Durban Trolley Bus Memories

My earliest memories of Durban’s Trolley buses goes virtually back to the days when we first arrived in Durban as immigrants in 1948. I had never seen a trolley bus before as in Alexandria Egypt, their public transport was single decker electric trams.

Pictures of trams in Alexandria Egypt. The terminus at Ramleh which is similar to the tram terminus that once existed in Pine Street Durban and is now the Parkade.

The trolley buses were therefore something new and to be experienced. I recall my father taking me upstairs to the very front seat. At that age I could stand and hold on to a chrome rail which ran across the front windows. Above the front fixed window was another small window which opened outwards and allowed air to come in and cool the upstairs passengers. As we had no motor car, the bus service was used most of the time so it became standard that my father would always take me upstairs to stop my urging. It was fun to look through the window elevated above street level. My mother was not that way inclined and so it was downstairs with her. Downstairs the seating was a step up from the rear platform where one got onto the bus with the help of a chrome pole, attached to the floor and roof of the boarding platform. Going into the bus, one passed two long bench seats facing each other on either side of the passage and further in there were about 4 or 5 rows of double seats facing the driver. My mother never liked the bench seats as she felt the passengers opposite would be looking at you and scrutinizing you. In addition, the bench seats sat only so many comfortably but then at times you would get someone who felt obliged to have a seat and so everyone squashed up to allow the “pusher in” in much to the indignation of the others. Along the roof ran two rails with leather strap handles. Standing room was allowed downstairs so there was a certain amount of shuffling as, if the bus was full, seated men rose to allow a lady who had just boarded to sit down. This necessitated all those standing to allow the lady to access the seat and for the male to grab a handle and stand for the rest of the journey. Offering up seats for ladies was the norm and no way would a school boy not stand up. As there were not that many boy schools in Durban then, most people identified the blazers so your school reputation was on the line.

I am not sure all the bus models were the same, I recall the name Sunbeam on a badge in the front . I also remember that some trolley buses had an electric sliding door on the pavement side of the bus (RHS looking at the bus from the front) and this was positioned at the front of the double seats.
I have looked for pictures of typical early Durban trolley buses showing the details I have mentioned but they are quite hard to find.

This incident apparently was unique. However it shows an early Durban trolley bus with the small window above the main window that I mention above.

I must say Durban’s bus service as so good that it virtually made it unnecessary for many small families to actually need a private motor car. As it was, many could not afford a motor car and on top of that it was rather unusual at that time to see a woman driving a motor car so they depended on the bus service. The change came about in the late 50s/early 60s when affordable cars were to be had, acquired by families and fathers and older family members became quasi-driving instructors. I recall apart from using the buses to go to school daily, our family would travel across to Durban central by trolley bus and then change to a motor bus out to Rossburgh to visit family members on weekends. During school holidays many children used the buses to visit school friends, go to the Beach, go to town and the cinemas.

The other peculiarities of the trolley buses I recall was the whirr of the electric motor as one pulled off, the exceptionally smooth ride and the occasional sudden stop if one of the overhead arms came off. These were rather rare but when it happened I seem to recall that the conductor got out and pulled out a long cane rod with a hook attached from under the bus. The overhead arms had tension springs which kept the power take off against the overhead catenary and when one came off the arm would spring up upwards and come to rest at a giddy angle. Other things I recall was that under the stair case leading upstairs was a single spring loaded seat which was intended for the conductor. At the back of the bus on the outside was a gutter at the bottom and above a rail that could accommodate fishing rods. Upstairs at the back alongside the stair case were two seats tucked against the back of the bus. These and the two in front of them would be reserved for “non whites”. The conductor would see to it that this limit was not exceeded and the seats kept reserved. No standing room was allowed upstairs and the double seats were either side of the central passage.
Another observance was the “running get off”. Quite often standing at bus stops or in town, you would see young males alighting from the buses whilst it was still in motion. This despite the warning signs saying “Wait until the bus stops before alighting”. It was quite an art as you had to jump off backwards and keep up the momentum as you hit the rolling road. It was to an extent a show of bravado in many cases especially in town in front of people standing in queues at bus stops.
I can honestly say that in my experience I never saw a trolley bus with a flat tyre. Again I cannot recall an accident although they must have occurred. They were actually very sedate, quiet and operated at such a moderate speed that you arrived at your destination relaxed.

The buses were parked in the sheds in Alice Street where all maintenance and repairs were carried out as well. I am not sure whether drivers and conductors were fixed pairs. They wore blue uniforms with peak caps. I think they wore DMT badging Durban Municipal Transport and bus number plates were all NDC, Natal Durban Corporation. Conductors who could whistle would do so to indicate to the driver to move on once all passengers had alighted or else used a normal soccer pea whistle. All conductors had a steel tin in which was kept excess money collected and I suppose as well as spare bus tickets. I seem to remember they also had a daily log to fill in. They also carried a coin change dispensers which they wore round their waists and a ticket punch to deface tickets tendered.

