Most of the trams built by various government tramways were designed to carry passengers but some special-purpose trams were built for track maintenance or to transfer prisoners. Probably the most unique of the special trams were the two tram hearses used to provide an inexpensive hearse service on the New South Wales Government tramways in Newcastle, NSW, from 1896 until its official withdrawl in 1946. This service evolved from the working class custom of having the funeral procession depart from a private home (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 tramcars, 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 tram hearse is a low four-wheel timber tram trailer 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 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.
The Museum's tram hearse trailer, No.27S, was built at the Randwick Tramway Workshops in Sydney and began service at Newcastle in 1896. In February 1949 it was transferred to the Gordon Avenue, (Hamilton) tram depot at Newcastle and used as a toolbox. It was transported to Sydney in 1953 and presented to the Museum by Rudders Ltd the following year. During the mid-1980s the tram hearse was restored prior to display in the Transport exhibition of the Museum from 1988 until 1999. As restoration was in progress a dried flower was found in the hearse and this was preserved as a melancholy reminder of the former function of this curious vehicle. The tram hearse is probably unique in Australia.
Although the majority of trams built by the New South Wales Government Tramways were designed to carry passengers, occasionally special purpose trams were either built or converted from obsolete trams. Some of these included those trams designed to carry prisoners to and from gaol, hospital trams for stretchers during the influenza epidemic and breakdown trams to service the tram fleet.
Assistant Curator, Science & Industry
McCarthy K. & N. Chinn, New South Wales Tramcar Handbook 1861-1961, Part One, South Pacific Electric Railway Co-operative Society Limited, Sutherland, NSW, 1975.