Early 20th Century Public Transport in Durban


  • Trams
    • Parcels Service
    • Theatre Service
    • Other Services
    • Funeral Services
  • Carriages
  • Rickshaws
    • Costumes
    • Pony rickshaws
    • Modern day rickshaws


Durban had a tramway system that linked different areas to the town centre. The trams for Musgrave Road, Umbilo, Toll Gate and Overport departed from the corner of Gardiner and West Street, next to the Post Office. The trams to Marriot Road, Stamford Hill and Umgeni left from the opposite side of the road while the trams for the Beach and the Point areas started from Gardiner Street outside the Post Office.

In those days children all went to school by tram, using season’s tickets which were coloured pink, blue, green or yellow for the four school terms. They were bought at the tramway office which used to be next to the Post Office but later demolished to make way for extensions to the Post Office. The tickets, printed on 8×5 cm linen-backed cards and costing 25c, were supposed to be worn in the school hatband or pasted inside one’s school case.

The trams, painted bright yellow with a cowcatcher in front, had two decks. The lower deck was closed, with comfortable padded seats covered by woven canework. There were windows which opened, a window sill on which parcels could be placed and a footrail to support weary feet after a shopping expedition. The upper deck was open but had canvas blinds to let down in case of rain. Seats on the upper deck were made of wood and the two or three seats at the back were reserved for Non-Europeans.

Parcels Service

The Tramway System had a Tram Parcels Service with which one could send parcels anywhere on a route for a ‘penny parcels ticket”. There were parcel depots where parcels could be picked up or sent off. If you wanted to send a parcel you would stand in the road and handed your parcel to the tram driver. When the driver came to the destination depot, he sounded his gong and threw the parcel onto the pavement. Of course only unbreakable parcels could be sent in this way! Depots were usually shops or Police Stations. There was a depot at Holden’s Store in Florida Road, and at the Mitchell Park and Musgrave Police Stations. The tram on the Mitchell Park route used to carry a large bundle of sugar cane as a ‘parcel’ for the elephant at Mitchell Park Zoo.

Theatre Service

Another special service was the ‘theatre trams’. Outside the ‘Theatre Royal’ in West Street, where Beare Bros. were in later years, there was a tram siding. Here a row of trams would wait for the evening’s audience after a theatre performance to board and be taken home to their various destinations.

Other Services

Other special tram services were the ‘water carts’ and ‘stone carts’. The water cart was like a milk tanker on tram wheels, driving along slowly on hot days spraying water from the front of the tram, much to the delight of all the young boys who would try their best to get wet! The stone carts were like open train trucks and were used to carry crushed stone to the point nearest to where road repairs were being done. The stone was tipped out into the road and shoveled into strong wooden ‘tip carts’, each pulled by a single large ‘shire’ horse.

Durban Train Station

Funeral Services

A funeral tram was used by people who could not afford the expense of a horse-drawn hearse and carriages for the mourners. It had a closed compartment for the coffin and seats for the mourners.


Carriages for hire could be found in Gardiner Street opposite the main entrance to the Old Central Durban Station, parked around a circular island in the middle of the cobbled road. These carriages were used as taxis are nowadays, to take travelers and their luggage to and from the station. They were also in demand for social occasions, especially for weddings and for funerals. A bride’s carriage was pulled by white horses and the driver had a bow of white ribbon on his whip. Funeral processions were equally impressive, with the hearse, which was on high wheels like a carriage, being pulled by black horses, their backs covered by a heavy black net with a long fringe hanging down at the sides and black plumes on their heads.


Another popular mode of public transport in the early nineteen hundreds in Durban was the rickshaw. Rickshaws were introduced to Durban from Japan in 1892 and soon became popular, so that by 1904 there were 2000 pullers in the town. At first they were the Japanese type holding only one passenger and having wooden wheels. It was fashionable for elderly ladies living on the Berea to have their own private rickshaw. Some of the bigger ladies had two rickshaw pullers, one in front and one in the back to push up-hill and to act as a brake down-hill. Durban’s steepest roads like Wallace Street and Marriott Road had notices at the top saying “Dangerous to Rickshaws”. Some rickshaw men walked the streets looking for customers, others waited in stands of six to eight at like places in town or on the Berea.


The Zulu rickshaw men soon developed a distinctive costume. The early pullers were working men who had to be able to move quickly and easily. The outfits consisted of the ordinary ‘kitchen uniform’ with shorts and shirt of unbleached calico trimmed with red braid; the shorts however had, instead of one row of braid, six or eight rows, stitched only across the front of the leg with end about 15 cm long hanging down at each side. Two narrow bands of red fabric, decorated with a pattern in white tape were worn crossing each other over the chest. The simple headdress was made of porcupine quills, a pair of cow horns and such other decoration as took the puller’s fancy. They were bare-footed with reed bangles around the ankles which would make a distinctive rattling sound as the puller ran along.

Pony rickshaws

Pony rickshaws were ordinary rickshaws fitted with a dashboard and long shafts making it more suitable for pulling by a small pony. They were popular for a while but the fashion seemed not to have lasted very long. dern day rickshaws

Modern day rickshaws

The twenty-five rickshaws that operate today are all that remain of this rich history in Durban, mainly as a tourist attraction along the beachfront. The modern day rickshaws and their pullers are ornately dressed to attract tourists. Colourfully clad in their beaded or hand sewn costumes and impressively horned headgear, Durban’s rickshaw men are a familiar sight on the beachfront or so-called Golden Mile. They are among the strongest and toughest people you’ll meet. They rise at 5am seven days a week and ply their back-breaking trade until 5pm, transporting tourists and the occasional local in their imaginatively decorated, human powered carriages.  Each rickshaw puller owns his vehicle and no one is permitted to have more than one. The trade is regulated, with licences costing R500 per year. Rickshaw operators are currently in the process of setting up an umbrella organisation so that they can approach businesses to support them, and in doing so, help to expand their trade.

Source website: the book “Dear old Durban” by Barbara Maud-Stone.

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