With the NSW Government getting close to returning more trams (light rail) to Sydney I thought I would share with you probably the weirdest tram produced. While most trams were designed to carry the general public, some special-purpose ones were made to carry prisoners to and from gaol, stretchers on hospital trams during the influenza epidemic and breakdown trams to service the tram fleet. Definitely the most unusual of the special trams were the two tram hearses used to provide an inexpensive hearse service on the NSW Government tramways in Newcastle, NSW, from 1896 until about 1948. This service evolved from the working class custom of having the funeral procession depart from a private home (of either the deceased or a close relative) rather than from a funeral parlour. If the deceased’s home was close to the tram route the pallbearers would carry the casket to the nearest tram stop, otherwise a hearse was hired to carry the casket to the tram stop.
The mourners, officiating clergy and funeral director would travel in the passenger tram cars, initially steam and later electric, on a scheduled service with the tram hearse attached at the rear. There would probably have been a separate compartment reserved for the funeral party. It was the responsibility of the pallbearers to place the coffin in the tram hearse and also to remove it and transfer it to the funeral train. The tram conductor would lock and unlock the tram hearse door and fares would be collected in the normal manner. The hearse service connected with the funeral trains at the Mortuary Station near Honeysuckle and later Newcastle station to Sandgate Cemetery.
The Museum’s tram hearse No.27S, was built at the Randwick Tramway Workshops in Sydney. It’s a low, four-wheel timber tram, probably built on an old cable tram trailer chassis. The roofline is low and curved and at each end there are three doors and a central ventilation louvre. The interior is fitted out to carry three coffins longitudinally. Three sets of five rollers are spaced in the floor and peg racks provide anchorage points. The hearse is finished in olive green and buff paint, the same livery as the Newcastle trams of the period.
In February 1949 the tram hearse was no longer needed and was transferred to the Gordon Avenue, (Hamilton) tram depot in Newcastle and used somewhat irreverently as a toolbox before being given to the Museum in 1954. The hearse was restored during the mid-1980s during which time a dried flower, which had dropped from a wreath, was found. As a young Curatorial Assistant I had the unusual task of ordering the coffin to be displayed in the hearse when it featured in the Museum’s Transport exhibition. If you want to see this curious tram now it’s at the Powerhouse Discovery Centre.
McCarthy K. & N. Chinn, “New South Wales Tramcar Handbook 1861-1961”, Part One, South Pacific Electric Railway Co-operative Society Limited, Sutherland, NSW, 1975.
Written by Margaret Simpson, Curator