Monday, 21 March 2011

When sulphur was good for you: the early days of tube travel

One of the myriad benefits of giving up daily commuting is that one no longer has to face the horrors of rush-hour London tube trains. They were bad enough in the winter, but during the few hot summers we suffered before Global Cooling set in earlier this decade, the experience was positively distressing.

Notoriously, London has refused to follow the lead of all those funny foreign cities by introducing air-conditioning in its trains – after all, what are we, a bunch of damned pansies? 

Besides, the majority of London’s population now appears to hail from considerably warmer climes, obviating the need to cater for the small handful of passengers who hail from the Nordic region. It strikes me as far more reasonable to spend money that might have been used to make one or two native English passengers slightly more comfortable in order to pay tube drivers – whose job the average kindergarten attendee could accomplish without any form of training – a massive salary to make up for the inconvenience of having to turn up for work occasionally. 

Mind you, travelling on the London Underground has never been that pleasant – especially in the early days when steam trains were in service. In unventilated tunnels, no less. Chemists near tube stations used to dispense specially-concocted pick-me-ups to revive travellers overcome by the experience, as this 1879 letter to The Times describing a journey informs us:

“The condition of the atmosphere was so poisonous that, although a mining engineer, I was almost suffocated and was obliged to be assisted from the train at an intermediate station. On reaching the open air I requested to be taken to a chemist close at hand… Without a moment’s hesitation he said ‘Oh, I see. Metropolitan Railway’, and at once poured out a wine glass full of what I conclude he designated Metropolitan Mixture. I was induced to ask him whether he often had such cases, to which he rejoined ‘Why, bless you sir, we often have twenty cases a day.’”

When the tube was being constructed, the directors of the Metropolitan Railway  assured everyone that the trains would “consume their own smoke and condense their own steam” (just as convincing as claims regarding the benefits of wind farms). But, as a leader in The Times of 1884 tells us, the reality was somewhat different:

“A journey from King’s Cross to Baker Street is a form of mild torture which no person would undergo if he could conveniently help it. Passengers have been consoled by the assurance that semi-asphyxiation by sulphurous fumes is not an injurious thing even for the asthmatic but this is a point on which coughing sufferers cannot be expected to agree with the railway directors.”

Underground railway companies swore blind for decades that what passengers were breathing was actually beneficial to their health. In 1898 Col John Bell, the Metropolitan Railway’s general manager assured a Board of Trade committee that Great Portland Street station was “actually used as a sanatorium for men who had been afflicted with asthma and bronchial complaints”. Not satisfied with that whopper, he credited “acid gas” in the tunnels with his own recovery from asthma. (Remember, next time you’re feeling poorly, just ask your GP for a blast of “acid gas”.)

One assumes the committee swallowed the colonel’s fantasies, because two years later, in 1900,  the journalist R.D. Blumenfield wrote this about his journey from Baker Street to Moorgate:

“The compartment in which I sat was filled with passengers who were smoking pipes, as is the English habit… the smoke and the sulphur fill the tunnel, all the windows have to be closed. The atmosphere was a mixture of sulphur, coal dust and foul fumes from the gas lamps above; so that by the time we reached Moorgate Street I was near dead of asphyxiation and heat.”

Sounds like fun, especially if you consider that most commuters at the time won’t have washed more than once a week, and that there was a tendency to wear clothes until they fell apart: in other words, an olfactory nightmare.

But at least one wouldn’t have had to put up with “innit”-speak, or noise leaking from MP3 players or the sight of copious quantities of wobbling bare flesh or being crushed by someone else’s backpack or young people orally exchanging bodily fluids or vertically-challenged idiots sitting with their legs splayed to show how manly they are or the sound of computer games being played on mobile phones. On the whole I think I’d plump for the sulphur fumes and the cigar smoke – and the pick-me-ups would no doubt have been heavily laced with interesting banned substances.

And you’d have been travelling through the heart of the greatest city in the greatest empire the world had ever seen.

When it comes to the history of the Tube, I’m a bit if a train-spotter, as it were. All of the quotes in this post come from the best book I’ve ever read on the subject: Underground to Everywhere by Stephen Halliday.


  1. I reckon keeping the Tube un-air conditioned is government policy. It guarantees that a large portion of the tax-paying population of the United Kingdom arrives for work too exhausted and befuddled to think about rising up in arms against a system that sucks them dry to the benefit of scrimshankers. If we arrived for work with our wits about us, there would be armed revolution within a year.

    I wish they still had smoking carriages so us ex-puffers…20 years and counting…had somewhere to go for some serious passive smoking now that it’s been banned everywhere else.
    Wednesday, March 23, 2011 - 12:01 PM

  2. But Gasper, there is enough to enjoy in the tube without a smoking carriage.

    The scents of the non-deodorised, the echoing melodies of Romanian accordion players by the elevators, the sonorous 'Mind the Gap' instructions, the fun in seeing OAPs reeling at each swerve while the able-bodied young stay in their seats, the challenge of trying to identify the song from the hiss out of the headphones. Trying to get anywhere in London at the weekend.

    DM goes on about Schopenhauer. What about Roger Miller? "Engerland swings like a pendulum do, bobbies on bicycles two by two, Westminster Abbey, the tower of Big Ben and the rosy red cheeks of the little cheeydlrreen".

    Makes yer proud, innit.
    Saturday, March 26, 2011 - 03:35 PM

  3. When I gave up smoking, Gasper, I used to follow smokers up from Temple Tube Station of a morning trying to snorkel up the spare smoke they'd leave drizzling in their wake. Seriously! Got some funny looks, I can tell you.

    Ex-KCS, I suspect DM must have missed Professor Bernard Williams’s lecture on “Roger Miller and the Categorical Imperative” – he may have given it in the year preceding DM’s arrival.
    Saturday, March 26, 2011 - 07:35 PM