Lenny Bates - 16 August 1930 – 27 December 2011

1 January, 2012

The following tribute by historian Robert Pascoe recently appeared in newspapers.

THE so-called "patron saint of trammies" has passed away.

Lenny Bates was still driving trams until a few weeks before he died, of pancreatic cancer, on 27 December, at the age of 81.

When Bates took up tramways employment in 1955, the W-Class electric tram still ruled supreme.

Cable cars had disappeared from Melbourne's streets only 15 years earlier.

Bates had tried his father's trade of plumbing, but trams became his life. In a recent interview he recalled that, "I thought these W-Class trams would still be here for the rest of my life".

He stayed with the industry: "I liked what I was doing."

Bates never got a licence to drive a car - in those days when trammies weren't required to have a motor vehicle licence - but he passed the annual medical check to drive trams for more than five decades.

Driving a W-Class tram differs from driving a motor vehicle because the controls are hand-operated rather than foot-pedalled.

hen along came the A-Class foot-controlled trams, and this posed a non-motorist like Bates with a new challenge.

"I noticed a big difference," he recalled, noting that he needed to make the effort to switch from hands to feet, and found the sensation of controlling the foot pedals strange after decades of swivelling the controls with his hands.

"I didn't have any experience of using my feet, just my hands… It took me a bit to get used to that… You go over a bump - you've got to keep your foot steady."

With the arrival of the modern low floor C-Class trams in the early 2000s, Lenny was again able to use a hand control, just like the good old days of the W-Class. 

Bates was accredited to drive A, B, C, W and Z Class trams.

Bates was born, raised and lived in Richmond, a suburb whose residents traditionally did not own a car.

He was born in 1930 into a plumbing family in Murphy St; they later moved to another rented house in Highett St and finally purchased their first house in Leslie St, North Richmond, where Lenny Bates lived until the very end of his life.

He was oldest of his siblings but never married and had no children.

Bates walked or trammed to work at the nearby Kew Depot and rarely travelled far from his home turf.

In fact, trammie mythology asserts that the furtherest Bates ever ventured from Richmond was Geelong.

Everyone knew Bates; everyone in the industry paid him due homage.

He was the trammie's trammie; he was the one who was renowned for guiding his vehicle safely and slowly, much as he talked.

He set standards for others to follow, in terms of affability, reliability, punctuality, and all the other old-fashioned virtues of the traditional trammie.

He still wore a trammie's cap, perched firmly on his head, in a period when most trammies went hatless.

Bates guided trams on two of Kew Depot's big routes - the 109 from Box Hill to Port Melbourne and the 48 from North Balwyn to Docklands.

When invited to reflect upon his long career in interview, the normally slow rhythm of Bates' voice sped up as he recalled favourite moments.

Years ago he had as a passenger a young blind boy carrying a violin who wanted to call out the names of the cross-streets as the tram moved westwards through the city: Exhibition St, Russell St, Swanston St and so on.

Bates smiled to himself as the blind boy called the streets correctly, relying on the movement of the tram to indicate the crossings.

"He must have memorised the streets - he had a good memory." 

Cheeky boys used to get a free ride in the W-Class era.

"There was a cinema in Bridge Rd in the old days," Bates said.

"I'd seen boys riding on the blind side (where the driver couldn't see them.) - the company was concerned about people being brushed off by trucks.'

Bates was drawn to tram work because "the uniforms commanded respect", at least in those times.

"It makes me smile when I see a daughter or a son with their mother, say `Look, Mummy, there's a policeman!'."

The concept of women driving trams was something Bates always supported.

"Why shouldn't they be?" he said.

He met the pioneering Joyce Barry, from the North Fitzroy Depot.

He trained the first female driver at Kew.

The only difficulty for women was the hand brake on the W-Class tram, "back in the old days".

Bates learnt to drive trams in a slower age when Melbourne's road traffic was less fierce.

"I'm not a fast driver… The times might have got faster! Time is my big problem.

"Traffic doesn't worry me, but time does!", he conceded, for the problems of colliding cars and unhappy passengers are ones that he learned over half a century of driving to deal with.

The 109 and 48 passengers will miss the tram driver who still wore a traditional cap in the modern era. 

He will also be fondly remembered by the entire Yarra Trams family.

Bates is survived by his siblings Muriel, Harry, Shirley, Joan and Judy and their families.

Historians Carla Pascoe and Robert Pascoe have been commissioned by Yarra Trams to write a history of Melbourne's trammies.

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