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Wednesday, 27 April 2011

The Rise and Fall of 'Ladies Only' Railway Compartments in the 19th Century

The railways had a considerable effect on the mobility of women, particularly those in the upper and middle classes. Prior to their advent most women were not permitted to travel on their own. If they wished to go anywhere, the social norms of the day demanded that they have accompaniment by their husbands or a male relative to protect them against supposed dangers. Yet, because the railways reduced journey times the perceived risks lone women faced when travelling were adjudged to have diminished. The Quarterly Review stated in 1844 that the railways had brought about ‘the emancipation of the fair sex, and particularly of the middle and higher classes, from the prohibition from travelling at all.'[1]

However, some still felt that women should be isolated when travelling on the railways and by this time a few companies were starting to provide permanent ‘ladies only’ compartments in trains. Nevertheless, the practice was not widespread and it wasn’t until the 1860s that railway companies came under heavy pressure to institute such a provision universally. Indeed, some advocated that that the railways should be legally obliged to provide 'ladies only' accommodation on each train.

Advocates for these facilities were spurred on by high profile cases of rudeness, foul language and assaults by men that went to court and which were reported in the press. As an example, The Penny Illustrated Paper printed in 1868 the tale of two women who were repeatedly followed by man, who was ‘dressed as a gentleman,’ from one compartment to another. He apparently acted in an insulting and obtrusive manner. Indeed, when the letter writer left the carriage, leaving her friend with the man, he ‘subjected her to gross insults and annoyances.’[2] Another letter, printed by The Standard in 1864, was from one man whose servant had been assaulted on a train. Alone in a carriage, the three men spoke rudely to her and she went and stood by the window. One of the fellows then tried to pull her to the ground and ‘caught hold of her leg…putting his hands up to her knee.’ They blocked her screams for help by standing by the window, and then pushed her against the side of the carriage violently. They laughed and then got out.[3] Thus, it was these kinds of reports that fuelled demands for women to have separate travelling accommodation.

As such, it is not surprising that when the Metropolitan Railway introduced permanent ‘ladies compartments’ on all their trains in October 1874, many congratulated them on the decision in the press.[4] However, this was an experiment that failed miserably and after a couple of months the Metropolitan had abandoned the practice.

The truth was that ladies compartments were very under used. A report in The York Herald stated that on the Metropolitan ‘it was found that the privilege [of women’s only compartments] was not availed of to an extent to warrant the company in setting aside so much space in each train, and moreover that it was abused.’[5] Indeed, there had been ‘ladies compartments’ on the Stockton to Darlington section of the North Eastern Railway for some time before 1874. However, they were also ‘frequently empty.’[6] Furthermore, when the Board of Trade investigated the whole issue in 1887 it found that the companies would reserve compartments on request, but those that were permanently reserved were very under used.[7] Indeed, this was perhaps even more than the railways would offer in some cases, and the Railway Clearing House rule book of 1884 stated that if requested guards were to ‘select a carriage for [women]… in which other ladies are travelling.’[8] Thus, by the time of the First World War permanent ‘ladies accommodation’ was exceedingly rare as providing it was unremunerative for the railway companies.

Overall, the demands for ‘ladies only’ accommodation were generated from newspaper sensationalism and a misrepresentation of reality. As Jack Simmons commented, the number of cases of women being insulted, robbed or assaulted reported in the papers was ‘insignificant, when looked at against the number of journeys women were making at the time.’[9] Indeed, this seems to have been contemporary thinking amongst some. A reporter for the Newcastle Weekly Courant stated in 1884 that ‘there are women who, believing all that they read in the newspapers is as true as Gospel, think they are in mortal terror when they find themselves alone with a man in the carriage.’ Indeed, his view was that men would rather search a train for a spare seat, rather than sit with an ‘unattended female.’ Apparently, most men thought that ‘it is best to leave female travellers alone, as they are generally well able to take care of themselves.’[10]

Ultimately, the story of the ‘ladies only’ accommodation is one where media hype gave weight to patriarchal views. Between the 1860s and the 1890s individuals holding the view that women should be separated on trains made a lot of noise and put pressure on railway companies to endorse their perspective. However, as women travellers showed by their actions, they did not need the protection. Subsequently, the railways, driven by a financial rationale to fill trains and make profit, responded by not heeding their requests.

[1] Quarterly Review, Volume 74, Issue 147 (1844, June) p.250
[2] Penny Illustrated Paper, Saturday, September 26, 1868; Issue 365
[3] The Standard, Tuesday, September 13, 1864; pg. 3; Issue 12510
[4] The Standard, Thursday, October 15, 1874; pg. 3; Issue 15668
[5] The York Herald, Thursday, December 17, 1874; pg. 3; Issue 5572
[6] The Newcastle Weekly Courant, Friday, October 10, 1884; Issue 10943.
[7] Simmons, Jack, ‘Women’s Emancipation,’ The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, (Oxford, 1997), p.566
[8] South Western Circle Collection [SWC], London and South Western Railway Rule Book, 1884, Rule 242, p.137
[9] Simmons, Jack, The Victorian Railway, (London, 1991), p.334
[10] The Newcastle Weekly Courant, Friday, October 10, 1884; Issue 10943.


  1. Ah, another problem to stick at the feet of the sensationalists!

    Excellent post.

  2. Thank you for this information. It has given me a look into 19th century travelling.

  3. Thank you for this information. It has given me a look into 19th century travelling.


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