Queuing: Is it really the British way?

Queue for the Queen's Jubilee concert

It's nearly finals weekend at Wimbledon when thousands of people will be forming an orderly queue to get in. But is queuing politely really the British way?

Queuing, it's what the British are renowned for doing - and doing very well. Better than anyone else in the world, if reputation is to be believed.

Take the Wimbledon queue.

It's held up as a supreme example of Britain's prowess when it comes to queuing. The likes of tea, cake and camping chairs often make an appearance. It even has its own code of conduct in case, heaven forbid, anyone doesn't understand how the queue works.

But Wimbledon is an exception when it comes to standing in a long line, say social historians. Despite the UK's formidable global reputation, queuing in a calm, good-natured manner has not always come naturally.

Origins of the word queuing

The Wimbledon queue
  • The word comes - via the French - from the Latin word cauda which means "tail"
  • In the middle of the 18th Century, a queue was a plaited pony-tail hairstyle
  • An early mention of the word queue to mean a line was recorded in 1837 by historian Thomas Carlyle, he was praising the French for their talent of "standing in a queue"

"We're supposed to be so wonderful at it but really that reputation is built around a whole mythology to do with the British and queuing," says Dr Joe Moran, a social historian and author of Queuing for Beginners: The Story of Daily Life from Breakfast to Bedtime.

The temporary nature of queues makes it hard to trace their history, but key historical events are said to have shaped how the British queue and their reputation for being so good at it. One is the industrial revolution.

"The orderly queue seems to have been an established social form in the early 19th Century, a product of more urbanised, industrial societies which brought masses of people together," says Moran.

People were moving in huge numbers from the countryside into towns changing the patterns of daily life, including shopping.

"More of a barter system existed in local markets, the whole way people shopped was more informal," says historian Juliet Gardiner. "Traders started moving from market stalls into shops as they moved into towns. In the more formal setting of a shop people had to start to queue up in a more structured way."

People queuing for coal Queuing was exhausting during WWII

Despite the mass expansion of manufacturing not everyone reaped the financial rewards and poverty was rife.

"Queuing started to become associated with extreme hardship as the poor had to queue to access handouts and charity," says Dr Kate Bradley, a lecturer in social history and social policy at the University of Kent.

But what really shaped Britain's reputation as civilised queuers was World War II.

"Propaganda at the time was all about doing your duty and taking your turn," says Bradley. "It was a way the government tried to control a situation in uncertain times."

The queue became loaded with meaning, drawing on notions of decency, fair play and democracy and the myth of the British as patient queuers was forged, says Moran.

Rationing in Britain

Buying clothes in the 1940s
  • Official rationing during WWII began on 8 January 1940 with bacon, butter and sugar
  • Rations were distributed by weight, monetary value or points
  • One person's typical weekly allowance included one fresh egg and 1oz of cheese
  • Points could be pooled or saved to buy pulses, cereals, tinned goods, dried fruit, biscuits and jam
  • Rationing continued until 1954

Source: BBC History

"In reality there were arguments and disturbances, often the police had to be brought in to sort things out and restore order. Queuing was exhausting, frustrating and tense.

"Things that weren't rationed would go on sale spasmodically, word would go round and long queues would start to form. People often joined the end of a queue without knowing exactly what it was for, they just hoped it would be something useful."

The notion of the orderly queue is a belief that is still cherished today.

Literary observations on queuing

George Orwell
  • In his 1944 essay The English People, George Orwell imagined a foreign observer would be struck by the English crowd's "willingness to form queues"
  • Hungarian-born British author George Mikes wrote in his 1946 book How to be an Alien that "an Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one"
  • In 1947 the historian Ernest Barker said "there will be some bad manners and a little thrusting but the institution (for the queue is of that order) will be made to work"

Source: Queuing for Beginners: The Story of Daily Life from Breakfast to Bedtime

"It's a story we still like to tell about ourselves," says Moran. "We like to think it fits in with a particular idea we have of our national character - that we're pragmatic and phlegmatic."

Others argue that the British are good at organising themselves into a queue but not so good at waiting in it.

In the post-war years things flipped and the queue came to represent everything that was wrong about British society. Politicians and social commentators tried to make capital out of them, like the dole queue in the 1980s.

But the nation's reputation for queuing patiently remained intact. Wimbledon and other events - from queuing for Glastonbury to the Queen's 60th Jubilee concert - were and still are held aloft as British queuing at its best, but they are not the type of queue people experience in everyday life.

"The queue at Wimbledon is part of the whole ritual. You certainly don't get the same warm glow of togetherness waiting for the bus or standing in a line at the bank," says Moran.

It's the bus queue that is often cited as an example of the demise of civilised queuing. In some places it's every man, woman and child for themselves when the bus draws up. But cultural historians say there is little evidence that people behaved any better in years gone by.

