wires immediately after the final tram departs, thus preventing any immediate return to service. This provides a contrast to the earlier example of the line removal in Summer Hill shown in Figure 3.

Such methods of system removal made it almost impossible for tram services to be physically returned in the short term, but perhaps more importantly they removed the overhead wires and tracks which were of course the most publically tangible and visible components of the system. These actions effectively removed and displaced the system from users' everyday consciousness. This is the same process of anathematisation described by Buchli and Lucas (2001:82, 83), however in the case of the Sydney tram system the destruction is occurring to a public asset rather than a monument or memorial.

While the processes outlined above made services harder to reinstate in the short term, it was more importantly a symbolic process aimed at preventing protest and public appeals for the return of the tram system. Reversal of the measures outlined above could have been relatively easily achieved, albeit over a period of days and weeks rather than hours. Less easily reversed was the policy of scrapping surplus tramcars. Upon closure of a group of lines any trams not required for service elsewhere were dispatched to Randwick Workshops for hasty disposal. The method was to pull the tram from its bogies and roll it to a burning pad.

Propellant was poured into the tramcar, which was then set alight. This ensured that the system could not return to operation; even if the overhead wires and tracks were still in place, as there would have been too few trams left to operate the service. It is noteworthy that some of the trams destroyed in this way were less than eight years old, and thus had considerable resale or reuse value, but were burned nonetheless (SR NSW 4/7789.2 and 4/7789.1, SMH 1957, Sun Herald 1957).



Figure 5 shows that following the closure of lines in 1957 the pace at which trams were disposed of noticeably quickened. The data also shows that a total of 990 trams were destroyed by burning in this period, with 186 sold and 55 donated. There was a steady increase in the disposal of tramcars, with acceleration occurring in and just after the months where major line closures occur from 1957 onwards. Scrapping of tramcars reached its peak in May and June 1959 with the number of cars burned totalling 69 and 67 respectively. Disposals tapered off from this point as the vast majority of the system's trams had been scrapped by this stage. Minor increases in scrapping occurred upon the closure of lines until June 1961, but after this stage no further burnings took place, despite 76 trams remaining on the books at the workshops.

Field survey

The archival research established the range of processes utilised in removal of the tram system. This was followed up with a field survey to identify which, if any, elements of the system were not removed during closure, but were left in place for the next 50 years. The data from the field survey identified those parts of the system not deemed critical to its operation, and thus did not require immediate removal. These parts can be understood in the Buchli and Lucas (2001:81) model of remembering and forgetting as an excess or residue, 'left behind in the wake of destruction as all that remains of an event'. The items critical in eliminating memory are removed, while those items which are not critical remain.

A sample of four groups of tram lines was chosen for analysis. These lines were chosen based on the results of a literature search which revealed a range of characteristics including the coverage of a broad spectrum of development intensity, age, era of construction and closure, and an assessment of which lines were likely to have extant remains of the system. The material evidence recorded from the system was broken down into functional categories. Traffic includes all the items associated with service provision. The majority of the items associated with interaction with the public, such as tramcars and tram stops come under the traffic class. It also refers to those structures which staff will use in every day operation of the system such as cabins for shelter (Keenan 1979:18, 37). Way and Works is split into two sub classes: 'track' and 'engineering'. 'Track' encompasses all aspects of the track the trams run on such as the rails and sleepers (Keenan 1979:16). 'Engineering' consists of the modifications and adaptations to the landscape required to create tramway routes such as cuttings and embankments as well as street and urban modifications (Bradfield 1915, Keenan 1987:50). This category also includes private Right of Way, where a tram line, instead of running along a street, ran in its own reservation similar to a railway with its own corridor. Power comprises all aspects of power generation and transmission which provided current for traction (Keenan 1979:17). Signalling ensured the safe working of trams. This includes signals, and signal boxes and other signalling equipment (Keenan 1979:40, 41).

There was also an additional category of memorialisation, which records sites where an attempt to remember the system has been made, such as a plaque or piece of interpretive signage. This category is not considered a remnant of the system, as it occurs after the system is removed, but was recorded as a part of understanding of the process of the construction of memory as understood by Buchli and Lucas (2001a: 81).