In all the years I never saw any bus toppling over but it did happen in Durban once in 1941. I show the picture above . It also is a special photo for me personally because I have a link to the shop in the background, Beach Fruiterers. Last time I saw it, it was a Surf Shop.

The Durban trolley bus service only served the Durban central area and kept more or less to the confines of the original Durban boundaries i.e. the Umgeni River , Ridge Road, the Umbilo River and the beach front. I won’t go into the whole complexities of the routes, but if one looks at the network generally it ran along Marine Parade from beyond Addington where it did a U turn right at Bell St across to Snell Parade where it did a U turn as well. The buses also went along the whole of Point Rd where they turned back close to where the Bluff ferry was. West and Smith Streets were totally covered. Then heading south they went along Umbilo Rd as far as Queen Mary Avenue where there was a terminus with a small building with seats where Queen Mary Ave and Umbilo Road intersected. Here the bus would turn and head back to town. Along this route the trolley buses deviated into the Berea/Glenwood area via Davenport Rd and headed for the Glenwood terminus in upper MacDonald Rd. At the terminus the rolley buses could turn and head back to town. The other long route was along Soldiers Way into First Avenue which became Stamford Hill Road and then up Windermere Rd to Trematon Drive where it met Ridge Road and headed to Overport . At Overport was another turning circle right outside the old Overport Telephone Exchange. This turning circle was for the buses which came up Berea Rd, turned into Musgrave Road and headed for Overport. At the Telephone Exchange the buses either turned back for town or else carried straight on along North Ridge Rd and Earl Haig Rd to meet up to the Ridge Road route at the Morningside Primary School terminus . There was also an obscure turning circle using Manton Crescent which was accessed via Valley View Road. This came off the Ridge route. Buses that did not turn off into Musgrave Rd carried on to the Toll Gate Bridge where they took a glide off road, up and over the bridge and then back down Berea Rd on into town. These are all the trolley bus routes I remember and they are open to correction and addition. I am not sure whether Kevin Mardon who is the guru on Durban’s Transport System has ever put his knowledge down in book form.

I cannot remember the fare structure but seem to remember that from Sutton Park into town was 4 cents for an adult. Children paid less. Routes were divided into Stages which were determined by set lengths of the route. The more Stages making up the route, the higher the fare. I happen to have the remains of an old bus ticket book used by my late mother in law travelling from the Bluff into town. It shows 14 stages. The tickets of this booklet covered trips ranging from 9 to 14 stages and cost 11 cents a trip. Ticket booklets were made available according to the trip you used. I seem to recall that Stages were marked on Bus Stop sign boards and conductors got to know them en route. Therefore if you boarded a bus 2 stages out of town you paid x amount, 1 stage out of town a lesser amount. Tickets were punched and handed back to the passenger so I am not sure how income was recorded. Perhaps the code number on the tickets was written down at the start of a shift.

A pre paid ticket booklet used from the Bluff and showing stages 9 to 14 on the right hand sized.

In later years a more sophisticated ticket dispenser was used which issued a smaller ticket and I think did some of the recording. Again this aspect would best be explained by someone who knew the system. For pensioners, concession tickets were available and here again I have a concession ticket and concession card of my late mother in law. The concession card was valid for one year only and had to be renewed. It went along with the 10 journey coupon which was available at certain outlets all over town. The concession ticket reduced the cost of bus fare. These concession cards were introduced when all the buses in Durban were changed to single deckers doing away with the conductor leaving the driver to be the sole person in charge. A “gadget” accepted your ticket as you entered the bus, stamped and clicked off a tag after which you retrieved your ticket. You also had to show the driver your concession card. Below is an example of such a concession card which has one more “journey” available shown by the “1” on the left with journeys 10 to 2 all clicked off and punched out. Not clear to see but this coupon was bought at “Cards Galore Greenacres Passage Durban”.

A pensioner’s concession card which allowed the holder reduced bus fares.

A coupon ticket valid for ten journeys and described above.

I cannot recall the reason why the Durban Corporation decided to end the use of the double decker and trolley buses. According to the book Facts about Durban Third Edition the last diesel powered double decker bus ran on the 30th April 1967. The trolley buses followed the next year when a Sunbeam, NDC 2040 left the streets on 11th April 1968. It is a shame as well that neither a tram, a diesel double decker nor a trolley bus survives in Durban as a memento. A double decker is kept at Baynesfield Estate and is in running condition but I do not think it was part of Durban’s fleet. One can add to this list as there is neither a Sunderland , nor a Short flying boat nor a whaler that exists that would recall when all these were part and parcel of the Durban scene.

