One of Auckland’s worst transport disasters has been largely forgotten today. With railed public transport due to return to Auckland streets, I think this story is timely.

Artist’s Impression of Disaster (

Queen Street was crowded with excited crowds out shopping that Christmas Eve back in 1903. The main department stores offered bargains for last minute gifts, and windows were given over to colourful displays to woo the crowds.

At one end of the street a long queue shuffled its way slowly through the doors of the Opera House for the highly successful season of the pantomime ‘Bluebeard’. A short distance away, another crowd chattered while waiting for the curtain to rise on John Fuller and Son’s latest vaudeville extravaganza.


The new marvel in public transport, the electric tram, had carried most of the shoppers and theatregoers to the centre of the rapidly growing city. The impressive vehicles had been introduced a year earlier and were a huge improvement on the horse drawn trams previously used. On close to eight o’clock as darkness began to close in, crowded double deck tram number 39 clattered up an incline on a journey from Kingsland to the city. As it approached the stop at the Eden Terrace loop, driver Fred Humphrey, reached out to apply the brakes. To his horror, the handbrake ratchet failed to arrest the huge tram and it started to roll backwards down the hill.

As the tram gained speed, passengers onboard began to scream. On the upper deck, the trolley pole bounced off the overhead wire, plunging the tram’s interior into darkness. A number of passengers were struck by the trolley pole as it swung menacingly in a dangerous arc. As speed increased, the pole flayed more violently, killing one young woman instantly as it slammed against her head. Humphrey yelled out to his passengers, “the brakes won’t hold.” as he ran along the tram in a desperate attempt to apply the tram’s other brake. It had no effect.

Auckland Double Deck Tram 1900s (

The heavy tram started to rock and roll dangerously as it screeched its way along the tracks for 800 metres before rounding a bend near George Street. The terrified passengers then noticed the bright light of an oncoming tram. The driver of combination tram number 32, Ernest Thompson, threw his heavy vehicle into reverse at the sight of the runaway vehicle, but it was to no avail. Some passengers, anticipating the impending disaster, jumped from the tram’s windows before it smashed with a sickening thud into the second tram.  The violent impact caused some passengers on the upper deck to be thrown to the ground as the combination tram rammed into the double decked vehicle for a quarter of its length. The carnage was sickening. Every single window in both trams was shattered. People lay groaning and screaming around the disaster scene.

Mr C.Marris, a passenger on number 32 commented later, “Though I saw some pretty ugly things during the Boer war, I never saw such an indescribably sad and sickening sight as that at the Kingsland car accident.”


Residents rushed to assist the 50 people injured among the estimated 150 involved in the two vehicle accident. Some were carried into nearby homes and shops to await further assistance. A rescue tram was sent to try and clear the lines by pulling the two smashed trams apart, but it was a day later before the wreckage was finally moved. Three people died as a result of the accident and fifty were seriously injured. An inquest was held into the accident. It placed partial blame on the inexperience of motorman Humphrey. It suggested the tramways company should adopt more stringent training criteria for teaching both motormen and conductors. The company accepted liability and paid all claims.

After the accident, Aucklanders lost their confidence in the double deck trams and they were withdrawn from service a short time later. However, for a further 50 years, other types of trams continued to transport Aucklanders around their city without further serious incidents.

On the 29th December 1953, accompanied by a glittering ceremony, (and no doubt, a few tears) the last tram rode the rails from Queen Street to Onehunga. The emotional occasion closed a colourful chapter in the city’s urban transport history.

In 2020, light rail trains/trams will again rumble along Auckland streets but these will no doubt have safety features that will ensure they convey passengers in safety so the disaster on the night of  December 24th 1903 can never be repeated.

Ceidrik Heward


  1. Correction: Auckland’s tram system closed in 1956 not 1953.

Speak Your Mind