Pukeahu Anthology

Hopper Street Tram Crash

David Lee grew up on Hopper Street. His family memoir This is not a Dummy Run includes this article from the Evening Post — June 21, 1954 — where his father, Ted Lee, recounts how a tram driver suffered a heart attack, causing the tram to lose control and crash into the Kwok’s fruit and vegetable shop on Webb Street. The tram driver and a woman who attempted to put on the handbrake both died in the crash.

Side view of a Wellington tram. A tram conductor is inside on the right, c. 1920s.
Side view of a Wellington tram. A tram conductor is inside on the right, c. 1920s.
Photographer: Gordon Burt. 1/1-015436-G. Alexander Turnbull Library.

I was painting our house on the corner of Hopper and Arlington Streets. It was an old place that came straight off the street. It had been a shop. The shop part had been our bedroom. I was standing on the footpath with my back to the road and was painting away there when a tram came hurtling down Hopper Street. It shook the house. They all shook everybody’s house. They came down at a hellva belt because the street was quite steep. At the bottom they turned into Webb Street and then turned again into Cuba Street. As it passed I thought to myself that it was going faster than usual. I looked around and instead of turning the corner the tram went straight on into a shop, a third of the way in. Bang! Glass and everything flying.

I dropped the paintbrush and ran down the road to see ‘what the hell’. There were lots of girls in the tram. They had been playing basketball (now called netball). They were gradually getting out of the tram and sitting in the gutter, bewildered, and a little bit knocked about. Some of them were crying. I passed the girls and went into the side of the shop. I knew the shop and the owners, the Kwoks. They were in a back room, the Chinese people, and they came into the shop with me. They had just put in glass shelves (there had been wooden ones for years) so there was glass from the shelves, glass from the window panes and glass from the tram’s windows. All glass everywhere. There were pumpkins, apples, cucumbers, melons: everything with big hunks of glass sticking in them.

There was a woman lying there. The ambulance men were trying to get in but couldn’t because the tram was occupying all the front of the shop. I told them to come around the back way and they brought a stretcher. They laid the stretcher on pumpkins and apples and every other thing. There was glass everywhere. It was a hellva mess. I gave them a hand to lift the woman up. One bloke got one end of her and another got the other end but her leg stayed on the ground. The one thing keeping it on her body was her stocking. So I lifted it up and put it beside the woman.

The woman in question would have been Mrs Ellen Sawell. According to the Evening Post (21 June), she heroically tried to revive the unconscious motorman, who had had a heart attack, and apply the handbrake. She died shortly after being admitted to Wellington Hospital. A plaque should be placed in Hopper Street in recognition of Mrs Sawell’s bravery and that of another passenger, Miss Jessie Ewing, who also tried to stop the tram. She was seriously injured but survived. The motorman, William McCullogh (56) father of seven was dead on arrival at the hospital. The conductor and eight members of the netball team were treated for shock and minor injuries.