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Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The Rise and Fall of the Second Class Passenger

 These days we only have one numbered class of travel, first class, and what was originally known as third is now designated ‘standard.’ Yet, I was recently asked by someone about what happened to second class, given that the mere fact that we had first and third must denote that at some point we had a second.

Before the railways arrived, the two main modes of transport were stagecoaches and steamships, and these only employed only two classes of travel. Apart from the mail coaches, which charged a premium for travel, most stagecoaches had two classes of passenger. Those paying the higher rate were carried inside, while those on the outside, who were forced to brave the elements, paid a lower rate. Similarly, those travelling on steamships either had ‘cabin’ or ‘deck’ accommodation.[1]

Yet, a glance at some shipping adverts from 1831 (left) shows more nuance in pricing. The steam packet service to the Channel Islands, while offering both ‘cabin’ and ‘deck’ accommodation, also offered ‘fore’ and ‘main’ cabins at different prices. Additionally, the ship to the United States offered steerage accommodation with or without ‘provisions.’ While these adverts would suggest there were three classes, in reality there were only two, and individuals could simply pay more for additional services while travelling. Indeed, there were not three distinct levels of service quality, each different from the other.[2]

Initially, the railways copied this two class system. In 1830 the first inter-city railway in the world, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, had first and second class accommodation. Indeed, like on the steamships and stagecoaches, first class travel would be enclosed, whereas second class would be open. The two-class system was quickly transferred to other early railways, and an advert for the Warrington and Newton Railway (shown), opened in 1831 and which connected with the Liverpool and Manchester, shows this.[3]  

However, by the late-1830s the three class system had become the norm for all new and existing railway companies, even though third class carriages were not necessarily attached to each train. The railways could do this because the speed at which trains conveyed passengers meant that they could offer a range of services which were of varied quality.

The three classes of travel would continue undisturbed until the 1870s. First class passengers always had the best accommodation, their compartments containing soft furnishings and window glazing. Initially, second class carriages had roofs and padded seats, but were usually still open to the elements on either side. However, this latter feature did become less common up to the 1860s. Lastly, third class passengers travelled in little more than open trucks with wooden seats. On the Sheffield and Rotherham Railway’s opening in 1838 a reporter suggested these carriages would be ‘preferred in fine weather.’[4] Nevertheless, by the 1860s most third class carriages had been covered. Ultimately, all that could be said about changes in carriage design before 1870 was that they had got longer.

It was in the 1870s that the decline of second class travel began. On the 1 January 1875, after adding third class accommodation to every train in 1872, the Midland Railway abolished second class travel completely, while lowering the price of third. Furthermore, they downgraded the quality of the second class carriages by removing the leather backs of the seats, while also improving the quality of the third class accommodation by covering the seats with the same material and padding.[5] In addition, the company introduced carriages on its new Settle to Carlisle route which were twice as long as contemporary designs, had improved ride comfort because of swivelling bogies and which combined first and third class compartments.

The Midland undertook this pioneering action because of the forces acting on its business. Whereas in 1859 32.23 per cent of all railway passengers in the British Isles were travelling by second class, by 1874 the proportion was only 15.12 per cent. Furthermore, over the same period, the proportion of individuals travelling by third class rose from 49.92 per cent to 76.66 per cent. Indeed in the Midland’s case, the proportion of passengers travelling second class dropped from 23.37 per cent to 11.24 per cent, lowering the profitability of carrying them. [6] Therefore, eliminating second class accommodation reduced the cost of carriage construction and marshalling for the Midland. Furthermore, the improved third class accommodation would entice customers who would normally travel third class from competing railways. Indeed, to try and capture more of the quickly growing third class market was a shrewd business move.

It is unsurprising that many other railway managers protested at the Midland’s changes, presumably because of the precedent they set. Furthermore, those passengers that were not wealthy enough to purchase first class tickets, but purchased second to avoid the ‘rowdiness’ of the third class environment, also reacted with dismay.

