London’s Most Useless Information No.2


Whenever someone comes up with a fun, original thing to do, it seems as if London passes a law against it. To be fair, with such an immense number of people crammed into small winding streets I can see why hoverboards were banned, but there was a time when 1970s nightclubs held rollerblade races around traffic-filled Leicester Square. I happen to know that. Ahem.

So some of the things still banned – mainly because they haven’t come off the statute books – include owning a pack of cards within a mile of stores of explosives and standing on your windowsills, presumably to clean them.

You can’t officially hire a taxi while it’s moving. The London Hackney Carriages Act 1843 states even if a licensed taxi has its “for hire” light on, the driver is only allowed to seek trade when it’s at a standstill. It’s a rule overlooked by coppers who have better ways of using their time.

You’re not allowed to drop dead in the Houses of Parliament, either, which will come as surprising news to many of the peers who are still there.

More famously, you shouldn’t carry a plank down a pavement. Section 54 of the Metropolitan Police Act bans you from carrying ladders, hoops and wheels. It was never a problem for the stars of Eric Sykes’ ‘The Plank‘, a 45-minute silent comedy film filled with familiar faces. It was about carrying a planking proved popular enough to warrant a remake a few years later.

You’re not supposed to get pissed in a pub if the publican knows you are doing so, but you can carry on drinking if s/he doesn’t notice. You can’t eat chocolates on a bus or go to a fancy dress party as a soldier or sailor because of the Seamen’s and Soldiers’ False Characters Act 1906.

But there’s a bigger problem with all of this; outmoded British by-laws are disregarded, but still make the funny pages. The old chestnut about women peeing in coppers’ helmets has its origin in such a lost law, and is trotted out along with the rest in listicles of peculiar Britishness.

We want to believe that Britain is peculiar because we treasure peculiarity and align it to original thinking. This alone is meant to power us through a post-Brexit world in which funny little England retains trading power based on nothing more than a Dunkirk spirit. So yes, London by-laws and cockney slang are amusing, but they’re false advertising, in much the same way as Hollywood can still be referred to as ‘Tinseltown’.

23 comments on “London’s Most Useless Information No.2”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    Until the Sunday trading laws were changed some years ago in order to allow opening of shops on that day, it was said you could by a bottle of gin on a Sunday, but not a bottle of babies milk.

    It is still against the law to stick a postage stamp upside-down on an envelope as it is insulting to the Queen.

  2. David says:

    One of my favourites is not specifically London-centric, but under the 1986 Outer Space Act the Secretary of State is permitted to use all reasonable force to prevent an alien invasion… unless of course the aliens have a license to invade.

    These days, I am not so certain that getting a licence might not be as difficult as one might suspect.

  3. Peter Tromans says:

    I think that you are allowed to stand on your own window sill, but you’re not allowed to have other people stand on them. Lord Snooty has to clean his own windows or call in some suitable equipment.

    I know that it’s well known, but too good not to mention: you cannot use a taxi when suffering from bubonic plague.

  4. Lucas Graver says:

    Lovely! Enjoying this as a Dutchman

  5. J F Norris says:

    I detected the scent of some absurd dialogue scenes in an upcoming B&M mystery novel wafting off my screen as I read this post. Are my olfactory psychic powers working? The mention of the no chocolates on a bus and the soldier and sailor anti-masquerade laws both seem particularly well suited as asides for one of your books.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Masquerading as an officer of the law or a member of the military is probably illegal in most countries for what should be obvious reasons.
    I just watched The Plank and highly recommend it as a study in timing and the use of repetitive devices. They repeated the opening doors bit until you expected it and then it shifted to the bonnet and did NOT shift to the boot. Instead the headlight fell out. The singing credits were wonderful and I can imagine a whole theatre joining in: I know I did. Wondered why we were allowed to read the street “Malthouse Passage” until it became obvious why. Loved it!

  7. Martin Tolley says:

    Brian. I always put the stamp on with Mrs Queen upright. But always write the address upside down. Does that make me a bad person?

  8. Ian Luck says:

    The upside-down stamp problem is simply that all stamps have a code, invisible to the human eye, that is ‘read’ by the automatic franking machines that tells the equipment that a valid payment is on the letter. Inverting the stamp can cause delays, as it could be rejected, and have to be sorted manually.

