Today marks the 30th anniversary of the banning of smoking in London’s tube trains. Not a total ban on the entire underground, just inside the trains, a decision which was to have tragic consequences just a few years later.

It’s quite odd to think that just 30 years ago, there were designated smoking carriages on the tube trains, but on the 9th July 1984, smoking was banned on all carriages and the now-familiar “no smoking” roundel become a common sight.

It was not however the first time that smoking had been banned on the London Underground.

In fact, when the London Underground first opened, smoking was already banned.

It wasn’t the only railway in the UK that banned smoking, but when mainline railways were forced to offer smoking compartments in 1868, the Metropolitan Railway successfully argued[4]  that as a short service with regular stops, special carriages were impractical for it.

However, the smoke-free underground — at least, smoke-free within the carriages if not the tunnels — was not to last.

In January 1868 Viscount Ranelagh pleaded guilty to smoking in an empty carriage between (todays) Barbican and Farringdon. He claimed to plead guilty to speed the court case, but argued that the law should not have applied.

It was also confusing as to which trains banned smoking and which didn’t as part of the Met sometimes shared services with mainline railways. It seemed that the exemption applied to the Metropolitan Railway was an accident, and shouldn’t have been added as the vote actually went against the motion. [1]

But smokers were increasing in number and increasingly ignoring the ban on their habit.

Still, in 1874, Henry Sheridan MP wrote[1] in support of overturning the exemption on the underground that “Medical men and others assets that smoking would counteract the effect of the sulphurous vapours which have been so much complained of,”

So one view was that the smoke from steam trains was so bad, that consuming even more smoke would be good for you!

In March 1870, another letter to The Times[2] warned the railway that the smoking ban was being flouted with such abandon that if the railway did not enforce the 40 shillings fine[3], then the smoking ban would surely be repealed.

The exemption was eventually lifted in the 1870s, and smokers were finally allowed to (officially) smoke inside the train carriages.

Over the next century or so, smoking would spread from a few carriages to many, and then eventually to almost all carriages on the underground. Two carriages on each train held out as smoke-free locations, but relegated to the far ends of the trains.

In fact, so commonplace was smoking, that in 1932, there was even an exhibition of tobacco products, on the Underground, and later vending machines would sell them direct to the public on platforms.

Not to mention, the odd advert for cigarettes inside the carriages themselves — if you could see them through the smog.


Yet, the impetus for a ban had also been building up. In the 1960s, just two carriages were designated as non-smoking, the front and rear. By the 1970s, the situation had swapped around.

Anti-smoking pressure had been building for some years, and February 1984 saw the first annual No Smoking Day. In March, a damning report uncovered the efforts of the smoking industry to conceal the heath damage from smoking.

The general state of the Underground trains with discarded cigarette butts filling the cracks in between wooden floors was also raising concerns.

In May, the London Transport Passenger Committee and the Evening Standard newspaper launch a campaign to get all of London’s transport made smoke-free.

It was however a fire at Oxford Circus tube station, possibly caused by a
cigarette, that was the main trigger for the smoking ban, along with the not inconsiderable benefit of reducing overcrowding in the non-smoking carriages on the trains.

So a ban on smoking inside the trains came into effect on the 9th July 1984.

Not that everyone agreed at the time.

Note the lady at the end who says: “I’m not going to die for a cigarette for London Transport’s sake”.

The day after the ban on smoking inside tube carriages was introduced, the Times reported seeing just one addict flouting the new rules, but there seemed to have been a noticeable increase in peppermint consumption, [5], while other newspapers treated it to the daily comic.

However, the decision to let people step out of a train and light up on the platforms was to have tragic consequences.

Although a complete ban on underground platforms was introduced in February 1985, it did not apply to above-ground platforms, and frankly was not widely obeyed below ground either.

Until the Kings Cross fire in 1987, where 31 people did die because someone wasn’t willing to wait a minute or two before lighting up outside the station.

Although London Underground’s lack of maintenance took the bulk of the blame, that passengers were routinely flouting the smoking ban was itself a not insignificant factor.

London Underground announced an immediate clampdown on smoking and for clarity simply said that it was banned on the entire network, with no exemptions.

Vast amounts of money were also diverted from other upgrades to improve safety on the Underground and tidy up the ramshackle approach to station usage that was prevalent at the time.

Yet, it was also that fire that so massively shocked people’s awareness of the issues and turned smoking on the tube from an overlooked issue that might get a person a fine from an annoying jobsworth into a social faux-pas that would be deeply frowned upon today.

As an aside, in 2001, it was widely reported that spending 20 minutes on the underground was the equivalent of smoking a cigarette in terms of harmful pollutants breathed in. Of course, it was journalist hybole.

And finally, it seems that while London Underground had banned smoking entirely in 1987, their signs were not compliant with the ban on smoking indoors that applied to the rest of the country in 2007. [7]

All the “No Smoking” signs had to be replaced.

As The Times noted, not the Tube’s fault, obviously, but exactly which bit of “No Smoking” were people thought not to understand?


[1] The Times, Oct 17, 1868

[2] The Times, Feb 7, 1870

[3] Chambers’s journal of popular literature, science and arts, May 17, 1862

[4] The Standard, Apr 17 1869

[5] The Times, Jul 10 1984

[6] The Daily Telegraph, Mar 21 2001

[7] The Times, Sept 15 2007


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  1. Greg Tingey says:

    And it was REVOLTING to smell & breathe – even then ….