Above the diesel double decker bus preserved at Baynesfield Estate not far from Thornville.

This topic has previously been commented on in Facts about Durban. If you want to read it here is the link :

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12 Responses

  1. Rodney Coyne
    | Reply

    One peculiarity of the Morningside trolley service was that some trolleys did a circuit of Puntans Hill. I was told that a senior member of the transport board (or whatever it was called) lived at Puntans Hill and the service was laid on for his benefit. This was quite possibly true as there was otherwise no reason really for the trolleys to make the detour.

  2. Gerald Buttigieg
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    Hi Rodney,
    That is news to me but it could be. Trematon Drive was rather exclusive and Morningside had some fine houses. Puntans Hill was Route 18 and I think North Ridge Road was Route 21 if I remember correctly. I knew people in Manton Crescent and that was an off route turn around where the trolley bus had to go down Valley View Road and end up doing a U Turn in the crescent. I often wondered why that was as the buses could have carried on from Trematon Drive into Earl Haig and vice versa but they didn’t. Can you remember the Florida Road route? Did it do a U turn near Jameson Park or did it turn left and go across the Berea via Essenwood Road? Cannot say I ever did that trip only remembering the trolley buses going that way from Stamford Hill Road.

    • Basil

      If I correctly recall there were two trolley-bus routes to and from Springfield Rd (16 and 21) running clockwise and counterclockwise. Route 22 included the detour to Puntan’s Hill. Route 20 – Sutton Park. Route 21 from town used Berea Road, Musgrave, Silverton, Vause, Sydenham North ridge, Trematon, Sutton Park, Florida Rd, Stamford Hill, First Avenue, Soldiers way. Route 16/18 followed that path in reverse.
      Route 41 traversed Berea – Musgrave Rd to Marriot and Route 43 Marriot Rd to Musgrave both enabling access to Jamieson and Mtichell Park, which served as the point where their respective route numbers interchanged 41 becoming 43 and vice versa for their return trip to town.

  3. Rodney Coyne
    | Reply

    In the early 50s our family lived in North Ridge Road. I regularly caught the trolley bus to my piano lessons, getting off at the corner of Essenwood Road and Silverton Road. I can’t remember anything about the Florida Road service, but I do remember that there was a tram terminus at the top of Florida Road, just below Jameson Park so I suppose this was also a terminus for the trolley buses.

  4. Gerald Buttigieg
    | Reply

    Hi Basil
    I think you have the Route numbers 16 and 21 correct and they did transverse the Berea as you mentioned. The fundi on the bus routes and services is Kevin Marsden but he has gone into hibernation. For some reason I recall that one trolley bus route ended at Springfield Road where it did a U turn and headed back to town. There is a block of flats called Chesslea at this point. Not sure what Route number that was. Then another bus would turn left instead of doing a U turn and head down for Earl Haig Rd etc . Then in the other direction the trolley bus when it reached Morningside Govt School would not continue to Earl Haig Road but turn down Valley View Road and go as far as Manton Crescent where it turned and went back to North Ridge Rd and then head back to town via Trematon Drive etc. In the 1960s I do recall that one trolley bus route only went as far as the old Overport Telephone Exchange. This is near the present Overport Shopping Centre. Here there was a siding (timing point) where the bus took a left and stopped. There was Municipal Toilet here. Here the bus did a U turn back into town. This U turn was stopped later when the intersection Ridge Road / South Rd became as bad as it is now. Route 18 also went along Stamford Hill Road but only as far as Sutton Park where there was a terminus and it U turned back to town. All the trolley / motor bus routes hopefully are documented somewhere as most of the users are getting older now. Memories fade.

  5. Basil
    | Reply

    Hi Gerald
    Thanks for filling in those gaps.
    I kick myself for not having taken photos of the mundane things and sights during my early years (1950’s). The Durban beachfront where I grew up is virtually unrecognizable by comparison…. I guess that’s one of the failings of youth…We just never thought those days would end and change wasn’t on the radar. Why keep milk or coke bottles or bus tickets or menus or those toys we ordered off the back of Kellog’s breakfast cereal boxes or those crazy Mini-Ads? The Dinky cars and Tinker toys, Mecano and Scalectrix set, that somehow got lost along the way. The wooden escalators in Stutafords & Greenacres that I loved to spend time riding on until being chased off by the in-store security guy. The horse with a straw hat that pulled a Clover Ice-cream cart and the vegetable “sammy” who parked off his old Dodge or Ford truck in the neighbourhood on the same day every week, selling market-fresh fruit and vegetables. Life was indeed different then… Probably no better nor worse than today just, so very different. Sighhhh

  6. Gerald Buttigieg
    | Reply

    Hi Basil,
    Yes those days will never return. The vibe that used to be in Durban CBD on Saturday mornings especially in July and towards Christmas. Going to the movies Saturday nights, going to sessions, gathering with your mates in your cars at the Cuban Hat or The Nest, eyeing girls living in your area on the trolley bus going into town hoping to make contact. If you want to reminisce do a SEARCH for ” What did you do fun” on the search function. There are a lot of memories on this site you just have to find them.

