Today (November 16) in London History – Derring do at Harrods

Harrods unveiled the first escalator “in the Empire” on November 16th, 1898. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

How’s that old business maxim go? Getting them through the door is half the battle. 

Well, full marks to Harrods – because this certainly will have got them through the door.

It was the first one in the country.

People had never seen the like before.

They didn’t even have the word for it – that’s how novel it was. 

Well, the penny will have dropped – at least for those of you who know London pretty well – because the story has stuck, has hung around. It’s part of the lore of Harrods.

Say hello to the first escalator in England. It was blooded on this day, November 16th, 1898. In Harrods.

What I wouldn’t give to have been there. Who was the first shopper to venture onto it? Did they sail right on? Or hesitate, steady their nerves, finally take the plunge? More likely the latter. What did they think?  Did they like their ride? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know?

What we do know is the experience must have been little short of thrilling. Nervous customers were offered brandy at the top to revive them after their ‘ordeal.’ Or if they were overcome with joy, smelling salts. 

At this distance –124 years later it’s easy for us to snigger at those first escalator riders, their hearts pounding, nervous as a first-time bungee jumper – but lest we feel too smug, too superior, we should remember that what they went for a ride on was a far cry from the escalators that we hop on and off every day without a second thought.

That Harrods escalator – London’s first moving staircase as it was called – was in fact an inclined conveyor belt made from woven leather. 

There was a mahogany and silver plate-glass railing to cling to. 

Who among us wouldn’t be thankful for that hand-hold if we stepped on an inclined conveyor belt? And surely it goes without saying that unlike our moving handholds today the balustrade would have been stationery – those daredevil customers on that moving conveyor belt would have had to loosen their grip sufficiently to slide their hands along. 

The very fact that they didn’t have a word for it is in itself an indicator of just how new it was.

They called it “a moving staircase” and in fact they were still using that nomenclature four years later to describe the escalator at the Earl’s Court Exhibition.

The language had to play catch up with the phenomenon. Escalators were an American invention. And they hadn’t been around very long. 

An eccentric American inventor named Jesse Reno had birthed the first-ever escalator. That was in 1896. So Harrods was close to getting in on the ground floor, as it were. The word “escalator” didn’t pitch up until 1900, two years after Harrods installed its “moving staircase.”

It’s a good instance of how language works. Something new comes along. There’s not a word for it. So to make a start at getting a verbal handle on it human beings relate it to what is familiar, what already exists. Elevators as they’re called in the United States, Lifts over here, are a perfect case in point. Elevators – lifts – were first known as rising rooms. An elevator – a lift – is like a small room. But it’s a small room that goes up and down. It ascends, it rises. Makes perfect sense: it’s a rising room. That’s what lifts were first known as. 

Similarly, escalators. You go up a staircase to go from one floor to the next floor up. Which of course is what an escalator does. So relating the new phenomenon to the existing, known phenomenon – well, it’s like a moving staircase, isn’t it? Well, sort of like a moving staircase.

The more accurate description was an inclined conveyor belt.

But that way of putting it wasn’t terribly reassuring. 

If you had your choice between hopping on an inclined conveyor belt or a moving staircase I think, daredevils, thrill-seekers and teenagers excepted, you’d probably plump for the moving staircase.

And of course it wasn’t too long before the conveyor belt morphed into a staircase. A moving staircase.

For the record, the word escalator first appears in this country in 1910.

In a Daily News article. It’s like spotting the first cuckoo in the spring, these linguistic moments. In that very first use of the word on these shores, the Daily News is actually defining the word. Here’s the quote: In the course of the hearing counsel referred to a proposed moving staircase as an ‘escalator.’ And for a final touch, the Daily News puts the word escalator in inverted commas, which of course underlined just how unfamiliar, how novel it was.

And a year later Engineer magazine provides the same sort of handhold for its readers. The entry reads: “The escalator or moving stairway connecting the ‘Piccadilly’ and District Railway.”

Twelve years later, 1923, the new word that was a delicate seedling in 1910 – needed tending – has become a sturdy sapling. Or to mix my metaphors, the training wheels have come off. The word doesn’t need defining. An article in The Spectator says matter of factly,  “Three escalators will serve the Bakerloo Tube.”

Fast forward a hundred years – well, a hundred years from that thrill-a-minute stuff in Harrods on November 16th, 1898 – fast forward to 1998, Harrods introduces the Egyptian escalator, which was regarded as a masterpiece in ergonomics, style, and in-store transportation. That timing – exactly a century later – can’t have been a coincidence.

But to end, let’s circle back and take a last look at the first escalator in England. And the mileage Harrods was getting out of it.

For example, a Christmas at Harrods ad that ran in the Daily Mail in December of 1898, just a couple of weeks after the escalator’s debut.

Right in the middle of the ad – with a box around it to make it stand out – this bit of 1898 click-bait:

See the marvellous “MOVING STAIRCASE.”  The only one in the Empire.

“MOVING STAIRCASE” in caps and set off with inverted commas. It’s a one-two punch, that ad. The finisher is that sentence The only one in the Empire – how’s that for a USP – and sure enough that sentence is in boldface. Late Victorian graphic design – it sure was in your face.

Now, who’s for a Today in London recommendation? Well how about stopping by Gladwell and Patterson, the swish little gallery on Beauchamp Place, just round the corner from Harrods. Their Journeys exhibition – it’s on from November 23rd for a month – is stunning. Those paintings are so beautiful you might well feel faint from ecstasy – be in need of some of those Harrods smelling salts.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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