Everything You Need To Know About London's Escalators

Everything You Need To Know About London's Escalators

Escalators have been an invaluable part of London's infrastructure for well over a century. Here are the ups, downs and everything else you need to know about them.

Who invented the escalator?

the natural history museum escalator passing through what looks like the earth's core
Core blimey! The escalator at Natural History Museum, which travels through the centre of the Earth. Image: Shutterstock.

Alas, a Londoner doesn't have that honour; that goes to an American, or rather, two of them. The first escalator-esque machine was patented by Jesse Reno in 1892, as a fairground ride on Coney Island, New York. Five years later, Charles Seeberger partnered with the Otis Elevator Co, building the first escalator for practical use in Otis' factory. It was Seeberger who coined the word 'escalator'.

What's the word 'escalator' all about anyway?

An escalator being installed at Paddington station
An escalator being installed at Paddington station. Image: TfL.

It's actually a bilingual portmanteau, taking the Latin for stairs ('scala') — and jamming it in the middle of the word 'elevator'. If escalators had been a British invention, maybe they'd have been called 'liscalafts'. Anyway, although Charles Seeberger initially patented escalators, the word was in such common usage by the 1950s, that it lost its capital E.

Where was the first escalator in London?

an early advert featuring the moving staircase at harrods, with various positive quotes
Harrods' moving staircase. It'll never catch on.

Not on the London Underground! It was in fact in swanky department store Harrods, and opened on 16 November 1898. The 'Moving Staircase', as it was billed, was made from woven leather, and was actually a 40-foot-long inclined ramp, rather than a staircase per se. It completed its journey in 25 seconds, holding up to 33 wealthy shoppers at a time. "The sensation is novel but not displeasing," wrote one journalist, trying it out. That said, customers were handed smelling salts and cognac to 'calm the nerves' (the same newspaper report suggests many people leapt off as it neared the top). There are some great images of the escalator here.

Of course, Harrods has since become famous for another escalator, more of which soon.

Where was the first escalator on the London Underground?

Bumper Harris walking stick.
Bumper Harris' walking stick in the London Transport Museum. Image: M@/Londonist.

The London Underground had to wait a little longer for its first escalator; this came to Earls Court in October 1911, courtesy of the Otis Elevator Company, which by now was doing a roaring trade. As Ian Visits tells us, there were in fact two escalators installed. This heralded the beginning of a love affair between London Underground and Reno/Seeberger's invention, although not everyone was so smitten. In a Pall Mall Gazette article from 1912, one woman complained of the Earls Court escalator: "I simply cannot bear the sensation of standing on a platform that is moving downwards and looking into an abyss-like space.

"The first time I tried the staircase, just out of curiosity, I was upset for the rest of the day."

The famous anecdote goes that William 'Bumper' Harris, a one-legged man, was employed by London Underground to ride the escalators at Earls Court on opening day, to demonstrate how safe it was. You can see Harris' walking stick and pocket watch in London Transport Museum.

Is it true they tried a spiral escalator?

Two very glum looking workmen in flat cap stand next to the spiral staircase
These two chaps clearly know the spiral escalator isn't going to take off. Image © TfL.

You know we said London Underground's first escalator was installed in 1911? That was a white lie. In 1906, our old friend Jesse Reno managed to get his quixotic spiral escalator installed at Holloway Road station. It ran at a speed of 30 metres a minute, rising just over 10 metres in height... and it was also never ridden by a single member of the public. That's because the contraption was considered too dangerous, and soon uninstalled.

An escalator curving to the right - old and dusty and disconected.
Image by M@

The remains of the ill-fated escalator were discovered in 1988, and can now be found at London Transport Museum's Acton depot (pictured above). Interestingly, you do run across the occasional spiral escalator — just not in London.

What's the longest escalator in London?

That's at Angel station, where you ascend a heavenly 60 metres to street level (or descend a hellish 60 metres to platform level, depending on which way you're going). (Mildly) interestingly, the really long escalator is preceded/followed by a really short one. Although it's not as short as the shortest escalator in London...

