Both in rheometry and in fundamental fluid mechanics studies, the Taylor–Couette geometry is used frequently to investigate viscoelastic fluids. In order to ensure a constant shear rate in the gap between the inner and outer cylinders, such studies are usually restricted to the small-gap limit where the assumption of a linear velocity distribution is well justified. In conjunction with a sufficiently large aspect ratio
(i.e. ratio of cylinder height to gap), the flow is then assumed to be viscometric. Here we demonstrate, using a perturbation technique with the curvature ratio (i.e. ratio of the half-gap to the mid-radius of the cylinders) as the perturbation parameter, full nonlinear simulations using a finite-volume technique, and supporting experiments, that, even in the creeping-flow (inertialess) narrow-gap limit, for viscoelastic fluids end effects due to finite aspect ratio always give rise to a secondary motion. Using the constant-viscosity Oldroyd-B model we are able to show that this secondary motion, as has been observed in related pressure-driven flows with curvature, such as the viscoelastic Dean flow, is solely a consequence of the combination of gradients of the first normal-stress difference and curvature. Our results show that end effects can significantly change the flow characteristics, especially for small aspect ratios, and this may have important consequences in some situations such as the onset criteria for purely elastic instabilities.