  7. Lawrence Orchard
    | Reply

    There was also a spur route that went up Queen Mary Avenue to the Kenneth Gardens flats in the early sixties. It diverted from the Umbilo route at the Nicholson Road/Queen Mary Avenue traffic circle .

  8. SW Andrews
    | Reply

    Gerald Buttigieg

    The Andrews family, John, Stella nee Mifsud, Ronald and Stanley arrived in Durban from Malta in 1948 when I was 5 years of age, and judging by your surname you may well hail from that Island as well?

    (I note that a Buttigieg is a Democrat Party Senator (?) in the USA, and my cousin Margaret was married to a Buttigieg, his son being Bobby is a well-known pop musician on the Island.)

    I recall trams (on rails and overhead wires) in Durban – and Johannesburg even – but I am not certain at ikf trams and electric busses overlapped – probably. given similar means of propulsion.

    Coincidentally I hit on your interesting comments while idly surfing interesting sites and hit on ‘WELCOME TO THE TROLLEYBUS MUSEUM AT SANDTOFT’ documentary on U-Tube while enjoying a pot of coffee this fine Cape Town Sunday morning – it stimulated me to search for ‘Trolley Busses’ in Durban . We lived in pretty far removed Durban North which certainly welcomed no such vehicles, but we frequently used the Snell Parade route for fun intnhe sun.

    (I recall that men and boys would have to walk behind the petrol bus up the formidable Athlone hill, then climb aboard again at the small shopping cengtre across from a bowling cluib.)

    I am rambling.

    Stanley William Andrews formerly of Northlands HS, and St Charles College, PMB

  9. Gerald Buttigieg
    | Reply

    Hi Stanley
    My late father was born in Malta and we emigrated from Egypt in 1948. We arrived in Durban in Sept of that year aboard the Toscana. I do know a Ron Andrews and he lives in Durban North so wonder if he is the Ronald you mention. He must be in his late 80s and is apparently a honorary consul for Malta. He attended St Henry’s Marist Brothers and if I recall matriculated in 1952. My father used to speak about Mifsud. There was a small Maltese community in Durban at one stage.

  10. SW Andrews
    | Reply

    Gerald Buttigieg

    I don’t believe what I reading in your kind response – our bunch was also aboard the good ship ‘Toscana’ sailing via the recently re-opened Suez canal, at some stage. One is to presume that the rusty old bucket that escaped sinking somehow during hostilities did not do the same run over and over, rather like their current cousins the MSC Line?

    ‘Bugger me, Charlie’ – we may have been young shipmates cringing and fleeing from ‘the Devil’ when we ‘crossed the line’ (Equator) sailing down the East coast !

    Incidentally all of us were born in Malta apart from ‘yours truly’ who happened to be born in safe Alex in 1943 due to my dad being part of the Malta (Royal Navy) Hydrographic Office being evacuated first as essential personnel, followed in a later convoy by my late mother and and her two sons.

    The Maltese community I recall in good old but too bloody-hot and humid Durbs are the Murrays (Wallace, Edith and Bruce); the Ruggiers (A GP and his family who subsequently my Mother and I visited in Newlands, Cape Town), and a Cardona with a moustache. No doubt the Maltese Consul can add to that list.

    I hold a defunct British Passport under which Mother and the Andrews boys travelled in 1948, but bear with me for a few days, a few weeks, or even months while I access my bank’s vault after which I can probably confirm if you will also taste the delicious fleshy orange mangos eaten over a basin when the exhausted Toscana docked for a few days (?) at Mombasa as a lost shipmate,

    Kind regards,
    SW Andrews aka Chris or Christian Andrews in these parts

  11. Brian Pitcher
    | Reply

    For interest, I remember several bus route numbers as followows
    12 Glenwood, 14 Tollgate, 16 Springfield road via Overport, 21 Silverton Road via Overport {the reverse of 16}
    41 Musgrave Road. 50 Botanic Gardens, 82 Howard College, 313 Lighthouse Road {Bluff}, 1, North Beach, 2 South Beach, 3 Point Road Outwards 4 Point Road back to city, I’m sure there were lots more.
    Brian Pitcher

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