Ladies Only Compartments

It is easy to forget that until comparatively recent times British trains were composed predominately of ‘compartment’ stock. Compartments were designed for (typically) between eight and twelve passengers, depending on type. Longer distance trains had compartments accessed from a narrow corridor running along one side of each carriage while suburban trains had full width compartments with no corridor (requiring every compartment to have doors on each side—cumbersome perhaps, but facilitating extraordinarily rapid loading and unloading).

During the Victorian era several British newspapers felt moved to suggest that women passengers travelling alone were being subjected by male travellers to abusive or offensive behaviour (or worse) and that railway companies were under some obligation to do something about it.

According to The Oxford Companion, the Quarterly Review was informing the country in 1844 that railways were for the first time facilitating women being able to travel, for travelling in public coaches had been frowned on and only the wealthiest would have access to private carriages. The Companion suggests that ‘by that time’ some railway companies were already beginning to label up some compartments for the exclusive use of ladies and that there was an emerging demand to force all companies to do this. Many companies felt this was not only unnecessary but would present formidable practical difficulties to the making up of trains. The implication is that it was done, but not consistently. Unfortunately no further detail is given about these early days.

Fortunately, the Railway Chronicle has an item on the matter in its 22 November 1845 edition. This rather suggests that it was the Grand Junction Railway that might have been the first company to make special provision for ladies, though ‘the Brighton company has since followed the good example’. No others are mentioned. The article is generally positive towards the move, but foresaw serious practical difficulties and wondered whether ladies were really any less safe on the railway than, for example, in strolling across Hampstead Heath. It felt ‘shutting them up’ was not really any kind of answer, and if it were felt that there were so much danger (which the author doubted) then advising them not to travel at all would seem to be the only solution.

Historian Alan Jackson refers to the introduction of Ladies Only compartments by the Metropolitan Railway in October 1874, to much press acclaim. The experiment lasted less than a year, for the facility was withdrawn in 1875 owing to lack of use by those for whom intended and the discovery ladies preferred travelling with others; there had been copious evidence of misuse. These compartments were provided both first and second class (only ‘women’ used third class, Jackson surmised). His understanding of the records is that the facility was reintroduced in November 1931, but I have concluded that this must mean scheduled deployment of labelled up compartments. Indeed, the Manchester Guardian of 9 December 1931 explains that Ladies Only smoking compartments were introduced the previous week on some of the Metropolitan’s ‘night’ trains, and had proved very popular. The reference to it being a smoking compartment invites me to explain that at that time about three quarters of train accommodation was for smokers and the presumption was that unlabelled compartments were ‘smoking’ and one was only prohibited from doing so in a compartment actually labelled ‘non smoking’ (London Transport pedantry required the label facing outside the cars to advise ‘Non Smoking’, but the internal face instructed ‘No Smoking’).

I refer to scheduled labelling because prior to 1931 it is evident that guards had discretion, at least on the Metropolitan. That railway’s instructions of 1912 (and repeated in 1923) state that upon request a single first class compartment may be labelled up as Ladies Only provided an empty compartment was available and that it was between hours of 10am and 4pm. We must remind ourselves that this arrangement can only have applied on the outer suburban services as they were the only ones to use compartment stock. When this arrangement came into force I do not know, perhaps soon after the failure of the 1875 experiment. Presumably this discretionary arrangement was superseded in 1931, though it might have carried on into London Transport days or whenever it was that permanent signs were fixed.

We know that the provision of permanently labelled Ladies Only compartments was undertaken in London Transport days, notwithstanding the abolition of first class facilities during the war. On 31 December 1945 an Aylesbury train ran into the rear of a Watford train in fog, near Northwood, and created an electrical fire. Unfortunately three passengers died, two travelling in the rear ‘Ladies Only’ compartment. Photographs of Metropolitan Line trains in the 1950s show that the very first and last compartments of each train were labelled up Ladies Only (next to the guard). As far as I can see these carried on until such trains were withdrawn in 1961. Anecdotal evidence suggests these restrictions were widely ignored, particularly in rush hours.

On main line railways not very much seems to have been said about Ladies Only compartments after the suggestion that around 1844 it was being tried. The pseudonymous ‘Paterfamilias’, writing to The Times in 1861, was railing about the impossibility of obtaining a Ladies’ compartment at a number of large stations at which he had enquired, and was even laughed at for asking about such a facility. One would need to be cautious about reading too much into this, but it certainly suggests that Ladies Only compartments were then uncommon, and perhaps non existent. However press reports do indicate that The North Eastern Railway had some Ladies Only compartments prior to 1874 on its Stockton & Darlington section.

The Observer for 3 May 1875 suggests it had been only very recently that specified compartments had been made available by ‘the railway companies’, some in which people were allowed to smoke and others in which men were prohibited. It was regarded as evidence that the railway companies listened to their users. The item went on to call for an organized method of reserving accommodation as the only method that seemed to work was to bribe the guard, presumably what ladies had to do before official accommodation was provided. The article actually doesn’t say whether Ladies Only facilities were then provided as a matter of course or on request, but the former is implied.

