Smoke doesn't get in your eyes anymore....


One of several designs of British Railways smoking carriage aluminium ashtray from the 1950s. Photo and words: Mike Peart


Smoking on the railways has had a chequered history. It’s clear that the early railways’ attitude to the habit was to ban it. The Great Western Railway (GWR) Bye-laws of 1838 which came out even before they’d started running public services said that no smoking was allowed in any of the carriages or stations of the Company under a penalty of forty shillings. That’s over £220 in today’s money! Offenders were also liable to be removed from the Company’s premises or carriages. In October 1840 two first class passengers were found by a railway police sergeant to be smoking cigars at Bath Station. The sergeant showed the passengers the Bye-laws, but one of them resumed smoking in the carriage between Bath and Keynsham stations, he was seen, reported and stopped. Both men were fined and part of the fine was donated to Bristol Infirmary and Bristol General Hospital. Then, perversely, the Railway Regulation Act in 1868 laid down that railway companies should provide smoking accommodation for each of the three classes of passenger. This followed an incident when the 7th Viscount Ranelagh had been fined twenty shillings for smoking on a train at Farringdon Street station, London in 1867. Somewhat offended at having to part with the equivalent of £114 today, he took the matter up vigorously in the House of Lords, and compulsory provision of smoking accommodation on trains was the result. The Metropolitan Railway held out as a “No Smoking” railway until 1874, but was finally forced to give in.


In 1899, the new coaching stock for the GWR’s Paddington to North Wales express, made up of bogie carriages nearly 60 feet long, included a “drawing room” for smokers upholstered in morocco leather, which was said to be “impervious to the fumes of the so-called soothing weed”. Other railway companies were following suit with lavish facilities for smokers on express trains. Then in October 1920, the GWR issued a circular to all stations laying down that all trains had to be formed with 50% smoking accommodation. Ten years later, the company even increased the proportion of smoking accommodation and started to label some compartments as “No Smoking”.


I can remember in the 1950s regular trips to see relatives from Kings Cross to Leeds and back on “The White Rose”. My engineer father always gave the train driver a packet of ten cigarettes as a tip – usually “Wills Woodbines” or “Players Weights”. This often resulted in a quick visit to the footplate for me. And when I worked on the railways in the 1960s I’d say that smoking was almost universal in all departments. Smoking inside London Underground trains was banned from 1984. Smoking on trains started to be banned by franchised companies from 2003 onwards. It wasn’t until the workplace smoking ban of 2007 that smoking at stations, on platforms and at all workplaces ceased. But there still seem to be a few in favour of a crafty “vape”!


Mike Peart is the co-author of Volume 3, 4 and 5 of “History & Development of Railway Signalling in the British Isles” and "Trains of Hope" published by Friends of the National Railway Museum.



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