Nevertheless, the Midland’s actions naturally meant that the other companies started examining the viability of their own second class accommodation, as well as increasing the size of their rolling stock. Indeed, the larger carriages constructed after the 1870s included higher quality third class compartments which attracted increasing numbers of people to this class of transport. Consequently, this helped second class travellers to diminish in number from 22.2 per cent of all passengers in 1870 to only 6.0 per cent in 1899.[8]

Therefore, for many companies offering second class accommodation was increasingly less profitable and more companies abandoned it. The Great Northern Railway, Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire and Cheshire Lines Railways only offered second class travel on long distance services in the 1880s, and in the early 1890s the North Eastern, Great Eastern Railways and all Scottish Railways abandoned it completely. [9] The Great Western Railway abandoned second class in 1910.[10]

However, those companies who derived a higher proportion of their revenue from passenger traffic held on to second class for longer, given that they made healthier profits from this traffic. Indeed, in 1881 a report to the London and South Western Railway’s board by the General Manager, Archibald Scott, stated that he felt the reductions in second class accommodation on the northern railways were a mistake. Indeed, given that second class traffic remained an important source of the company’s income, constituting 25 per cent of passengers and one sixth of all travellers, he recommended that it should remain, which it did.[11] Indeed, his successor, Charles Scotter, also argued in 1894 that second class should be kept on the London and South Western given that it still ‘paid.’ However, he did recognise that the company’s case was ‘exceptional’ given that on other companies it did not so.

Ultimately, however, the even the companies dominated by passenger traffic also stopped offering second class accommodation as the proportion they carried fell. Thus, the London and South Western and South Eastern and Chatham Railways preserved it on main line services until 1918 and 1923 respectively.[13] Indeed, the latter was the last company to provide it on a British trunk line.[14] The last vestiges of second class were to be found on London and North Eastern Railway suburban services until 1938 and Southern Railway boat trains until 1948.[15]

Overall, second class had been killed by the higher quality of third class accommodation and ever-increasing numbers of third class passengers. With fewer and fewer people using it, the railways, driven by profit, no longer felt the need to provide it.


I will be doing a talk on 20 December at 6.30 pm at Kew Public Library on Victorian Railwaywomen, looking at who they were, where they worked in the industry and their pay and status. Mince pies and refreshments a provided, all for a mere £1. If you would like to attend, call the library to book a place on 020 8734 3352 (Opening Times: Tues - 10-1, 2-6; Wed 2-6; Fri 2-6; Sat 10-1, 2-6) or email 

[1] Simmons, Jack, ‘class distinctions,’ The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, (Oxford, 1997), p.84
[2] Hampshire Advertiser: Royal Yacht Club Gazette, Southampton Town & County Herald, Isle of Wight Journal , Winchester Chronicle, & General Reporter, Saturday, June 25, 1831, p.1
[3] Liverpool Mercury, Friday, August 5, 1831
[4] The Sheffield Independent, and Yorkshire and Derbyshire Advertiser, Saturday, November 03, 1838, p.2
[5] Birmingham Daily Post, Friday, January 1, 1875
[6] Board of Trade, Railway Returns, 1860 and 1874
[7] Simmons, ‘class distinctions’, p.85
[8] Unknown Author, ‘second class’, Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art, 110 (1910, Aug. 27) p.259
[9] Simmons, ‘class distinctions’, p.85
[10] ‘second class’, Saturday Review of Politics,p.259
[11] The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 411/283, Report to the Directors as to Second and Third Class and generally upon passenger traffic, Archibald Scott to Board of Directors, 1 December 1881, p.4
[12] Charles Scotter interview with Commerce magazine, reprinted in The South Western Gazette, 1 December 1894, p.5-6
[13] Simmons, ‘class distinctions’, p.86
[14] Great Eastern Railway Magazine, 8 (1918), p.178
[15] Simmons, ‘class distinctions’, p.85


  1. I rather appreciate the image of open-topped carriages tacked on to the back of trains! Enlightening post, thanks for sharing.

  2. When the 1844 Regulation of Railways Act required 'enclosed' third class carriages, some railways introduced fourth class, using their old open third class vehicles.