"What we do know is people have been complaining about the disintegration of queue discipline for almost as long as they have been lauding the queue as the essence of British decency," says Moran.

What makes standing in a line for a bus problematic is that people have to police the queue themselves.

People getting on a bus A bus queue - if you can call it that

"The people who push to get on a bus are the same people who wait patiently in other queues," says Dr Michael Sinclair, a consultant counselling psychologist with City Psychology Group.

"The difference is in the bus queue people have to enforce the rules themselves. This is when the system can break down. We all want things to be done the way we'd like, the problem is people have different ideas of what that should be."

In most other places, like the bank or supermarket, people are shown how to queue so lines are controlled a lot better, says David Worthington, a professor in the department of management science at the University of Lancaster who has researched queues.

Poles with retractable straps, numbered ticket machines - developed in Sweden in the 1960s - and electronic called-forward systems, tell people what to do and when.

Queuing chaos

  • Several people were hurt in a queue for the opening of an Ikea store in London in 2005, up to 6,000 people turned up and there was a stampede when the doors opened
  • An estimated 3,000 shoppers forced their way into a new Primark in London in 2007 despite there being 50 security guards, many were trampled in the stampede and two staff needed hospital treatment
  • In February this year police were called in to control hundreds of fans queuing at Manchester's MEN Arena to get tickets to see a Beyonce concert

"People know where they are in the queue and that is important when it comes to keeping things organised," he says.

Other queue myths have also been picked apart over the years. The notion that other nations can't queue like the British is outdated, says Worthington.

The motives behind the UK's intolerance of queue-jumping have also been questioned.

"When people tackle breaches of queue discipline it's not really the notion of fair play that is driving them, it is protecting their own interests," says Bradley.

Ultimately, if the British can avoid standing in a line they will, just like everyone else.

You can follow the Magazine on Twitter and on Facebook

Your observations about queuing:

As a UK/Canadian dual citizen who has spent considerable time in both countries, and who loves and feels loyal to both, I can report unequivocally that Canadians are the superior queuers. Most particularly when they are driving, but everywhere really, and most apparently when queues require self organization, like waiting to use a bank machine. Michael Robinson, Canada.

Singaporeans are the world's best queuers in my opinion. When H&M first opened they had people queuing around the block all day, every day for a week - if three came out, three were let in. It was quite a bizarre thing to witness. Laura, Cambridge.

A globetrotter, I have been trampled in a "queue" to get on a ferry in Switzerland, watched Chinese in Hong Kong rush onto a subway train so fast you could hear the "click" as their backsides hit the seats, seen the Turkish barging into an otherwise orderly line at passport control in Turkey and both Indians and Egyptians waiting patiently despite the hot sun. Megan, Cheshire UK.

Having worked in a variety of airports for eight years now I have seen the splendid queues which form at check ins, security areas and passport control. But as stated in the article, yes the Brits can form queues but waiting in them? That is another story. I have heard it all before. "That queue is going faster than my queue", "they have pushed in front", "someone must be training on this desk as it is the slowest", "I was here first" to name but a few. The tutting and watch looking normally starts after about 20 minutes. Queuing is something I tolerate knowing that it is something that sometimes we just have to do. We can't all be first, and someone has to be last. Lucy, Portugal.

In Beijing the Chinese form very orderly queues whilst waiting at a subway station. There is no jostling for position or cutting in. They walk round a queue rather than through it. Immediately the train doors are open it is every man, and woman, for themselves. The very idea of a queue disintegrates and the evidence is gone. Trevor Daynes, Beijing, China.

I have lived in three different countries outside of the UK and let me tell you the British are fantastic at queuing. Whether it be at a bus stop, at a shop, there is no comparison. The only place that seems to lack the typical British queuing is when one is at a bar, pub or club. Jared King, Civitanova, Italy.

Canadians are very good at forming and observing queues. At automatic banking machines in shopping centres or with street-access, for example, we form a single line that starts about two metres behind the people using the machines. We leave room for passersby and afford the people at the machines privacy to conduct their business, and as each person finishes his/her banking, the next in line moves to that machine. Waiting for a bus, however... not so much. Ruthanne Urquhart, Ottawa, Canada.

I was picking up a few odds and ends one day, when an American couple stopped me at the tills and asked me how the queue worked. Whether they genuinely did not know, or whether our reputation for queuing is that formidable, I will never find out. They seemed delighted with the information they received in any case. Sacha Jones, Wigan.

British best at Queuing? When it suits us we can be awesome at it, and we love a good whinge when other folks don't adhere to our own high queuing standards, but we have our lapses as well. Take boarding a Ryanair flight for instance. Queue etiquette means nothing.... it's every man/woman/child for themselves. Nick Exley, Bradford, West Yorkshire

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.