London's First Tube Geek: A Forgotten Hero From 100 Years Ago

M@
By M@
London's First Tube Geek: A Forgotten Hero From 100 Years Ago
A man in a formal uniform speaks into a silver megaphone
Ernest William Rotsey with his silver megaphone at Paddington station, 1913

If you have a tube problem and no one else can help, maybe you can hire... Mr Rotsey.

"There is a man who is becoming something of an hero in London," claimed the Wigton Advertiser in 1914. "You can see him any morning on one of the stations of the London Electric Railways. There he stands, a human time-table. He is put there to answer questions, and he does it."

Ernest William Rotsey has now slipped into almost total obscurity. Search Google for his name, and this article is pretty much the only hit. But a century ago he was well known as the tube network's motormouthed problem-solver.

If a passenger was lost, befuddled or unable to speak English, then there was only one man to call. Mr Rotsey was on standby to leap into action and aid the confused traveller.

Ask him directions, he'd have them in a flash. Only speak Spanish? No hay problema. "I am getting quite used to being asked by ladies on shopping expeditions for the address of the best shop for lace," he confided.

"Old people ask me if it Is quite safe in the tube, and what would happen if the 'electricity burst' while they were in the train."

This was London's first tube geek — a man who knew everything about the network, and much more besides.

The chubby man with the silver megaphone

A press account of the time describes Rotsey as "...a chubby little man with a hearty voice, a big heart and a fatherly manner, he knows English, French, Italian, Spanish, Latin — and human nature."

The resourceful Mr Rotsey, it's said, could also give a good account of himself in Japanese, Chinese (presumably Mandarin) and unspecified West African languages. "Some cynics have even intimated that he is now busy learning Billingsgate," quipped one journalist, referring to the foul-mouthed lingo of the fish market.

Mr Rotsey would be approached up to 100 times a day, with all manner of enquiries. Staff at other stations had his number at hand, should they get a question they couldn't answer themselves.

"Not all are [from] foreigners," he told the Sunday Illustrated in 1923. "Mostly, they are ordinary passengers, who, although there is a map outside the station and directions on tickets and walls, ask how to get to King's Cross or Piccadilly-circus, or posers like that."

Rotsey, then, was the living, breathing prototype of these Help Points:

A circular Help Point with buttons to press for assistance. It's badly fixed in place and has receded into the wall
Who exactly needs the help here?

Rotsey seems to have first made a name for himself when escalators were introduced in the 1910s. He would flit from station to station with his silver megaphone, bellowing instructions to nervous travellers. One account has him standing at Paddington (as pictured up top), shouting encouragement in his "hollow but giant voice":

"This way to everywhere. Moving staircase in operation. The world's wonder! Come and see!"

Our man was also sent to tube stations on match days to help with crowd control. The portly figure with the silver megaphone became a common sight at places like Gillespie Road (now Arsenal) tube station.

Rotsey also played a special role at Olympia where, dressed in a frock coat with gold buttons, he would act like a town crier, shouting out suggestions for exhibits to see, and how to reach them.

People ask the strangest things

Rotsey, in an interview with the press, shared how he would frequently meet with unusual enquiries. The most comical concerned a woman who had stood watching the crowds flock into Piccadilly Circus for some time before she ventured inside to his desk.

"What time does it begin?"
"We're open all day," she was told.
"Has it been running long?"
"A number of years."
"How much are the tickets?"
"What station do you want?"
"Station? This is a circus isn't it? I have been round to all the theatres, but the queues outside them are still waiting and people seem to get in here all right, so I thought I would come to your circus."

Who was Ernest William Rotsey?

Rotsey was born around 1872 in Boulogne to English parents. He began working for London Underground around 1907 as Interpreter for the London Electric Railways, and was still there in 1924 when the last press account appeared.

His "hearty voice" also took him to the stage, with notices of him singing the Marseillaise at a wartime fundraising event in Shepherd's Bush in 1916. He also played in an 'Underground band' that toured France in 1924.

Rotsey was married to Jessie Jane Little and had at least one child. He died in 1949.


In short, Rotsey seems to have been the first tube 'geek' — someone who knew every route, trick and piece of trivia associated with the service. He was the Geoff Marshall, Tim Dunn or Annie Mole of his day.

In the words of journalist Thomas Jay, "...here is a man in a thousand. He is the flower of the railway system. In fact, he is a 'tuber'."

We'd love to hear from any descendants of Mr Rotsey. Does the silver megaphone still exist? Contact matt@londonist.com with any information.

References

Nottingham Evening Post, 17 November 1913
The Daily Express, 3 December 1913
The Sketch, 10 December 1913
Wigton Advertiser, 31 January 1914
West Middlesex Gazette, 7 January 1916
The Sunday Illustrated, 21 January 1923
Middlesex County Times, 27 August 1924

Main image from the 'Record Press', courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive. Other image by the author.

Last Updated 31 May 2022