Founded as the Douglas Bay Tramway by Thomas Lightfoot at the peak of the Victorian tourist trade, by the summer of 1876 a single line 3ft gauge track had been constructed from the Iron Pier (then at the foot of Broadway) to Burnt Mill Hill (now Summer Hill), terminating adjacent to a wide grassed area known as the ‘Playground’.
Three tramcars were ordered from the Starbuck Car & Wagon Company to commence the service, two open-top double-deckers (no.2 & no.3) and a single deck saloon (no.1).
Highroads surveyor James Garrow inspected the line on 7 August 1876 and it is believed the line began carrying passengers that day and that the first driver was a Jack Davies from Onchan.
By December 1876 the tramway had been extended south along Harris and Loch Promenades with a new southern terminus in Peveril Square; permission to open this new section was given in January 1877. It would be another 25 years before the tramway was re-aligned to run directly onto Victoria Pier.
Fifteen horses were used and stabled at Lightfoot's residence, Athol House (near to the present Queen's Hotel on Queens Promenade), its sea-front walled garden was used to keep the tramcars when not in use.
Lightfoot purchased a small detached property at the bottom of Burnt Mill Hill and proceeded to build new larger stables on land behind to accommodate the expanding stud of horses. The dwelling was replaced by a three-storey terrace of three houses.
To help finance his other Douglas real estate developments, on 6 January 1882 Thomas Lightfoot sold his horse tramway to three local businessmen who formed a new company, The Isle of Man Tramways, Limited.
Five more double-deckers were acquired for the service by the new owners: no.4 in 1882, no.5 & 6 in 1883 and no.7 & 8 in 1884.
Also in 1884, original tramcar no.1 was converted into a double-decker, and the first of the cross-bench 'Toastrack' cars (no.9 & no.10) were introduced, a design so popular with tourists through to the present day.
Sadly none of the original ten tramcars have survived.
A further cross-bench 'Toastrack' car (no.11) was purchased in 1886 to the same design as before.
The northern end of the line, then along Tramway Terrace, was diverted off The Cresent (now Queen's Promenade) road to a newly built terminus shed and tramcar depot on the seaward side of the highway at Burnt Mill Hill.
In 1887 the company purchased six second-hand double-deck tramcars (renumbered no.13 to no.18) from a failed South Shields tramway concern. Five of these had been built by the Metropolitan Railway Carriage Co of Saltley, Birmingham, which also supplied many of the Isle of Man Steam Railway carriages and wagons. The sixth car (no.18) was built by the Falcon Engine & Car Works of Loughborough, albeit to a similar design.
In 1888 a further cross-bench 'Toastrack' car (no.12) was purchased that still operates on the Tramway today.
Passenger numbers were growing at an exceptional rate: 360,000 in 1885; 550,000 in 1888; 630,000 in 1891; 805,000 in 1892.
In 1889, doubling of the track was completed along the full length of the Loch Promenade section, and between the Falcon Cliff and the station at Burnt Mill Hill (actually named Derby Castle station, but still somewhat short of the Derby Castle Pleasure Grounds entrance).
By late 1890 after protracted negotiations between a number of land owners, the tramway was finally extended along Strathallan Crescent, the track ending near to the castellated entrance to the Derby Castle Pleasure Grounds.
A further eight ‘Toastrack’ cars (no.19 to no.26) were purchased between 1889 and 1891, followed by three new elegant single-deck winter saloons (no.27 to no.29) in 1892.
In 1894 the horse tramway was sold for £38,000 to the Douglas & Laxey Coast Electric Tramway Co, later that year renamed Isle of Man Tramways and Electric Power Company Ltd, builder and operator of the fledgling Manx Electric Railway which had started operating in September 1893 from Derby Castle to Groudle Glen.
The original 12-road horse tramcar depot at the end of Strathallan Crescent was built as a single storey structure in 1895/6, with a traverser system and capacity for 36 tramcars, together with an ornate cast iron terminus canopy with clock tower over the horse tram tracks adjacent to the Derby Castle attractions and the new Manx Electric Railway.
The new facilities at Strathallan replaced those at Burnt Mill Hill which were promptly demolished.
Six additional tramcars of a 'sunshade' type (no.32 to no.37), basically a 'Toastrack' car with fixed canopy roof, were purchased in 1896.
Postcard image courtesy E C More
The remaining sections of single track along the new Central Promenade and the Colonel's Road (renamed Harris Promenade) were doubled in 1897, allowing for the first time twin track operation along the full length of line between Peveril Square and Derby Castle / Strathallan.
Over 1,500,000 passengers were first carried in 1897, rising to a staggering 1,620,000 in 1898.
As a result of the failure of Dumbell’s Bank in February 1900, the Isle of Man Tramways & Electric Power Company was forced into administration and Douglas Corporation was able to buy both the Horse Tramway and the more recently opened Upper Douglas Cable Tramway from the liquidator for the sum of £50,000.
At the time of takeover on 2 January 1902, the horse tramway comprised 36 tramcars and a stud of 68 horses, plus the tracks, stable building and new Strathallan depot and terminus.
In May 1902, the southern terminus tracks were realligned to run directly onto Victoria Pier, some 140ft beyond the start of the pier buildings.
This provided an immediate boost in tramway traffic as passengers found waiting tramcars a shorter walk from their arriving Steam Packet vessels.
Passenger demand was still on the rise in the early 20th century, the Corporation ordered five additional open 'Toastracks' (no.38 to no.42) delivered between 1902 and 1905
The Corporation purchased a series of five heavier covered 'Bulkheads' (no.43 to no.47) delivered between 1907 and 1911.