The lines chosen for recording were the Manly System, the Watsons Bay Line, the La Perouse and Maroubra Beach Lines and the Balmain and Birchgrove Lines (Figure 6). Overall, 108 remnants of the system were identified by the field survey (Table 1).

Twelve remnants of the system were identified from the survey of the Manly to Narrabeen, Manly to The Spit and Harbord lines. Of these remnants, eight are considered to be landscape type sites, where the tramway leaves a distinctive mark on the landscape. Four are physical items which are directly attributable to tramway operation such as waiting sheds or track elements, with one related to power delivery. In addition to the remnants of the system there were two instances of memorialisation. Table 1 shows the total number of remnants and their class.


The La Perouse and Maroubra lines had twelve remnants as outlined in Table 1. Landscape remnants dominated the count with eight sites comprised of, or related to a former Right of Way. Along the length of this corridor there are several locations where cutting and filling to create a tramway formation are obvious. There was also evidence of power delivery in the form of a battery house, and a rosette (rosettes are an attachment point secured to a building for the purposes of suspending overhead wiring). Items from the traffic category are represented by two waiting sheds, one at each terminus. In addition to the functional elements recorded above there were two instances of memorialisation on these lines. These consisted of a plaque commemorating the original use of the waiting shed at Maroubra Beach as well as interpretive signage at the former terminal loop at La Perouse.

Along the Watsons Bay line, items associated with power delivery for traction dominated the item count, with 61 rosettes found along the inner section of route. There are also several wooden poles bracketed to a concrete retaining wall which are interpreted as former overhead wiring poles cut off at ground level following the withdrawal of services. Much of the Watsons Bay route was on-street so a tarred central section of road in certain areas indicates the location of the tram tracks. Six waiting sheds which date from tramway operation are in place along the route. The results are shown in Table 1.

The final lines surveyed those which ran to Balmain and Birchgrove, featured fifteen items or remnants as shown in Table 1. Urban landscape modification is a feature of these lines, with three examples of cut-back comers recorded on the Birchgrove line. As well as these cut-back comers, hills have been modified to improve the grade. In addition to these modifications there were also sections of former Right of Way which given the inner-suburban location and the consequent higher demand for space have been more susceptible to re-use than on other lines which ran through outer suburban areas.

There are also two substantial tramway structures, Rozelle Depot which is still standing, as is White Bay Power Station, one of the main power supplies for the system. Items in the power class are rosettes.

The field survey of a group of lines from the Sydney tram network allowed the types of elements of the system which remained after the process of destruction to be recorded. These results revealed that elements of the system critical to its operation are now either non-existent, or at the very least not overtly visible. This includes the track and rails, the overhead wiring and poles as well as all the signalling equipment. The only traces of these critical aspects of the operation which are retained are minor isolated items or echoes of their location in the landscape, such as a former Right of Way or differences in street pavement where tracks were or still may be extant. Sources differ on the presence or absence of tram lines beneath the street pavement. While in many cases tram lines were covered over, in other instances the rails and/or sleepers have subsequently been removed as part of ongoing road maintenance (Lyle and Lim 2010).

The obvious exception to this rule is the in situ retention of metal rosettes. These generally last as long as the building to which they are attached remains extant. Valuable elements which are easily salvaged have been removed. This would seem to account for the total lack of items from the signalling class such as copper wiring, safeworking equipment and signals, which consisted of expensive raw materials and technologies that could either be sold off or re-used on the railway system. Substantial structures with a high capital value such as depots or power stations were often reused, or at least still present. Smaller, less capital intensive structures such as staff cabins, waiting sheds and signal boxes have a lower rate of survival. Landscape remnants such as cuttings and off-street sections have either been abandoned or reused for roadways, but rarely totally lost.

The final class of feature recorded is that of memorialisation. Overt memorialisation of the system was encountered on all groups of lines and ranged from simple plaques on remnants such as waiting sheds, to interpretive signage at former tramway locations. Such instances of memorialisation demonstrate a desire by the public to remember the system in the present landscape.


