It is difficult to imagine Exeter with streets empty of traffic apart from the occasional traders’ horse-drawn cart or private carriage. Years of debate eventually saw Exeter having a tram system but, due to the narrowness of the streets, a horse drawn route was introduced following an Act of Parliament of 1881. The Exeter Tramways Company Ltd, was formed and the first service, for the benefit of Exeter’s 50,450 residents, commenced on 6th April 1882 between the Bude Hotel on the corner of High Street and Paris Street and the Diocesan Training College (St Lukes) in Heavitree Road. By January 1883 the tramway had been extended up Sidwell Street to the top of Blackboy Road and also along New North Road to the bottom of Hele Road.
A group of London investors got together and formed the Tramway Purchase Syndicate and took over the company in September 1889 and later leased the system to Frederick Burt & Co from July 1892. The business suffered badly with the ill-treatment of horses, the changes of several managers and various brushes with the law. In March 1897 a new manager was appointed who worked hard to make the business a success.
Councillor Perry, a staunch advocate of electric trams, led a delegation on a fact finding mission to other cities and convinced the council that they should be adopted in Exeter. The House of Lords Bill of May 1903 enabled the council to take over the horse tram company for £6,749. The first electric tram ran on Tuesday 4th April 1905 with Alderman Perry who, by then had become Mayor, at the controls. The routes were between Cross Park Terrace, Heavitree and St David’s Station and from Cemetery Avenue near St Mark’s Church to the end of Cowick Street. On 22nd September 1906 a further section was opened between Exe Bridge and Stone Lane, Alphington Road. The two main routes were at the same time altered to run between Heavitree and Cowick Street and Pinhoe Road to Alphington Road.
The tram bodies were painted in green and cream with yellow lining out and maroon trucks. The lettering was enhanced in gold and pink relief. The upholstered interiors were arranged longitudinally so that passengers sat facing one another but on the open upper deck the use of wooden slatted seats were arranged with a swivel back that could be moved either way to suit the direction of travel. New trams were purchased to increase the fleet in stages and in 1926 some existing ones were rebuilt with enclosed ends to match later deliveries and to offer better protection for the driver. The colour was also changed to a slightly lighter green about this time.
In April 1929 the Corporation introduced its first single-deck buses to act as feeders to the system. Four new trams also arrived that year, intended for an extension to Whipton, but the writing was already on the wall and a lobby to extend the tram route was met only with the introduction of double-deck buses. The tram system was abandoned on 19th August 1931.