20 May 2022

A brief history of underground etiquette

The new cross-London railway, the Elizabeth Line, is launched on Tuesday, 24th May. It will stop at 41 accessible stations, 10 newly built and 31 upgraded, and is expected to serve about 200 million people each year. The east-west line will link Reading and Heathrow in the west with Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east via twin tunnels between Paddington and Whitechapel.

At this moment of ambitious expansion, we've taken a look at the evolution of underground etiquette, and shared some handy tips for the modern tube traveller.

London’s underground adventure began in 1863, when the Metropolitan railway began to convey passengers from Paddington to Farringdon beneath London’s congested streets. The first trains were steam-powered and, while early travellers were astonished by the speed of travel, the smoky underground atmosphere sent many passengers coughing and spluttering to a pharmacist near Euston, where they could procure glasses of ‘Metropolitan Mixture’, guaranteed to soothe irritated throats and lungs. An American visitor to London, R. D. Blumenthal, described the early underground experience: “The atmosphere was a mixture of sulphur, coal dust and foul fumes from the oil lamp above; so that by the time we reached Moorgate Street I was near dead of asphyxiation and heat.”

The electrified City & South London Railway opened in 1890, the first deep-level “tube” in the world. Initially there were no windows (the engineers reasoned there was nothing to see), but they soon discovered that passengers were dubbing the wondrous new system “the sardine box railway” and windows were eventually added.

The arrival of the tube heralded great changes in society, reflected in new manners and etiquette. The underground facilitated the movement of unchaperoned women around the city, and this caused many social challenges. People of all classes and backgrounds were forced into close proximity in crowded stations.

Initially, underground carriages were categorised into first, second and third classes, with first class passengers enjoying spacious padded seats and carpets, while third class carriages offered wooden benches. Signs on platforms indicated where passengers should wait for their correct class carriage, but it soon became apparent that distinctions were being ignored in the great rush to board. A female writer in The Queen journal complained that overcrowding forced “ladies living in the country to travel with men in soiled garments, covered with clay or brick or rubbish, or reeking with odours of stale fish”. In 1900 the class distinctions were abandoned.

Initially smoking was not allowed on the underground, but this stricture was soon overturned, and by 1870 smoking carriages were allowed. These had to be provided for each class of travel, and in some cases were reserved for men. It was argued that smoking was bad for women’s health, and the habit of smoking in carriages in the presence of ladies was roundly condemned.

However, ladies had other ideas. When ‘ladies only’ carriages were introduced, which were free from tobacco smoke and the possibility of unwanted male attention, ladies voted with their feet and opted to choose their own carriages, resisting attempts to segregate them. Ladies only carriages, which were always empty, were eventually discarded. It was a tenet of Victorian etiquette that gentlemen gave up their seat for ladies. If they did so, ladies were recommended to accept graciously, either thanking him or bowing, but refraining from smiling at the stranger, and limiting herself to a “grave but cordial thank you” (Sensible Etiquette, Mrs H.O Ward, 1878).

With nothing to look at outside the windows, there was an issue on underground trains about how people would entertain themselves during the journey. Reading newspapers was an enduringly popular way of remaining cocooned from the rigours of tube travel, and when advertising began to make an appearance in carriages passengers found it diverting. There was, of course, always the risk that a passenger would catch a fellow-traveller’s eye, causing social embarrassment, or that male passengers would stare insolently and appraisingly at ladies. The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette (1875) advised ladies to “lower your veil and turn from him”, reassuring its readers that “a dignified modest reserve is the surest way to repel impertinence” and insisting that “nothing will rebuke incivility in another so surely as perfect courtesy in your own manner”.

Trains were inordinately loud, making conversations impossible. The prevailing tendency was to mind your own business, immuring yourself in your own unreachable and self-contained zone, a behaviour that is still very recognisable today.

The introduction of escalators into crowded stations in 1911 introduced new challenges to tube passengers. Initially, guards instructed passengers to walk up the escalators, treating them as moving staircases. Gradually, underground workers introduced a system where those who wanted to stand still could do so on the right-hand side, while people who walked up the escalator used the left-hand side. This system is still in place today.

The congestion of the London underground, the huge numbers of passengers, and complexity of the route system, were all challenges that were addressed by the railway authorities, who began to issue a series of innovative instructional posters, which were intended to initiate their users in the correct underground etiquette. The posters focused on social conduct and ways of ensuring the journey was as pleasant as possible: they advised how to enter a crowded carriage; warned against blocking the doorways; pleaded with people on the platform to let passengers off first; recommended moving down the platform to reduce overcrowding – all these instructions can still be heard today.

Often the messages were framed in a moralistic tone, stressing the fact that ‘good’ tube behaviour was considerate towards other people. A 1918 poster instructed passengers to move down inside the carriage because “everyone cannot get a seat at the busy hours but more could get a strap or standing room if the doors were left free from the crush. Think of others. A door obstructer is a selfish person.”

In 1927 a poster outlined a paradigm of underground virtue. Headed “A Fair Average Conduct Helps the Service” it is the account of an archetypal passenger’s considerate, if predictable, journey: “I entered the Tube Station and took my place in the queue, I had the exact fare ready, I passed across the lift, I stood clear of the gates, I bewared of pickpockets, I passed down to the other end of the platform, I let them off the car first, I stepped on quickly, I passed right down inside, I passed out quickly, I stood on the right of the escalator, I allowed others to pass, I stepped off with the right foot, I had my ticket ready, I emerged by the “Exit Only,” I walked smartly to the office. Why? Because I do it every day. Why? Because I’m, unfortunately, that sort of chap.”

Underground Etiquette for Modern Travellers

• Be prepared when you enter the underground station, and have your Oyster card, debit card or phone ready to place on the reader. Especially in rush hours, the flow of passengers through the entrance gate is fast and relentless, and people will be annoyed if you hold them up.

• If you want to stand still on the escalators, stick to the right-hand side, allowing people to walk up and down on the left hand side.

• Once you arrive at the platform, move along so that you are not blocking entrances and exits.

• When the train arrives, stand to one side of the opening doors and allow passengers to disembark. Do not jostle or barge into other passengers in your eagerness to board – another train will be along very shortly.

• Once on board the train, move down inside the carriage – there are plenty of handles and rails to assist you. Do not bunch up in the entrances near the doors as it will make it difficult for passengers to disembark.

• The carriages can be quite crowded so try not to take up excess room with your luggage and possessions. If you are wearing a backpack, be aware that there is a protuberance on your back that could inconvenience other passengers – it is best to remove it before boarding.

• In summer the tube can get uncomfortably hot, so travel with a bottle of water and remove your coat before boarding.

• Only use one seat – do not dump your possessions on the vacant seat next to you.

• Do not occupy more than your allocated space by slouching or sprawling in your seat or man-spreading.

• If you are listening to music or podcasts, use headphones or earbuds. Loud music leaching out of your headphones will be frowned upon – tubes are conventionally quiet spaces.

• Minimise eating and drinking on the tube. Lurching trains and sudden stops can easily lead to embarrassing spillages and smelly foods can be overpowering in a confined space.

• Do not stare at your fellow passengers. If you find yourself without the distraction of your phone, or a book or newspaper, try to fix your gaze above the opposite passengers’ heads, where you adverts, tube maps, and possibly even poetry will distract you.

• It is important that you respect the Priority Seat signs. In any case, if you see an elderly person, or someone who is pregnant, or a mother with a small child in tow, it is a considerate gesture to offer them your seat.

 • If you are offered a seat, graciously accept it, even if you do not feel that you actually need it. If you are only staying on the train for a couple of stops, say so and politely refuse.


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