Middle-class tantrums on the tube, 1880s style

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It was a Thursday afternoon in March 1888 and two men were trying to make their way through the gate at Portland Road underground railway station, having arrived on a train from the City. They didn’t know each other but their paths were about to become inextricably  linked and this eventually led both of them to an embarrassing appearance at Marlborough Street Police Court.

Portland Road (now Great Portland Street) opened on 10 January 1863 as a station on the world’s first underground railway, the Metropolitan (you can see it in the illustration above). By all accounts it was a busy station with throngs of people struggling to make their way to trains or to exit from the platforms.

Frederick Pitts was just one of these commuters; a ‘carver and gilder’ living in Bolsover Street, Fitzrovia and thus a member of London’s growing ‘respectable’ middle class. Pitts was close to home and probably keen to get back for a late lunch or some tea.

Reuben Holmes was also on the platform that day. A teacher who lived in Kensington Gardens Square, Holmes was a lot further from his place of residence so was perhaps on his way to a tutorial or another meeting. Both men were in a hurry and probably not in the best of tempers.

As Pitts reached the gates he was pushed from behind. Some level of pushing was inevitable but he felt he’d shoved in ‘an unnecessarily violent manner’ and he turned round to complain  about it. Holmes was behind him and so he deemed him to be the culprit. Mr Pitts asked him to desist. Holmes, however, denied pushing anyone and the pair carried on their journey to the exit.

When they got upstairs to the ticket hall an argument flared up between the two men. Holmes told Pitts that ‘he must be in a bad temper’ to accuse him (wrongly) of pushing him.

‘It’s a lie’ declared Frederick Pitts, ‘you certainly did push me’.

‘Do you mean to say I am liar’, retorted the teacher, clearly angry at being called out by the other man in public.

‘I said nothing of the sort’ replied Pitts, ‘but I say you did push me’.

At this repeated slur on his character Holmes lost his temper and thumped the gilder on the nose. Outraged, Pitts called for help and a policeman was summoned and both men marched off to the nearest police station.

Once there the situation was calmed down. Holmes apologised and offered to pay for any ‘expenses incurred’ by his victim. In court the next day he said he’d not been aware of pushing anybody and, by way of defence, complained that Pitt had ‘spoken to him in a very disagreeable manner’. The pushing was a result of the crowd behind him he added, there was no intent to target Mr Pitts at all.

Most of all he objected to being called a liar, and having that repeated ‘several times and in a most offensive manner’. This speaks to late Victorian middle class concerns about status and character and was more important here than any violence.

The magistrate, Mr Mansfield, did the equivalent of ‘knocking their heads together’. Both had behaved badly and let down their class by squabbling in public. Holmes should have apologised for inadvertently pushing Holmes and the latter should have accepted it. Pitts should not have called the other man a liar and Holmes should have kept his temper in check and not struck out. He hoped both would have learned a lesson from the encounter. He then dismissed them both so he could return his court to more serious business.

[from The Standard , Saturday, March 17, 1888]

A ‘passenger incident’ on the late Victorian Underground

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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