Commercial advertising became the order of the day with bill boards and painted adverts adorning both the tramcar depot at Derby Castle and the tramcars. Jacob's Biscuits were clearly popular on the Isle of Man!
In 1913, the Corporation acquired an additional single-deck winter saloon and numbered it no.1, the original no.1 having been converted to a double-decker, withdrawn and then scrapped at the turn of the century.
The War Office requisitioned 59 tramway horses in 1914 for use by the army. The tramway continued throughout the Great War, albeit with greatly reduced services.
Visitors began to return in huge numbers to the Island by the mid 1920s.
The introduction of omnibuses on the promenades in 1926 led to the cessation on 2 November 1927 of winter horse tram services.
Yet 2,500,000 passengers were carried on the horse tramway in 1927.
Ever since it has been a seasonal service (generally May to September) supplemented with some out-of-season weekend and special event services.
Postcard image courtesy E C More
The final purchase of new tramcars was made by Douglas Corporation in 1935 when three all-weather 'convertibles' (no.48 to no.50) were acquired, later to become affectionately known as ‘tomato boxes’. These were likely the last horse tramcars to be built in the United Kingdom.
Also in 1935 an upper floor of offices was built on the tramcar depot at Strathallan. Three of the twelve tram roads were by now closed off to allow for ground floor offices and new stairs to be installed, limiting storage capacity to twenty-seven tramcars.
By 1936 the service fleet comprised 46 cars, all with roller bearings now fitted, and a stud of 135 horses.
A record 2,750,000 passengers made journeys on the horse tramway in 1938.
The outbreak of war in 1939 led to an immediate slump in Island visitors and the horse tram service was suspended. Barbed wire fencing was erected across the promenades for creating compounds for internees and prisoners of war. The entire horse stud was sold off and the fleet of tramcars put into storage for six years.
Services resumed in late May 1946, made possible by the purchase of 42 replacement horses from Ireland.
Fourteen of the out-of-use tramcars were broken up between 1948 and 1952, including many of the early double-deckers after animal rights campaigners raised concerns about the loads having to be drawn by single horses.
By 1955 the only remaining double-decker no.14, no longer in use, left the island for the British Transport Museum (later part of the Science Museum) who restored it for static display.
Postcard image courtesy E C More
The tramway marked its 80th anniversary in 1956 when 80 horses paraded at the Victoria Pier in front of the Lieutenant Governor. Guests included international horsewoman Miss Pat Smyth and Mrs D'Echevarria, grand-daughter of Tramway founder Mr Thomas Lightfoot.
A new tramway / bus terminal was opened on Victoria Pier in 1961, adjacent to the modern Sea Terminal building which was to open later in 1965.
The tramway's terminal was of very modern design, made of pre-cast panels, glazed screens, mahogany end and facia panels, and the roof clad in copper-faced materials.
A series of Royal visits in 1964 (The Queen Mother), 1965 (Princess Margaret), 1970 (Prince Philip) and 1972 (The Queen, Prince Philip, Princess Anne and Earl Mountbatten) publicised journeys made on the horse trams.
It appeared to spark some renewed interest from the public in using the service, as passenger numbers again climbed past the 1,000,000 mark in 1974.
The Douglas Bay Horse Tramway proudly celebrated its first 100 years of passenger services along Douglas promenades on 9 August 1976 with special cavalcades of tramcars and horses.
Double-decker no.14 returned to the Island to lead the main centenary procession, but was rightly considered a museum piece so was afterwards mainly kept in the Derby Castle depot until in 1990 it was moved to the Manx Museum, Douglas, for more suitable permanent indoor display.
The ornate station canopy at the Derby Castle terminus finally succumbed to the ravages of age, salt spray and the desire for modernity. It was judged unsound and not viable to repair, so shared the fate of much Island transport heritage at the time and was demolished without replacement.
The attraction of having a working double-decker for special event days and occasional normal service use led to Douglas Borough Council converting tramcar no.18 back into a double-decker in 1988, with sponsorship provided by a local brewery.
It had been one of the second-hand South Shields' cars purchased in 1887, converted into a single deck winter saloon in 1903, now reverting to the double deck tramcar seen today.
In January 2016, after 114 years of ownership and operation, Douglas Borough Council announced that it would no longer continue operating the Douglas Bay Horse Tramway due to increasing annual operating deficit, a pressing need for capital investment and its own financial constraints
Thankfully the Isle of Man Government agreed to take over the operation of the horse trams as part of its own Heritage Railways offering and in support of Island heritage and tourism.
The Government acquired both the tramway stables and the tramcar depot site, retained thirteen of the historic tramcars for future passenger services (a number of which have been refurbished or fully restored), and constructed a new period-style tramcar depot for their storage and maintenance.
To facilitate the Government's flagship Douglas Promenades Refurbishment Scheme, the tramway tracks dating from the 1930's were removed from the full length of the Promenades, with the intention of replacing them with heavier section rails suitable for operating a possible future modern transit system.
The northern section of the tramway from Derby Castle to Broadway, along Central & Queens Promenades, was reinstated as double track in the centre of the highway.
The southern section of the tramway from Broadway to the Sea Terminal, along Harris & Loch Promenades, is planned as single track only and to run off-highway in a dedicated corridor on the seaward side.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, unexpected sub-surface findings, project overrun and overspend, the southern tramway section (from Broadway to the Sea Terminal) was de-scoped from the project in 2020 in an attempt to limit the overrun and overspend.
On 30 July 2022, the horse tramway service resumed on the northern section between Derby Castle and Broadway.
No date has been given as to when the southern section of tramway from Broadway to the Sea Terminal might now be completed, as separate Government funding will be required.