  9. Peter Dixon says:

    Back in the days when Scotland had draconian Sunday licensing laws you could only drink in hotels, but only if you were a visitor. They sorted the problem by hiring coaches to take drinkers to hotels in a different town as day-trippers.
    Nowadays, because of the minimum pricing laws for alcohol in Scotland, people are buying booze in supermarkets south of the border and bussing it in. Its astonishing the lengths folks will go to for booze.

  10. Brian Evans says:

    Martin-that does not make you a bad person-except for the poor posties who have to deliver them.

    Ian-ah yes, but it has always been illegal-well before technology.

    Peter-when I used to live near Crystal Palace (Upper Norwood) in the days of stupid licensing laws, one side of one of the main streets had the pubs closing at 10.30pm, and the other side had them closing at 11pm. This was due to 2 different boroughs meeting in that particular street. Natch, there was a dash at 10.30 across the street.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Is it draconian laws or simply a desire to do the authorities in the eye?

  12. Ian Luck says:

    Drink was not the only thing frowned on in Scotland on a Sunday. When composer Felix Mendelssohn returned from a trip to the island of Staffa, he had a nearly fully formed version of the piece of music inspired by the eerie black basaltic island in his head. In his lodgings was a piano, on which he intended to rough out the score for his music. Imagine his horrified dismay upon being told by his landlady, that, as it was a Sunday, no music was to be played. He had to keep the whole of what would become his ‘Hebrides Overture’ fresh in his mind until the next day, when he could write it down, and free his mind.

    Oh, and I think that it’s against the law to fire cannon in a public park in London, and, weirdest of all, to shake a doormat after 8pm, and to ‘Handle Salmon in a suspicious manner’.

  13. Ian Luck says:

    Youtuber Tom Scott made a video some years ago called ‘Ten Illegal Things To Do In London’. Worth a watch (as is pretty much everything else he does, actually).

  14. Helen Martin says:

    How do you handle salmon in a suspicious manner? What might you be going to do with it?
    My understanding is that Felix Mendelssohn never actually got out to Staffa because the weather was just too bad. The rest of it may very well be right, though.

  15. Ian Luck says:

    The Salmon question: it’s a fairly recent law – 1986, I believe. I was wondering if removing Salmon from a river or private waters under a very long coat, whilst running, was classed as ‘Handling In A Suspicious Manner’.
    I hate Smoked Salmon, by the way – the stickyish mouth feel makes me want to heave. Love the tinned stuff though. Common as muck, me. But happy.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Yes, Ian that would meet the definition, I obviously don’t have a criminal mind. People working in the Fraser River Canneries before WWI complained about the amount of salmon in their meals (these were largely Chinese or First Nations people) Only poor children in Nova Scotia had lobster sandwiches in their lunch boxes. It’s all in where and when you are.

  17. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – tinned salmon always reminds me of visiting my gran when I was a small child. She’d make lovely salads – which, unusually for a child I loved, and still do, with tinned red salmon, and lots of pepper and vinegar. It’s one of the very few things nowadays, that tastes exactly the same. And I always can picture myself in gran’s house. My version of Proust’s Madeleine dipped in tea, I think.

  18. SteveB says:

    The original Sykes and a Plank was one of the 60s black and white bbc episodes.

  19. Ian Luck says:

    ‘The Plank’ was remade, shot for shot, in the early 1980’s, I believe. If I remember rightly, it featured dozens of well-known faces, including the great racing driver, James Hunt, in an eyepatch, as a lorry driver. There was a craze for silent-ish comedies, for a while, including Ronnie Barker’s ‘Futtocks End’, which made my father laugh so much he was nearly ill. I watched it recently – it’s funny, but not THAT funny. Although ‘The Rook Restaurant’ sketch, with Barker’s ill tempered head waiter – (“It’s bleedin’ Rook, innit?”) from ‘The Two Ronnies’ comes close.

  20. Joel says:

    My understanding is that it isn’t “not allowed to die in Parliament” but that as it’s a Royal Palace, anyone who does cough there is entitled to a State Funeral… Hence all passings in the Palace of Westminster [and Buck House etc] are signed off by ‘mutual consent’ (don’t think the stiff has much say in that) at the nearest hospital. If you push up the daisies, become an ex-person in ‘the House’, you will be recorded as meeting your alleged maker in St Thomas’s Hospital across the Thames.

  21. Helen Martin says:

    That would make sense, Joel. Just imagine otherwise the great clods who would have state funerals at public expense.

  22. Ian Luck says:

    I was always fond of the late, great Fred Dibnah’s term for death:
    “Half a day out with the Undertaker.”

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