London’s Most Useless Information No.1


I think we’ll have a new column. To kick it off, here’s where the idea came from ten years ago on this very site…

So, an age-old mystery has at last been solved. Passengers on the London Underground always stand on the right and tut in annoyance when anyone does the opposite. An old film recently unearthed for the London Film Festival revealed why.

Unlike modern “comb” escalators, where the end of the moving stairway is at right angles to the direction of travel, older “shunt” escalators ended with a diagonal so that the stairway finished sooner for the right foot than for the left.

The idea was to allow passengers to keep their left foot on a moving stairway as they stepped off with their right. Passengers who chose not to walk down the escalators were asked to stand on the right so that anyone wishing to overtake them at the end would be able to take advantage of the extra section of moving stairway.

Further pointless bits of London trivia will be revealed every now and again. One day I may take a broom to my mind and sweep all the mental shavings into a Bryant & May London guidebook.

19 comments on “London’s Most Useless Information No.1”

  1. Susan in Las Vegas says:

    That would never have occurred to me. In a lot of places, we drive on the right side of the road, and stand on the right side of the escalator .

  2. Peter Tromans says:

    There used to be notice at the entrance to the car park of Somerset House. To my literal mind, it provided absolutely zero information.

    “Only those permitted to do so are allowed to park in this car park.”

  3. snowy says:

    *Strokes chin*

    The first elevator in the underground is generally thought to have been installed in Earl’s Court in 1911, manufactured by the Otis Elevator Company, [An American concern which might explain the preference for standing to the right].

    But there had been one 5 years before that in Holloway Road station.

    Mr Reno one of the original inventors of the technology having seemingly become bored with the things – just going up and down, designed one that went round and round in a spiral.

    [It was regarded as so absolutely terrifying at the time it was never opened to public use].

  4. chazza says:

    Why do men always – ahem – dress to the right, clever clogs?

  5. Jean Mead says:

    Never knew that. So, would you kindly or rudely as mr bryant to write such a book as you suggest.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Please tell me that “escalators” are not “elevators” in Britain. I can manage “lifts”, “lorries” and “pavements” but I refuse to keep an alternative meaning for “elevator”. A spiral ends up in the centre so what happened then; did it plunge down and join up at the outside of the spiral?

  7. Brian Evans says:

    Chazza-I don’t. And I’m not alone. I glance on Pinterest at the photos of men in-how can I put it- with tight bulges in the trouser department will verify this.

  8. Brian Evans says:

    That should read “A glance”. Natch, I wouldn’t look myself, I am only going by what I am told!

  9. Peter Dixon says:

    Helen – an escalator is a moving staircase. An elevator is a lift. Instead of a faucet we have a tap.We had trams, you had streetcars ( think of the title ‘A Tram Called Any Chance of a Cuddle?’ and compare to the US version). We used to have ‘Paternoster’ lifts (a kind of continual vertical platform) until a bunch of people got killed in them. Separately – not in an actual bunch.
    As an aficionado of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Damon Runyon, Isaac Bashevis Singer and S.J. Perelman I can never visit America because it will never come up to my expectations – which are, admittedly, 50 years old.To me America is a fascinating place of tall buildings, real newspapers (Citizen Kane), movie studios, small towns and astonishing stories – not a bizarre shooting gallery operated by an orange faced loon.
    I fully understand that , to some Americans, England should be about foggy London Streets, ragged urchins, a murderous ‘Ripper’, spooky moors and haunted castles. Unfortunately we really do have all of these, sometimes in multiples.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Peter, thank you. We have both faucets AND taps. Yes, streetcars but “interurbans”, too. There was a mention of continuous lifts that were recently introduced in Germany. I wonder if they are the same as your “pater noster” ones and whether there have been any reports of German deaths.
    Try Canada instead of the US, although the cry of separation has been heard on the Prairies and we have had shootings, too. Our minority government may make for a slightly quieter parliament but only as long as they hold power. The Impeachometer went to 95% this morning but it is only accurately calibrated to show the likelihood of the H of Reps impeaching, not the Senate.
    Newspapers are dying all over the world.
    Judging by the route markers on telephone poles the movie industry is tremendously active here.
    We follow British news as well as everyone else’ so we know the likelihood of your last list of occurrences.

  11. Ian Luck says:

    I have tried many times to get my head round the idea of a helical escalator. I know that one was fitted, tested, but never used at Holloway Road station – it appears to have been dismantled after a while and then dumped in the bottom of the stairwell, which was then sealed up. A section is now at the London Transport museum at Acton.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    “a section” well that’s helpful, isn’t it? Couldn’t they at least put a model with it to demonstrate the principal? No matter how it worked it would take up a lot of square footage (do we say “square meterage”?)

  13. snowy says:

    I suspect what did for it was that being quite narrow, passengers felt uneasy moving in 3 dimensions simultaneously. [The balance mechanism in the ear plays tricks that the brain can’t process.] If it had been 100′ wide and gained only 10′ per revolution I doubt anybody would have noticed.

    [To get some idea of what the original might have felt like, imagine being shot up a helter-skelter].

  14. Ian Luck says:

    Apparently, it was for ascending and descending passengers at the same time, like a double helix. I don’t even want to think about the physics and mechanics behind that. It’s like something from Professor Branestawm. The remnants of it are literally short, smashed-up sections, dropped into the old stair shaft of the station. A model would be helpful – but maybe it’s secrets have been lost, like Stonehenge. For that, I would have consulted RILKO (Research Into Lost Knowledge Organisation), but a spiral escalator is probably out of their field of expertise.

  15. Helen Martin says:

    Had to look up “helter skelter” . Saw Psyclone Steve at Clacton Pier and thought it was very little rush for a lot of climbing but then remembered our shoot the chute where a boat was raised clunk, clunk on some sort of chain drive in the dark to the top of a tower and then allowed to rush down a wet slide. I loved it.

  16. snowy says:

    Is is hard to know exactly what the thing looked like from the very limited information available. The closest I can get is the 1902 patent drawing awarded to Leamon Souder. It is rather clever, two stairs – but only a single belt.

    I’m having posting problems, so if you want to see it: Search for a ‘Patent Search Engine’ and then search for ‘US723325A’ to see it in all its sprocket-y glory.

    [Souder and Reno, both mad on escalators and both had links with Otis Co.]

  17. Ian Luck says:

    Maybe it was bought from IKEA and had one crucial part missing…

  18. Helen Martin says:

    Four pages of drawings and no model. It sort of does what I thought but in a slightly different dimension. Interesting, but I think the direction changes would be a little off-putting, yes.

  19. Richard Brennan says:

    “One day I may take a broom to my mind and sweep all the mental shavings into a Bryant & May London guidebook.”
    Please, please ,please. I’d buy ten copies(well maybe two.) The idea of a B & M guided tour might just get me back to London. If it helps I’ll even supply the broom.

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