Whatever we are familiar with, and what we become accustomed to as children is so ingrained in our psyche that we can often wonder why everybody isn’t the same. Just one of these habits and customs that us Brits have developed is queueing.
We have the unenviable reputation of being the world’s authority on the queue. Popular belief is that this stems back to the rationing of WW2, when in fact rationing started in WW1, particularly in 1917 when Lord Rhondda was appointed the government food controller (sounds like a phrase from Animal Farm). As in WW2, nearly everything was in short supply, so the queueing habit became so ingrained that people would join a queue not immediately knowing what the queue was for. They just assumed it must be important enough for other people to queue so they did the same, in case they missed out on something.
The origins of queueing
A queue of people waiting in line for something probably started during the industrial revolution. Queueing at the clocking in/out clock to enter or leave the mill or factory, queueing for the canteen if you were lucky to have one provided, or were given time to eat, and of course queueing to receive your pay of twopence a fotnit. That is to say, they were paid a pittance, and not really paid a penny a week, although the mill owners of the time certainly had the reputation that they would if they could as described in a previous ramble entitled A Warts ramble in Cragg Vale.
A National Time Recorder Co. Ltd. clocking in clock from 1930.
Time recorders used to be common; I remember them well. Nearly all mills and factories had similar versions of these clocking-in clocks. The rack on the left held your card. We would pop the card in the slot just under the clock face and press the lever on the right, a bell would ring and the time would be stamped on the card. I was sacked from a company once, and the first I knew of it was when I discovered that my card was not in the rack. No discussions, no whys or why nots, just off-you-go-lad, come back on Friday for your P45 and any pay due. The good old days.
Social faux pas and French influence
The proper formation and discipline of an orderly queue is very important to the Brits, and anyone with the audacity to queue jump or push-in must be in league with the Devil, or worse. There are very few things that a person can do that is on the face of it harmless, but will carry with it the instant hatred of every witness than that of a queue jumper, even if the witness is in another queue.
The word originated in the 16th century from the French cue or coe meaning tail, which in turn came from the Latin coda or cauda which has the same meaning.
It is often used in heraldry. The following image is a good example: ‘Lion rampant queue fourché’. A lion rampant is a lion in profile standing on one or both rear legs, a queue fourché is a tail split down its length, where we also get the word fork. The word ‘queue’, meaning a line of people seems to have first appeared in the book, The French Revolution, written by the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle in 1837.
This is a very popular heraldic crest, amongst others it forms part of the coat of arms of Scotland, the Czech Republic and Carmarthenshire.
During the period following the evacuation at Dunkirk in May and June of 1940 and the American military entering the war and saving the world in December 1941, Britain was on its own. Apart from of course: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India which included the Gurkhas, South Africa, the West Indies, Fiji, Western Samoa, Tonga and more than 50 other colonies. The USA also sent goods and equipment, including ships, under the Lend Lease Act between 1941 and 1945. We had to pay for it of course, and continued to pay right up to 2006.
Word War queue
However, we were definitely on our own in Europe, as such we were able to develop the queue into a fine art. Unfortunately, the influx of millions of military personnel that were entering the country between early 1942 and 1945 often didn’t have the same understanding of the queue protocol. This became such a problem that the Ministry of War Transport issued ‘Statutory Rule and Order No. 517 in March 1942 which stated that, “A person shall not take or endeavour to take any position in a queue or line … otherwise than behind the person already forming the same”.
I hate queueing almost as much as I hate shopping. In fact, it’s the probability that I may have to join a queue at some stage during the daunting process of shopping that adds to the anxiety of shopping before we even start.
As I get older my hatred of shopping and indeed queueing has softened slightly. If I now inadvertently find myself in a queue it can be five, or on a good day, ten minutes before I start to stamp my feet and hold my breath. However, the one good thing about queueing is that it is an excellent pub quiz question, ‘What is the only word in the English language that has five consecutive vowels?’