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Sunday, 29 August 2010

The Accommodation of Smokers on the London and South Western Railway

While it is right to study the British railway industry in isolation, it should never be forgotten that its importance to Victorian society means that it can be held up as a mirror to it at times. For example, some railway companies in the late Victorian period encouraged the development of the temperance movement amongst their employees. This was following the nation-wide rise of the temperance movement. Further, before World War One there was an expansion of education and many in society saw it as a means of social improvement. Subsequently, the railway companies set up education courses for their staff to take advantage of the pro-education feeling in the nation and develop better employees. Lastly, in the 1990s smoking gradually became socially less acceptable, and as such by 2000 it was banned on all railway journeys. This was followed in July 2007 by its prohibition anywhere within railway premises. This change of the law was much to consternation of some of my friends.

I once suggested to one of my friends who smoked that he should actually write a history of smoking on Britain’s railways. While he had never complained about the ban on smoking within railway carriages, he has taken issue with the fact that he cannot smoke on platforms as they are not covered. He didn’t warm to the idea, and as such no work has been done on this subject. Indeed for this blog entry I thought I might give a short history of how the London and South Western Railway approached the issue of smoking on its trains and at its stations. The information has come from the various copies of the company’s rule books, appendices to the working timetables and bylaws that I have.

What surprised me when looking for rules on smoking in the documents, is that the 2007 law has returned the status of smoking on railway premises to its original state. A London and South Western Railway rule book from 1845 states that:

‘Smoking is strictly prohibited both in the carriages, and in the company’s stations. Every person smoking in a carriage or station is hereby subjected to a penalty not exceeding forty shillings; and every person persisting in smoking in a carriage or station, after being warned to desist by the Guard in charge of the train, or any officer of the company, shall, in addition to incurring a penalty not exceeding forty shillings be immediately, or, if travelling, at the first opportunity, be removed from the Company’s premises.’

So, smoking was banned everywhere within the railway company and the nuisance aspect of the habit comes through loud and clear. This is primarily as it is only later in the century that smoking became cheaper and accessible to a greater proportion of the population. As such, it was probably only been the first class passengers that could have afforded to smoke. This fact is reinforced by the hefty nature of the maximum fine, forty shillings, which would have been well beyond a week’s salary for many individuals. A low paid L&SWR clerk at the time earned approximately 19 shillings a week, a well-paid clerk earned double this. This indicates that even for the middle classes the fine would have been a great burden. Also, today the fine would be the equivalent of paying a maximum £161. Therefore, this suggests that it was only the richer end of society that were smoking, and that the fine was tailored accordingly.

This regulation was in place for many years as it was replicated word for word in the company’s 1864 staff rule book. The first sign of a change is found in an 1884 staff rule book as follows:

‘7. Every person smoking in any shed or covered platform of a station, or in any building of the company, or in any carriage or compartment not specifically provided for the purpose, is hereby subjected to a penalty not exceeding forty shillings. The company’s officers and servants are required to take the necessary steps to enforce obedience to this bye-law; and any person offending against it is liable, in addition to incurring the penalty above mentions, to be summarily removed, at the first opportunity, or from the company’s premises.’

It is uncertain what year that the L&SWR allowed smoking in some carriages, however I suspect the change occurred in the early 1870s. [Ed. I was helpfully informed by Jeremy (see comment below) that the railway companies were compelled by the 1868 Regulation of Railways Act to provide smoking compartments in all passenger trains. I have posted the rule in the comments section below.] The change came because smoking as a habit was becoming far more widespread due to the advent of the cigarette and the lowering of the price of tobacco. Therefore, the company must have felt obliged to provide provision for the increased numbers of customers who smoked, as it would be unseemly not to do so. This said, because of the harsh tone and strictness of the rule, it would seem to suggest that the company was merely accommodating the rise in the numbers of smokers who wished to travel; and there is no indication that it was seeking to encourage the practice. One transgression would be all it took to land you with a fine and removal from the premises.

Additionally, it should be noted that the L&SWR were able to make this change at the time as larger coaches with a greater number of compartments were being introduced. Subsequently, it was easier for company officials to designate particular compartments for smokers without disruption to other people’s journeys. Thus, the introduction of the smoking compartment was also aided by the advancement of railway design.

