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Interview: Chief Steward Andrew Gairdner

Popular opinion has it that the English love to stand in queues and complain about them but, never, under any circumstances, jump them. Wimbledon is the only major sporting event to still make provision for on-the-day sales of tickets and inevitably this results in very long queues. ICONS got the inside scoop on this favourite English pastime from the man who is responsible for supervising them - from the day before the tournament starts until the last ball is played.

“An Englishman, even if he is alone, will form an orderly queue of one.”

George Mikes, How To Be An Alien.

Public queuing to get into Wimbledon, 1930
Queueing to watch the tennis, 1930
© TopFoto.co.uk/Roger-Viollet
There are actually two queues at Wimbledon, both beginning at Gate 3, one going north and one south. Andrew estimates that by 10am there will be between 10-11,000 people on line. Some of them are going to be disappointed. The number of tickets available for the show courts (Centre Court, Court No 1 and Court No 2) varies from day to day depending on the number of courts in play, the weather, etc. There can be as many as 1,500 show court tickets on sale at the beginning of the tournament and there can be up to 9,000 ground tickets available.

So, Andrew, what time should I arrive?
You have to be there before 6am to get a show court ticket - about 2,000 people will have stayed overnight. The queue builds up very fast after 6am when the Tubes start.

Who will my queueing colleagues be?

All different ages, all different nationalities. The important thing about them is that they all have one interest and that is getting into the tournament to watch the tennis. As a result they are, by and large, an extremely well-behaved queue. There are about 25-30 people who come for the first nine days of the tournament every year. They camp every night to get the right queue card. We get many people from overseas who come year after year, and will in some cases send me a Christmas card!

What should I bring?

For a rainy day people get well equipped: they would come with a proper tent, a bit of food, proper tarpaulins to cover themselves and generally take a considerable amount of trouble.

What’s it like in the queue?

It’s a feeling of camaraderie, enthusiasm, joy, of being where you want to be and having the opportunity to do something you really want to do - which is get in to Wimbledon and enjoy an afternoon there. There’s a great sense of anticipation.

They [the stewards] are the most amazing collection of people. It’s fine if it’s a nice day but if it’s pouring with rain or 35º heat and they’ve got to be there for four to five hours, then it’s pretty hard work.

The Stewards are hugely experienced at helping people enjoy their time in the queue and operate a strict system to keep everything fair. Each person who joins is issued with a numbered queue card to mark their position and these have a Code of Conduct printed on the back. It covers basic points such as how many tickets you can buy (only one each) and what size of bag you can take into the ground, but also touches on the finer points of queuing etiquette.

We do ask people to behave as they would like their neighbours to behave. Now and again you can get people who are rather over-excited, particularly on the Friday night before the big Saturday which is always a slightly longer queue.

[In order to manage a queue of such size, Andrew works with a team of approximately 100 Honorary Stewards, of whom 25-30 are women, augmented by 20 night stewards and 40 day stewards who are paid. Despite admitting to being a very bad queuer himself, Andrew has praise for the staunch members of the queues in his care].

The people who come here are prepared to experience a bit of discomfort in order to achieve what they want to achieve. To that extent I think they are the most wonderful queuers in the world. We have stickers that say “I queued at Wimbledon” and I’m quite sure they put them up in their drawing rooms every year and collect one after the other.

You’re always going to get people who are going to try and muck it about but there are 10,000 people a day for nine days and just half a dozen will upset it. So, by and large, they’re the most excellent queuing people, very co-operative and only keen to do what they are asked to do which will enable them to get in as quickly as possible. I give them top marks!"

A day in the life of a Wimbledon queue

Tennis fans who camped out overnight, July 9, 2001
Fans who camped out overnight, July 9, 2001
© TopFoto.co.uk
Night stewards will have been taking care of those queuing overnight and they’re relieved by the day stewards and honorary stewards at 6am. At this time they start getting people out of their tents and telling them what time everything’s going to happen. Tents are packed up and the stewards slowly move the queue into a much more compressed state. 

At 7.30am the people at the front of the queue eligible for show court seats get issued with coloured wristbands and they position themselves for a particular purchase. Search procedure starts about 9am and tickets go on sale at about 9.15am. People go into a holding area just inside the ground and the main gates get opened at 10.30am. 

Andrew says, “We would reckon to get about 10,000 people through the search area and into the ground by 12.30pm at the latest. The unwritten feeling is that by the time play starts we should have the ground pretty well full. There was a great day on the middle Sunday about two years ago when we got 25,000 people through the turnstiles in four hours. Those are the sort of days that stand out and everybody joined in to make it a fantastic day and it all went really well.”

But the queuing isn’t over yet! “If you’re the first person who doesn’t get in when the gates are closed you’re going to be bit upset.” This is a difficult time for the stewards who have to keep morale cheerful and the queue in order until the first people start to leave the grounds. New queuers may arrive from about 4pm having left the office early, but the queue will only start really moving again at about 6pm. The majority of people will get in by 7.30-7.45pm and “they’ll have a couple of hours wandering around. It’s a nice place to be, really.”