What's the shortest escalator in London?

The shortest escalator in London? It is very short
The shortest escalator in London? Image: M@/Londonist.

Stratford has the shortest escalator on the London Underground, measuring a trifling 4.1 metres. However, we've found a shorter escalator elsewhere, namely this stunted little thing in Victoria station. It's only got six visible steps at a time, and you can ride it from bottom to top in about two seconds.

How many escalators are there on the London Underground network?

rush hour on a london escalator
Standard rush hour escalator shot. Image: Shutterstock.

Until recently it was officially 451, although this number will have changed with the addition of two new Northern line stations — plus there'll soon be more escalators at the likes of the Elephant and Castle, and various  Crossrail stations. It's almost impossible to be exact, so let's go with over 450, well under 500. Of course, at any given time, a number of escalators might also be out of service on the network.

What's the coolest escalator in London?

harrods' egyptian escalator complete with sphinx and other bits and bobs that look like they've been shipped over from giza
Harrods does not do escalators by halves. Image: Londonist.

The gaudy Egyptian-themed escalator at Harrods — built in 1998 at the behest of then-owner Mohamed Al-Fayed, and featuring his likeness in sphinx form — is certainly one of London's most memorable escalators (although less so, now they've ripped out the Diana and Dodi statue).

Among other escalators that will fill you with joy are the Natural History Museum's, which take you through the centre of the Earth; and the one with the giant gingerbread man of Leicester Square.

Why do we stand on the right of the escalators?

An escalator with stand on the right printed on it
Image: M@/Londonist.

We've looked into this before. On those original escalators at Earls Court, there was a diagonal partition — beneath which the stairs disappeared — that shunted passengers disembarking to the left. It was decided that those walking up the escalator should be positioned on the left, otherwise they'd have to cut through a line of people standing. London Underground/Londoners have stuck with this setup ever since.

What happened to TfL's 'stand on both sides' trial?

To the shock (and dismay?) of many commuters in 2016, TfL announced a trial at Holborn station enforcing the rule that EVERYONE should stand on the escalators — right and left. The idea was to see if this actually cut down on congestion — which it apparently did, by up to 30%. Still, the trial ended, and was never rolled out to other tube stations. Let's face it, Londoners would never, er, stand for it. Even so, if you look closely, you can still see the 'both sides' markings at Holborn.

What's your favourite documentary about an escalator?

Nice of you to ask. Actually, it's strictly about a non-escalator. Heart of the Angel is a wonderfully grimy-lensed, candid documentary about Angel tube station at the end of the 1980s, just before it got the longest escalator on the network. It features lots of broken down lifts and some incredibly disgruntled old women. You can watch it all on BBC iPlayer, or divvied up on YouTube.

What's the funniest picture of an escalator?

everyone stands on the right of the escalator, except one clot who stands on the left - with a learner sign stuck on his back

Easy. It's this passive aggressive cartoon by Cyril Kenneth Bird, AKA 'Fougasse'. He was a master at hammering home how thick some commuters can be.

Any other escalator pics I can laugh at?

These droll signs recently appeared at St Pancras and we approve of their screwball/gallows humour:

a sign that reads no pushchairs, no running, no competitive dog grooming, no heavy luggage
Image: M@/Londonist.
a sign saying howard ran on the escalators, be less like howard. howard is in a hospital bed
Image: M@/Londonist.

What's the escalator that James Bond slides down in Skyfall?

It's the one in the decommissioned Jubilee line section of Charing Cross station. (The location is used for a lot of filming, and it's probably the escalator with the most Hollywood screen credits.) If you're wondering how Bond manages such a smooth descent, they removed all the usual obstacles you get on the middle of an escalator, thus preserving Daniel Craig's manhood.

a grey t shirt with 'welcome to london, please stand on the right' written on the back
You know you want one.

I enjoyed the article and would like to buy the t shirt.

Why thank you. The exclusive t shirt, pictured above, is (genuinely) available from Londonist's online store.

Last Updated 15 November 2021

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