As someone who lives in London and regularly uses the ‘tube’ (the underground railway, for those unfamiliar with the metropolis) I am used to the occasional delay in services caused by that saddest of announcements, a ‘passenger incident’. This can mean that someone is ill and a carriage has been stopped so that medical assistance can be sought, but it can also indicate that a person has thrown themselves in front of a train.
While I can just about imagine what motivates someone to do this I can’t begin the understand how the poor driver of a train must feel when he or she sees someone fall out the racks in front of his eyes, and they are unable to stop the vehicle from crushing them. Between 1993 and 2015 over 1400 people attempted to take their own lives on the Underground, that is an average of 64 a year, and over one a week.
The London Underground has been operating since the 1860s and it has been used for suicides attempts throughout that time. According to one piece of research, suicide on the railway increased after 1868 (just three years after the first train ran) when newspapers published details of the methods would-be suicides used.*
If that was the case then this example, from The Standard in 1893, was probably just as unhelpful.
Isaac Shelton was a 63 year-old ‘house decorator’ who lived on the Edgware Road. At a quarter to six in the evening on 27 June (a Tuesday) Isaac was seen entering the tunnel at Baker Street underground station, heading for Edgware Road. A fellow passenger shouted to him but he was ignored. At the same time a train was arriving in the station and the driver was alerted and the service was detained.
The station inspector, Mr Coleman, was summoned but in the meantime a young man named Albert Swift set off in pursuit of Shelton.
‘In the darkness he could hear somebody scrambling about on the ballast, and going in the direction of the noise, he found [Shelton] about 150 yards into the tunnel, lying across the metals of the upline’.
Albert tried to get the man’s attention and lift him up, but all he got back was the request: ‘leave me alone, I’m going home’. Fortunately the young man was soon joined by Mr Coleman and a porter and eventually the three manhandled Shelton up and off the tracks and back out to safety.
He seemed ‘sober, but excited’, they later testified.
The case came before the Marylebone Police magistrate, Mr Plowden. Shelton claimed she had no recollection of how he had got where he was. He said he had been having epileptic fits for twenty years and one had come on as he made his way home that evening. His wife appeared and confirmed that her husband suffered from epilepsy, and was subject to fits.
I’m not an expert on epilepsy but I have known people who suffer. This seems something quite unlike a fit and more akin to an desperate act by someone who did not wish to carry on. It seems this was also the opinion of the justice, who remanded Shelton in custody, perhaps to seek a medical opinion on his condition. Fortunately his attempt (if thats what it was) failed, because someone was quick witted enough to spot him and do something about it.
I imagine that is how most attempts are foiled today – by someone caring enough to see what their fellow passengers are doing and to notice when a person looks like they need a gentle word or two to bring them back from the edge, literally and figuratively.
[from The Standard, Thursday, June 29, 1893]
*O’Donnell, I.; Farmer, R. D. T. ‘The epidemiology of suicide on the London underground’. Social Science & Medicine 38 (3): 409–418. February 1994