Film of trams unearthed

01:01, Oct 13 2009
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Stuart Geange, the photographer who recorded a great deal of Invercargill life.

An archival piece of film footage, offering a fleeting but evocative reminder of Invercargill's tram era, is available online.

Apart from anything else, it shows the place looking pretty darned good.

The footage was taken by Stuart Geange, the owner of Elmwood Studio, who was a significant recorder of Invercargill life he and his brother George famously photographed passers-by at the Bank Corner, and he was such an in-demand wedding photographer that his oh-so-frequent presence at church had him dubbed the holiest man in Southland.

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Trams in Dee St, in central Invercargill, during the early part of the century.

Elmwood shared window space with an Electrolux shop, which led to a regrettable advertising slip-up when a sign intended for the vacuums was left in with the bridal photos: "Take one home and try for a week; if you don't like it bring it back."

Mr Geange's family rediscovered the old Super-8 tram footage after his death. They had it transferred to DVD, and it is now posted on

It's just a minute long and shows trams moving in stately fashion in an uncrowded downtown.


Shopfronts are substantial; the cars are classic, the men be-hatted and the women smartly coated (and willing to step in front of a tram without a care in the world).

Then heavy sighs comes footage of the tracks being ripped up in the early 1950s. Check out the flatbed truck shuddering under the weight of something so very substantial being torn from our society.

For starters, Invercargill's trams were propelled by plodders. The horse-drawn trams, which first appeared in 1881, didn't take the citizenry any faster than strolling pace, but as Lloyd Esler records in 150 Years of Invercargill, they spared the passengers the mud of the roadways.

The roads were notoriously boggy in the wet, and the drier weather caused problems too. There were dunes between the street and the rail line along the run to Gladstone, and at times the menfolk had to climb out and clear the tracks.

The slow trams seldom stopped for men, who jumped on to the running boards.

The Southland Tramway Company introduced Sunday trams,which proved contentious in spite of the directors insisting they had been pestered by church-goers who wanted to reach Sunday services.

The Southland Times was openly sceptical, seeing instead an ancillary service. "We suspect the one real need is to get out to the bridge and there to have a drink not of the Waihopai."

The horse-drawn service ended in 1908 and an electric service opened in 1911 with 10 tram cars and more than nine miles of track and electric overhead wiring, powered by a coal-fired plant.

Four routes, to North (up Windsor way) and South Invercargill, Waikiwi and Georgetown, were constructed.

Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward, and Mayor W A Ott officiated. A report of the day read: "After the important people, who got their rides for nothing, had done with the cars, they became the proper plaything of their rightful owners, the people in general; and it seemed that nine tenths of the people in general consisted of women and children, mostly children."

Another, whimsical, account of this significant opening day, purporting to record the monologue of a travelling mother, features in The End of the Penny Section by New Zealand trams historical writer Graham Stewart.

"Mildred, if you dare let go of my hand, I won't wait till I get you home ...

"There's Mrs Johnnie Smith there laughing at you. She'll tell all the street that I've got no perennial control over you.

"You are very good to spoil me shoes by tramplin' on `em, young man. What a crush ...

"I hope Mrs McBeamish will be at 'er gate to see us on the tram.

"How dare you push me, Sir I've as much right ... what? Too many people on board? Well you needn't have pushed me like that young man ..."

Invercargill electric trams were proclaimed the most southern in the world. A more useful rarity was that they did carry babies' prams. Passengers were forbidden to carry firearms, but that did not exclude all danger.

What a little scandal it must have been when, in 1913 several Invercargill women appeared in court charged with wearing unprotected hat pins. The problem of passengers being jabbed by the blessed things had become so serious that, just months previously, the council had instructed tramway inspectors to prosecute any woman with a menacing hatpin. Four women were duly fined five shillings, one was fined one shilling, and three were convicted and discharged.

For a while a tramline connected the nascent suburb of Otatara with Invercargill. The Otatara Land Company offered more than 220 freehold sections by auction in December 1907, and if you built a dwelling on your section within 12 months of the sale, you had two years' free tram travel, crossing the Waihopai Channel on a long timber trestle bridge. But the project withered and the line passed to the borough council's hands, to be used for estuary reclamation. Though once the tide flowed under the trestles, the land was built up to become the embankment that still rises high along Stead St.

The heydey for Invercargill's trams was during World War 2, when the supply of both fuel and rubber tyres became problematic for buses as well as cars. But from 1947 trams were gradually replaced by buses. The last tram ran September 10, 1952, from the north city terminus at the corner of Windsor and Herbert Sts.

And that was that.

The Southland Times