The results from the field survey show that that the Buchli and Lucas (2001) framework need not be restricted to monuments and can in fact be applied to the destruction of a larger scale transport system. By applying their framework to the archaeological and landscape remnants of the Sydney tram system it is possible to understand how a calculated policy of destruction was effective in the removal of a system from public consciousness, in addition to its physical destruction.

Buchli and Lucas' framework provides examples of each of the behaviours outlined in Figure 2. The Destruction (Unconstituted Anathematisation) category refers to those behaviours that ensure the system once removed cannot easily return, such as the covering over of rails, the removal of overhead wiring and the burning of trams. Construction (Constituted Memorialisation) refers to the efforts of groups to remember the tramway system, and the monuments and reconstructions they produce to attempt to stimulate memory. Excess and Residues refer to the elements of the system not deemed critical in forgetting the system. These are the items which have been recorded during fieldwork. Deficits and Gaps are less easily defined, but for the purposes of this study are considered to be critical elements of the system which form an unknown: the former tram tracks which in some cases have been removed but in many other cases have been left in situ under existing roads. An example of this is the exposure of tracks in Glebe Point Road during recent roadworks. The tracks constitute a gap as the locations where they are extant and not extant are not easily known, and they are rarely, if ever, thought of by the general public until they are exposed.

The way these examples fit into the Buchli and Lucas' (2001) framework shows that the destruction of the tram system can indeed be understood as a material strategy used to impose forgetting across an urban landscape. The deliberate and calculated program of destruction which the Sydney tram system exhibits closely mirrors the kinds of behaviours Buchli and Lucas identified that have been used to eliminate social and material memories, such as the destruction of monuments. It can be seen as a by-product of a capitalist economy where change is driven by symbolism and the desire for renewal rather than by pure technological redundancy.


Remembering and Forgetting are two powerful metaphors for the elimination of trams from Sydney's streets from 1955 to 1961. Analysis of the processes of removal used in the destruction of the Sydney tramway system, in addition to an exploration of the elements of the system which remain in place to this day, have given a fuller picture of the reasons this policy was implemented. Destruction of the Sydney tram system was a calculated policy based on the exact amount of work required to ensure that tram services could not resume without great difficulty. It is an example of how a governing body, in this case the NSW Government, can use destruction as a means of ensuring policy is enforced. Destruction could have been more comprehensive, but this would have been both expensive and disruptive. Such disruption and expense would likely have hindered the outcome and drawn greater attention to the program than was desired.

The reason this policy works is best explained by revisiting Buchli and Lucas 2001). The act of destruction is intended to facilitate forgetting (Buchli and Lucas 2001). Material culture shoulders the larger responsibility of our personal and collective memory, so the corollary of this is that the decay or destruction of these objects brings forgetfulness (Buchli and Lucas 2001:80). In the case of the Sydney tram system forgetting is equivalent to the alienation of the system from the people who wish to use it. This is achieved through the dematerialisation of the system in public eyes; destruction of the system is less about physically removing the system and more about eliminating public attempts for its retention and return. The system is not forgotten in a literal sense, as is demonstrated by the process of memorialisation which continues to this day. Rather the process instead ensured that any attempts to retain the system were rendered futile.


Thanks to Martin Gibbs and Annie Clarke for their input and assistance, Peta Longhurst for her support and encouragement, James Shepherd for his help with mapping and presentation, Howard R. Clark for providing copyright permissions from Transit Press, and finally David Keenan for his work on the Sydney tramway system.


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Table 1. Summary of results of field survey.

Remnant Type      Manly   La Perouse   Watsons   Balmain &
                          & Maroubra     Bay     Birchgrove

Engineering or      8         8           4          8
Traffic             2         2           6          1
Track               1         0           1          1
Power               1         2          62          5
Memorialisation     2         2           1          1
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Author:Howard, Peter
Publication:Archaeology in Oceania
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jul 1, 2012
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