In the aftermath of the Great War London’s public transport was in a crisis. Infrastructure had been run down, locomotives and buses had been sent to France, and passenger numbers had soared. In 1918 the Underground Electric Railways Company, which controlled all the underground railways except the Metropolitan, carried 910 million passengers. Today, on a system more than double the size and including the Metropolitan, the Underground carried 1,107 million. The squeeze was terrific, unlike anything anyone had yet witnessed. The 1919 Select Committee on Transport set up to investigate the problem caustically wrote;
‘Trains were crowded not merely to excess, but almost to danger point. The crush in the “peak hours” not only overloaded public conveyances, but subjected travellers, particularly the old, the feeble and women, to an amount of suffering, the effects of which often unfitted them temporarily for their ordinary duties.’
It should be noted that before the Great War the definition of overcrowding was usually the mere fact that people were standing up. The Metropolitan Police had banned passengers from standing on buses and trams before the war on the grounds it was unsafe. Such regulations were soon thrown to the wind given the crush. Though the term had been used before, it was only now that it took on its true meaning, the “rush hour” had arrived.
Rush hour was mainly caused by the introduction of the 8 hour working day. Before the War the working classes typically travelled in earlier and out later from work than the middle class. This staggering of working hours had avoided problematic crushes, but the 8 hour day aligned working hours far closer together. With everyone travelling at the same time the result was a logistical nightmare that has baffled transport experts ever since. At the time, however, there were some more outlandish ideas behind the problem.
For the Great Eastern railway part of the problem was obvious; allotments. In 1916 Britain had adopted British Summer Time (where all the clocks go forward by an hour). This, the Great Eastern claimed, had led to brighter evenings which in turn had encouraged the working classes to start gardening. Others had taken up sport. The result was that come home time, instead of loitering around the city, every working man in London was racing home to put up some decking via the nearest Homebase. This, the Great Eastern claimed, “be it much or little” was clearly part of the reason for the evening rush hour.
For the London Underground the problem wasn’t allotments. No, the Superintendent proclaimed in 1918, one of the major problems was women. In a sequence of reasoning that leaves the modern reader somewhat bewildered/offended/amused in equal measure, the Underground executive claimed;
‘Although females may travel regularly, they are certainly not so quick in entering or alighting [as men], and it is remarkable how they will stand in the doorways, necessitating passengers who wish to enter or alight pushing by them, instead of getting out of the way.’
Every tube train it seemed was being overwhelmed by hoards of apathetic women forming an almost impenetrable barrier to the other passengers, a consequence of the women’s “unfamiliarity” with the system.
Thankfully both of these reasons don’t appear to have been used since in explanations for the rush hour. But aside from the amusement value these excuses have to us today they outline some of the most important points in Britain’s social history. The compression of working hours, which had created the rush hour, played a major role over the next few decades in breaking down class barriers. The fact that women passengers were being used as an excuse showed that they were becoming a visible presence as commuters for the first time on the railways. Even the Great Eastern’s claim about gardens demonstrates a noted increase in the leisure time available to the working class, something few had the time or money to afford before the War.
Sadly though it does seem some railway companies will never learn…