Smokers rights championed in the 1870s

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The new Paddington railway station, c.1866-70

Mr D’Eyncourt had only just taken his seat on the bench at the Marylebone Police Court when his first hearing of the day presented itself. It was late January 1871 and Mr Michael Pope, a solicitor from Great James Street, Bedford Row, requested that the magistrate issue him with a summons to bring in the directors of the Great Western Railway.

He cited statute law (31 and 32 Vic. cap.119, sec.20) which stated that all railway companies (excepting the Metropolitan underground railway) were obliged to provided smoking carriages for ‘each class of passengers’.

Smoking has of course been banned entirely on all British railways since 2007 but in the 19th century no such prohibition was in place. However, it was clearly ‘not the done thing’ to smoke in a compartment that was not labelled as ‘smoking’. Here is the advice from a contemporary etiquette guide:

‘One may smoke in a railway-carriage in spite of by-laws, if one has first obtained the consent of every one present; but if there be a lady there, though she give her consent, smoke not. In nine cases out of ten, she will give it from good-nature. One must never smoke in a close carriage; one may ask and obtain leave to smoke when returning from a picnic or expedition in an open carriage’.

                                                               The Habits of Good Society (1864)

Mr Pope recounted the story his daily commute from Ealing to Paddington, and at how he had walked the length of the train looking for a ‘second-class’ smoking carriage but could not find one. The guard directed him to a carriage but as it did not say ‘smoking’ and there were several occupants already, he did not lite up.

He wanted to summon the directors because he felt they were as much in breach of the law in not providing separate spaces for smokers as the ‘poor persons’ who were bring fined for smoking where they should not.

The magistrate said he couldn’t sympathise (as he wasn’t  smoker) and he couldn’t help as a summons would be of no use. The law was not a compulsion but a direction; the railways were encouraged to provide separate coaches but they were not compelled to do so. It would be  waste of time summoning them to court. Better instead that Mr. Pope wrote to them directly, as Mr. D’Eyncourt was sure they would ‘see into the matter’.

The solicitor went off grumbling that there was little point in a law that had no effect and presumably lit is pipe (or cigar) as soon as he was outside.

Nowadays we are getting used to smoke-free environments and there is no obligation for companies to provide their employees or the public with smoking areas , although they do exist (often at airports). ASH (Action on Smoking & Health) continue to campaign for restrictions on smoking on health grounds. By contrast Forest campaigns on behalf of the smoker, and oppose blanket bans.

Whatever your personal standpoint (and I’m a reformed smoker glad of the cleaner air around me) it is interesting to see that this debate has bene going on for a long time. I don’t want to share my railway carriage with a single or group of active smokers, and nor did my Victorian ancestors. Do I think the railway companies should provide a coach for those that want to smoke? Yes, if they can provide enough alternative space so the rest of us can actually find seat on a rain that runs to time for once.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, February 01, 1871]

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