The provision of smoking compartments on the L&SWR was, therefore, set in stone by the 1880s because of these factors. They would be present on British railways until the 1990s. However, what changed around the compartments were the rules for governing how the railway employees should deal with those passengers who transgressed by smoking outside of them. For the next change in attitude we have to move forward to the L&SWR’s Bye-laws of 1906 which stated that:

’16. No person shall smoke in any railway carriage or compartment thereof not specially provided for smoking; or in or upon any part of the company’s premises where smoking is expressly prohibited by the Company; and no person shall smoke elsewhere within the Company’s premises if requested by any servant or agent of the company not to do so. Any person infringing or not observing this by-law and regulation shall be liable to the penalty prescribed by By-law No. 1; and any person who persists in so offending after being warned by any passenger to servant or agent of the company to desist, and fails to quit such carriage, compartment, or place immediately upon request by any servant or agent of the company, may, without prejudice to any such penalty be removed therefrom, or from the company’s premises, by or under the direct of any servant or agent.’

This was clearly a change in tone. The rules of 1845, 1864 and 1884, were very direct, strongly worded and the staff were to take the harshest measures to deal with those who broke them. While the ruling presented here is essentially the same as the 1884 one, the wording of this bylaw essentially instructs passengers to be warned that if they inappropriately smoked it may possibly land them with a fine (still up to 40 shillings). It is much less strict than earlier regulations.

What is also interesting is that at the same time the onus was on the staff to provide enough smoking compartments for those who required them. Rule No. 195 in the 1904 and 1912 L&SWR staff rule books stated that ‘Guards must, before starting, see that they have a sufficient number of compartments reserved for smokers...’ Thus, having enough provision for smokers is the responsibility of the guard, and by default the railway company. This demonstrated that no longer were smokers to be just accommodated by the L&SWR staff, as before, but that they were to be expected as passengers. This aligns well with the new, less harsh, tone of the bylaw of 1906. Because by the early 19th century was smoking was a universal social activity, both the bylaw and the rule book indicate that the L&SWR directors and managers were obviously far more positive about those who chose to do it on the company’s premises.

As a postscript, in the 1934 Southern Railway (which took over the L&SWR’s territory in 1923) appendix to the working timetable, it shows how far railway companies’ attitudes had changed since the 1840s. It stated that:

‘Any person reported by a passenger, or seen to be smoking in a non-smoking compartment, must be politely informed that this is a contravention of one of the Company’s Bye-laws (No. 17 in the public timetable); and the passenger must be requested to desist from smoking or to change into a smoking compartment. Failing compliance, the name and address of the offending passenger must be obtained and the circumstance reported to the Divisional Superintendent.’

Thus, for those who smoked outside the designated compartments the Southern Railway imposed no fines and there was no ejection of the offender from company premises. Further, the tone of the instruction seems quite weak willed in comparison with earlier examples. The most that could happen is that those who transgressed the bylaw may have gotten a stern letter from the Divisional Superintendent (given gave their name and address to the company’s staff in the first place). By this time smoking was not perceived of as much of a nuisance as it had been in the past, and as such there was a far more relaxed attitude to those passengers who chose to break the rules. Therefore, the Southern Railway’s attitude was clearly shaped by smoking’s almost universal acceptance in society at the time.

Overall, the L&SWR’ rules, accommodations and attitudes to passengers smoking changed in line with the general shift away from it being the preserve of the rich, towards its almost universal acceptance within society. However, what is also important to note that the nuisance aspect of smoking, that some people do not want to inhale others’ smoke, never really went away. Smokers and non-smokers were always segregated. Indeed, as the evidence shows, railway companies always defended the rights of non-smokers to continue their journeys without being affected by those who wished to smoke, despite the habit becoming socially more acceptable over the period of this study.


  1. There was I believe a requirement in the 1868 Regulation of Railways Act for main line railways (it did not apply to the Underground (i.e. Metropolitan and District) railways, I don't know about others) to provide smoking compartments.

  2. Thanks for the information Jeremy. I have put a note in above. I have found the Act and the actual rule was as follows:-

    20. All Railway Companies, except the Metropolitan Railway Company, shall, from and after the First Day of October next, in every Passenger Train where there are more Carriages than One of each Class, provide Smoking Compartments for each Class of Passengers, unless exempted by the Board of Trade.


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