Why the queue to see the Queen was "like a pilgrimage"
By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Tuesday, 15 November 2022
Sussex psychologist Professor John Drury advised the UK government on what to expect during the Queen's funeral and lying-in-state,
More than 250,000 people queued to see Queen Elizabeth II’s lying-in-state during the period between her death and her funeral in September 2022.
While the queue became compulsive viewing, with millions tuning in to watch a live video stream, the camaraderie, compliance and endurance – even at a cost to their health - of those standing in line to pay their respects was exactly as University of Sussex psychologist Professor John Drury had predicted.
An expert in crowd behaviour, Professor Drury was approached by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport earlier this year to give insights into what to expect of the hundreds of thousands that would flock to London in the eventuality of the monarch’s funeral.
The Queen died on 8 September at the age of 96. Her death set in motion a series of planned announcements and actions, including her coffin being placed on a raised platform (a catafalque) in Westminster Hall for three days for the public to visit.
“I was asked several questions about what we might see in the behaviour and composition of the crowd – and what measures might need to be put in place,” says Professor Drury. “Crowd safety management has evolved, especially over the past 20 years in the UK. People in the events industry are now recognising that understanding that the science of crowd psychology is important.”
In fact, Professor Drury’s reputation and research in this area has, in recent years, resulted in changes in practices and policy in areas such as managing crowds at big sporting events and emergency planning.
For the Queen’s funeral, he drew on his own research and the latest literature on crowds to predict the identity, composition and behaviour of those in the 10-mile queue, as well as of those who then lined the streets to watch the ensuing procession.
Sharing values and beliefs
“I am often asked how a crowd will behave, and the short answer is ‘it depends’,” he says. “The particular identity of the crowd defines its norms. But there are some generic processes that arise from shared social identity, such as mutual support in the crowd, co-ordination and ‘acting as one’.”
This is why there’s a difference between a crowd at a shopping centre and a crowd at a football stadium, he says. “The football crowd seem to act as a single body or a single unit. One of the reasons is that they share a social identity and share the same expectations about each other’s behaviour, as well as having the same values and beliefs.”
The other variable is how they are treated, says Professor Drury. “There are a lot of myths around crowds being disorderly. One of the errors often made in the past is to see conflict within the crowd as arising inherently from the psychology of the crowd. You see a group of people get together and you see conflict and violence and you assume that it’s because they are in a crowd, which drives them into a primitive psychological state where they are more likely to be aggressive and mindless.
“But most instances of crowds being violent is a function of how they are being treated by another group,” he points out. “It’s usually motivated by a sense of unfairness. The authority’s actions are not neutral, they are interpreted in some way. Are we being treated fairly?”
Based on his professional knowledge, Professor Drury predicted that those who queued for the Queen’s lying-in-state would tend to be politically Conservative and respectful of authority, something borne out by the initial survey evidence.
However, he also suggested that they would find a common identity, not just in being pro-monarchy and wanting to prove their loyalty, but in being part of the queue itself and having a sense of camaraderie – even with strangers. “There were pictures of people hugging. That grew from the sense that ‘we are all part of this historic event together’.”
They would also endure the long wait, it even if they were elderly or infirm and doing so was injurious to their health.
“It’s rather like a pilgrimage,” he says. “Research in recent years has looked at other similar phenomena, such as the Hajj in Mecca, where people will stand for long hours in the sun or other harsh weather, even when they’re elderly. They endure it because this is how they enact their values and identities. This is how they express them.”
Disapproval of queue jumpers
Likewise, he warned organisers that there would be disapproval of those behaving outside of the norm of the group – such as queue jumpers. Stewards managing the crowds would need to employ strategies that ensured a perception of fairness.
“The wristband system, which enabled people to leave the queue for food or comfort breaks and return to the same place, seemed to be effective,” he observes.
And he recommended in his report that those wanting to join the queue would need to be informed how long the wait would take – and if there was any danger that they would run out of time. During the lying-in-state of Edward VII in 1910, 25,000 disappointed mourners were turned away when doors closed at 10pm.
“Fortunately, there was a YouTube page with real-time information,” says Professor Drury. “It looked fantastic that they were able to deal with people’s expectations. And the webcam, which showed those processing through Westminster Hall, was fascinating. I was watching it, even if it wasn’t ‘my crowd’.”
Professor Drury, who uses ‘the Queue’ in his own teaching as an example of crowd behaviour, anticipates that there will be several pieces of research arising out of the study of the crowds at this event.
“The next big occasion will, of course, by the Coronation of King Charles next year,” he adds. “I’m not a monarchist, but these occasions are giving those of us interested in crowd psychology valuable opportunities to further our knowledge and help organisers run events smoothly.”