  2. LadyBanana says:

    The ban was such a relief, not only on the tube but also upstairs on the bus.

    I also remember when smoking was allowed on planes!

  3. Simon says:

    The ban was in place long before I moved to London, but I remember occasionally walking through the smoking carriage on intercity trains. Good grief it was grim.

    How things have changed. I personally have absolutely zero respect for anybody that persists in smoking these days. It’s just such a ridiculously dumb thing to do.

  4. Steven says:

    In reply to simon why is smoking such a dumb thing to do.obviously you are one of these anti smokers who wish to impose their will on others.smacks of fascism.

  5. Josh says:

    I don’t suppose they ever knew whose match it was.

  6. Stephen C. says:

    For a short time in 1975 I was a carriage cleaner at Golders Green depot (Northern Line). Sweeping out the smoking carriages was very unpleasant. I’m glad that cleaners (and bar staff, and many others) don’t have to put up with that kind of risk to their health any more. Trying to equate bans on smoking in public with fascism is very silly.

    • Steven says:

      Not at all.the smoking ban came in to protect people from passive you know anybody who has died from passive smoking.smoke all day in your car and you will come out alive.put an exhaust pipe in your car and you will be dead in a very short you are a car driver.

  7. Barry says:

    I’m putting this here as you can’t seem to reply to a reply.

    Steven you asked do you know anybody who died from passive smoking, well Roy Castle died from lung cancer which he believed he developed after years of passive smoking in the jazz clubs he used to play. I don’t know if it was ever definitively proven that was the cause but as he was a non-smoker it seems likely to have played a part.

  8. Long Branch Mike says:

    The health risks to smokers and to innocent bystanders, of the 2nd hand smoke, are well documented. Did London ever ban smoking in restaurants and pubs? Last time we went out to eat in London it was disgusting due to the few selfish douches smoking.

    • ianvisits says:

      You haven’t eaten out for a very long time then — as smoking indoors has been banned throughout the entire UK since July 2007.

    • Steven says:

      Sorry you are wrong.roy castle smoked cigars.saw him at the Batley variety club smoking.a total red up the health and safety executive.they have no evidence to support death from passive smoking.james enstrom was commissioned by the world Heath organisation to study the effects of passive smoking.result.minimal.he was life always follow the money trail.then you will get the truth.who funds the anti smoking lobby.the pharmaceutical companies.remember lung cancer can be caused by many things but it is easy to blame the smokers.

  9. Jen Oram says:

    Am I misremembering, or was it actually the second and second-to-last carraiges where you could smoke?

    God they smelt foul – they weren’t just places were people could smoke but where they invariably did, because who’d actually enter one if he wasn’t desperate for a fag?

  10. Steven says:

    So now we get to the truth.its about least in a night club now without the tobacco smoke you can now smell the sweat and body odours.a pleasant change?

  11. Cottage Escapes says:

    Seriously can’t imagine anything worse than adding smoke to the underground as it is – and that’s from a smoker! My worry is smokers wont be allowed to smoke outside in public places soon, or in a beer garden as there are non smokers eating there too.

  12. CathyB says:

    Steven it’s not just the smell that is obnoxious, it’s the harm that passive smoking does. My MIL never smoked but developed emphysema from inhaling smoke when she ran a pub, followed by living with FIL who smoked like a chimney. Not much chance for her. I had both parents smoke, no chance for me either, I now have damaged lungs and been diagnosed with chronic bronchitis (which is for life). If I am near a smoker, even worse when I have a cold, I have a flare up. Simple as that! BTW sweat and body odour don’t cause lung conditions!

    • Steven says:

      So the smell of cigarettes is obnoxious.that is your opinion.i have never said i smoking is harmless,but the risks have been over exaggerated.the biggest killer in life is stress.smoking destresses is my choice to body as yet has not been nationalised.what I take great exception to is the incessant persecution of smokers.

  13. CathyB says:

    What incessant persecution?? Actually if you read my post I said “it’s not just the smell that’s obnoxious ….” . The risks are not over exaggerated, there are risks to anyone within up to 30ft of a smoker. Yesterday I had the misfortune to have to wait for an overdue bus near a chain smoker. Because of health problems this man’s smoking at the bus stop on a previous occasion required me at attend hospital; this time it caused me considerable chest and throat problems. I have never needed hospitalisation from stress, believe me, I have experienced a great deal in my working life as did a former colleague.

    • Steven says:

      Who has died from passive smoker.the only person people come up with is Roy castle and he smoked cigars.lung cancer is multi factorial.if I smoke in my car all day long,I will come out alive.if I put an exhaust pipe into my car I will be dead in a matter of if you drive a car you are being hypocritical.and when I say smokers are being persecuted think about redbridge and other councils you cannot foster or adopt children if you are a smoker.if that is not persecution,I do not know what is.

  14. CathyB says:

    I personally do not wish to inhale someone elses smoke due to health reasons. Surely if you wish to smoke then I have the right not to wish to inhale it? I agree that fostering or adopting children should be only by non smokers, why put that poison into their developing lungs? Even animals can be affected by passive smoking, ask your local vet!

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