Whisky, Muffs, An Oil Painting... The Items Lost On The Tube 120 Years Ago

M@
By M@
Whisky, Muffs, An Oil Painting... The Items Lost On The Tube 120 Years Ago
Tube steps saying "Lost on the Rail"

In an age long before smartphones, manbags and USB sticks of sensitive government information, what did people accidentally leave on the tube?

You've read before about Transport for London's Lost Property Office. It's one of those topics — like wild swimming spots, or hilarious unrepealed laws — that editors never tire of commissioning.

Lost property fascinates on a number of levels. How many smartphones are left on the tube each year? How can anyone forget to pick up a prosthetic leg? What happens to all those umbrellas and handbags when they aren't reclaimed? (Answer.)

The turquoise Lost Property Office of tfl. A lady in pink stands to the right
TfL's famous Lost Property Office in Baker Street. It's since moved to South Kensington. Image by Matt Brown

But that's all been covered elsewhere. Many times. We thought it'd be novel to see what our ancestors misplaced on the tube and, thanks to the wonders of the British Newspaper Archive, we found some answers.

Edwardian carelessness

The Central line (Central London Railway) opened in 1900. Immediately, people left stuff on it. Lots of stuff. A report from 1902 lists out the following recoveries from the previous 12 months:

  • 300 ladies' umbrellas
  • 264 gentleman's ditto [sic]
  • walking sticks
  • sunshades and the like
  • summer head-gear
  • 150 pairs of spectacles and eyeglasses
  • 44 fur necklets
  • 14 muffs
  • 920 pairs of gloves
  • 166 purses (empty)
  • 25 bottles of whisky
  • 13 boxes of cigars and cigarettes
  • 180 pipes, pouches and cigar cases
  • books, jewellery, opera glasses, boots, handbags and business papers are also represented

There's a lot to unpack here. Literally.

First, HOW MANY GLOVES? Hand coverings were very much a fashion essential in the early 20th century, and it seems they were often removed (and forgotten) on the tube. By 1904, the tally had risen to an astonishing 14,000 pairs of gloves. The haul of muffs, pipes and fur necklets is also much higher than might be expected on today's trains.

The more surprising items come lower on the list, though. 166 purses, all empty, is a damning commentary on the honesty, or perhaps the poverty of the time. Wallets and purses handed in today are also often emptied, but it's not unusual for the contents to be untouched (because people aren't the universal scoundrels that cynics would have you believe).

And just look at all that whisky. Imagine the horror of realising you'd left an entire bottle of scotch on the tube. There's more to the stat than meets the eye, though. Another article concerning the lost property of 1902 elaborates:

"The "Tube" has its own "consistent loner," like other lines, in the form of the person who regularly leaves a neatly-packed parcel containing a bottle that had once been filled with "spirituous licker"... This is an easy way of disposing of tell-tale property. Last year the collection contained nearly thirty "lost" packages of this description."

So those 25 bottles of whisky may have been mostly empties. It's not clear why they were counted as Lost Property rather than sent straight to recycling, however.

We found further articles listing out the tallies of future years. 1909 saw a similar spread of items, with the addition of 18 market baskets, 186 parcels of clothing, 52 women's satchels and 177 bunches of keys. "There is also in the list one oil painting, any quantity of cheap jewellery and eleven fountain pens."

What happened to all this stuff?

Items collected on the tube were either handed into the police or sent to a storage facility at Bank station. The public were welcome to visit this facility to reclaim their goods, and the service inevitably saw its fair share of chancers. Another report of 1902 notes that "the authorities recognise the fact that all such applications are not genuine". Anything that wasn't claimed went out for auction, with the exception of books, which were donated to libraries.

A missing ham sandwich

We give the final word to 'Simple Susan' who placed the following appeal in the personal section of the Sporting Times, 11 March 1916.

Last Updated 05 October 2022

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