Edinburgh trams: Leith tram cable wheels discovered during tram works to go on public display
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Two historic tram wheels that were submerged under the ground for nearly 100 years will now take pride of place at the Iona Street junction with Leith Walk as part of the council’s new pedestrianised street layout. The Victorian-era tram cable wheels that date back to 1898, were discovered in August 2021 at the Pilrig Street junction with Leith Walk during the Trams to Newhaven excavations. The 2.6 metre diameter wheels are believed to have been decommissioned in 1922 when Edinburgh’s tram network transitioned from an underground cable-hauled system to an electrical network.
Council archaeologist, John Lawson said: “I’m really excited that we’ll be able to showcase the Pilrig wheels close to their original location. Celebrating our archaeological heritage with the public is an important part of the project. The wheels are a unique part of Leith’s and Edinburgh’s heritage and provide a fascinating link between the old and new tram systems.”
The move to relocate the historic artefacts to Iona Street comes after months of consultation with the local community that was overseen by a specialist panel made up from councillors, members from engineering firm, Atkins, and the community councils together on trams (CCTT) group. Plans to permanently pedestrianise the junction at the west end of Iona Street and Leith Walk are now underway and expected to be completed in the coming months, with the tram team also introducing benches, planters and an information board alongside the historic wheels.
Jack Caldwell, Lib Dem councillor for Leith Walk, who joined the advisory panel in the summer of 2021, said showcasing the relic wheels will be ‘the first new public art sculpture on Leith Walk in decades’ adding the new feature will allow ‘future generations to learn about the area’s history.’
The tram wheels were unearthed at a site known as the ‘Pilrig Muddle’ where passengers travelling between Edinburgh and Leith in the early 1900s (two separate burghs at the time) would need to change from cable-powered to electric trams. Leith had used electric trams since 1905 with the Edinburgh council not making the change until 1922. It would not be until June 1923 that electric trams would first travel the full length of Leith Walk.
Cllr Caldwell said: “With Iona Street already being stopped up as part of the Trams to Newhaven plans back in 2020, the location made complete sense to me. There were discussions about other locations such as at Newhaven and elsewhere in Pilrig, but the wheels clearly have a special connection to the infamous “Pilrig Muddle” where the old Edinburgh and Leith Corporation trams exchange took place on the town boundary."
Councillor Scott Arthur, Transport and Environment Convener, said: “The presence of trams in Leith is part of its heritage, so it’s fantastic that we’ll be able to return these historic wheels to their home, for the community to enjoy and learn about. As we approach the completion of Trams to Newhaven, it’s touches like these that demonstrate that, as well as delivering a sustainable, high-capacity transport link between the city centre and the north, the project is transforming spaces along the route.”
Testing of the £207.3m tram extension got underway last month, with the tram team trialling the long-awaited public transport from Picardy Place to Newhaven at a slow pace before the extended network becomes operational later this year. The tram extension will see trams travel down Leith Walk with passengers for the first time in 67 years and 100 years since electric trams were first introduced by Edinburgh council.