    Second, as distinct from third, class remained on Continental Boat Trains (was this only on the Southern, or also the Eastern?) until 3rd June 1956), with the same three classes on the corresponding trains in Europe. At that point the number of classes was reduced to two on both sides of the Channel - in Britain this meant that third was redesignated as second , but on the continent it marked the abolition of first class (which had become rare,at least AIUI, with second and third becoming first and second). At least to some extent, these different origins of (current) first and second class over there was apparent in the standards of accommodation provided, and the relative usage, until comparatively recently.

    C Hamilton Ellis had an interesting comment about the South Western having 'proper' second class, compared to the 'third class plus mat' on some other railways (this would have been c 1910) - shades of current first being 'standard with antimacassars'.

  3. A further thought on the origins of the different classes on trains. Prior to the railway, for land transport, there was the stage coach with its inside and outside classes, which were emulated in the original first and second classes. But the stage coach was expensive (it wasn't until c 1970 that nominal rail fares reached stage coach fare levels); and people of more modest means used slow waggon services (normally perched on top of the load I would think), walked, or simply didn't travel: and it was those markets that third class addressed - initially with 'waggon' equivalents: open carriages in goods or separate slow or trains. And it was a market that, having been created, exploded - cheap trains simply enabled everyone to travel in a way they hadn't before.
    So a question I would ask is to what extent was the quoted decline in the percentage of passengers travelling second class indicate fewer second class passengers in absolute terms, or just proportional terms - a small absolute increase dwarfed by a much greater increase in third class numbers

  4. Thanks for the thoughts Jeremy. Regarding 'Third class' opening up rail travel to those who had previously gone by cart or walked, I am not sure to what extent that was really so before 1870. The 1855 government select committee on how people got to work estimated that most came to London by means other than the railway. 400,000 walked, 80,000 travelled by omnibus, 30,000 used steamers and 52,000 took other vehicles. Only 62,440 used Paddington, Euston, Kings Cross, Fenchurch Street and London Bridge Stations. Therefore, it seems that third class was still out of the price range of most in this period and the walkers still walked. I suppose the only options for many regarding train travel were parliamentary trains and workmen's trains. However, I suspect the rising wages after 1870 for most was what stimulated a boom in third class passengers.

    Regarding second class numbers, in absolute terms they did did rise up until the 1870s and then declined as follows:

    1860 - 49041814
    1870 - 74153113
    1875 - 70,525,171
    1880 - 65,034,870
    1885 - 60,985,772
    1890 - 62,830,831
    1895 - 58,367,839
    1900 - 69,084,620
    1905 - 52,583,258
    1910 - 29,797,866

    There was a slight rise in the late 1890s, as there was in most forms of traffic, but I presume the significant decline thereafter was because more companies gave the service up. Another way to look at it may be the intensity of second class traffic on the network. Below is the number of second class passengers per national (inc. Ireland) route mile.

    1860 - 4701
    1870 - 4773
    1875 - 4234
    1880 - 3627
    1885 - 3177
    1890 - 3151
    1895 - 2757
    1900 - 3161
    1905 - 2302
    1910 - 1274

    Thus, while between 1870 and 1895 second class traffic dropped in absolute terms by 21.28%, per route mile it dropped by 42.24%. However, what is also interesting is to look at the number of passenger train miles per second class passenger:

    1860 - 1.076968299
    1870 - 1.16035494
    1875 - 1.428299564
    1880 - 1.883885645
    1885 - 2.40151434
    1890 - 2.653089007
    1895 - 3.155578366
    1900 - 3.184740497
    1905 - 4.647666582
    1910 - 8.955380127

    This indicates that even between 1860 and 1870 there was a slight increase in the work done per second class passenger. However, between 1870 and an 1895 there was a 171.95% increase in passenger train miles per passenger. Thus, on average in the work that the companies were putting into each second class passenger massively increased over the period. What I would like to work out is whether those companies that kept second class longer had followed the national average trend.

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