Pressure from the press, rather than actual evidence of demand, caused the Board of Trade to look into the matter in 1887; the Board was at that time the government department responsible for railways but had only very limited powers to get them to do anything unless it was safety related. Enquiries of the various railways revealed that most would reserve such compartments if requested and those which provided them as a matter of course found them to be under-used. There appeared to be no compelling case to interfere. From this we infer some railways had scheduled compartments in operation while others tolerated them on an ‘on demand’ basis (some may have done both). The standard British railway rulebook had stated since 1884 that guards should assist ladies travelling alone and, if requested, ‘endeavour to select a compartment for them (according to the class of their tickets) in which other ladies are travelling’, but stops short of saying that it should be for the exclusive use of ladies, even though we know that compartments could be labelled up. By the way, it is very hard to find these facilities advertised anywhere in publications like railway timetables and brochures so quite how the public were supposed to know that Ladies Only facilities were available, or on what trains, or on what basis, I cannot yet explain.

In 1888 a Miss Scragg was assaulted on the London & North Western Railway causing some government official to admonish the railway companies for not providing more exclusive accommodation for women. The press was not very sympathetic, observing that one instance amongst the millions of annual female travellers was hardly compelling evidence of any need. The Railway Times observed ‘women themselves do not ask for isolation, nor do they desire it.’ The LNWR provided plenty of reserved accommodation, including a Ladies Only compartment on the train on which the assault occured. The GWR provided in a given period 1000 such seats but never did occupancy exceed 248 (whilst at the same time 5114 ladies appeared content to occupy seats in ‘Smoking’ compartments). It would surely be futile to press the matter further.

Seventeen years later, a commentary in the Manchester Guardian of 11 November 1905 is revealing. It records that the Manchester South Junction and Altrincham Railway’s facility for reserving Ladies Only compartments ‘has long been common’ but that ‘many ladies’ strongly objected to riding in them as they felt that it actually increased their exposure to predators, especially on long journeys or if they were the only occupant. The situation for ladies travelling in parties, though, was different, and when travelling as a party it was easier to reserve a compartment. The railways felt that permanently reserved compartments were a waste of space as they were so little used and that the introduction of communication cords and increasing number of corridor trains mitigated whatever danger there was at a time when many women actually declared they would rather travel with men. The LNWR had evidently ordered that at least one compartment of each class on every train should have a Ladies Only compartment but had discovered misuse was rife and that certain gentlemen actually regarded them as a mere addition to the smoking accommodation of a train.

In 1897 there was an alleged assault on a LNWR train where a woman travelling alone in a Ladies Only compartment on a corridor train claims she was attacked and tried to escape by means of the outside door and footboard but fell onto the track and was hospitalized for three weeks. By extraordinary coincidence another woman during the same year, on the same railway, and also travelling alone in a Ladies Only compartment, alighted from the moving train and fell onto the track, unfortunately dying. Suicide was recorded in the absence of evidence of any other cause. These occurrences cannot have helped the cause to provide even more compartments exclusively for ladies.

A court case in 1895 revolved around gentlemen using the Manchester railway, just referred to, who were caught smoking in a non smoking compartment labelled up for the use of ladies but not so occupied at the time of day concerned. The railway explained to the court that ladies often complained about finding ‘their’ compartment being contaminated by the stench of smoke, so the practice seems to have been common. Other contemporary press reports indicate that there was some tension between smokers and the Ladies (who it seems rarely smoked) and complaints in the press and the odd court case show it was a live problem.

Enforcement of Ladies Only was fraught as it relied on somebody noticing an obviously male person getting into such a compartment or already ensconced within. A fellow traveller could merely remonstrate or call an official, but the powers of an official seem to have been limited if the passenger had a valid ticket and was not inclined to move. The matter was resolved in the 1906 by-laws revision (railways by then had nearly identical by-laws following an approved model) where appropriate words were added, as follows:

Except by express permission of a guard of the train, a person of the male sex above, or apparently above, the age of eight years shall not travel or attempt to travel or remain in any compartment of a carriage marked or notified as being reserved or appropriated for the exclusive use of persons of the female sex. Any person infringing or not observing this by-law and regulation shall be liable to the penalty prescribed by By-law No. 1, and on failure to quit such compartment immediately on request by a guard of the train or any duly authorised servant or agent of the company, may, without prejudice to any such penalty, be removed therefrom by or under the direction of any such guard, servant or agent.

The maximum penalty for getting caught was 40 shillings (first offence) or otherwise £5, and the Railway Gazette records the first prosecution was brought by the Midland Railway in March 1906 when two men were fined a shilling each (plus costs) for refusing to move from a Ladies Only compartment when requested. Their excuse was that they had entered the compartment apprehending that it was a smoking compartment having not read the label properly, and there were other men in there smoking already (and who had moved when asked). They did not afterwards dispute that it was Ladies Only and in effect paid the price of their stubbornness. The Midland subsequently acknowledged that the Ladies Only and Smoking labels were somewhat similar in colour and altered them to be much more distinctive, an interesting lesson in how to design commonplace things. Note that the offence was not being in such a compartment, but failing to move when requested by an official.

It is evident that after the railway grouping more consistency emerged about the provision of Ladies only compartments but details are still thin. It has been speculated by the National Railway Museum that the huge increase in the number of working women was one reason for more widespread provision. Hansard reports that in 1936 the Minister, Hore-Belisha, was asked by the Member for Southwark Central whether he would request the railway companies to provide Ladies Only compartments; he was told that they did already but that the Ladies preferred not to use them. I have just read a recollection of someone who used the LNER’s Loughton line in the 1930s where (unusually) all three classes were available on trains until 1938, second class having fallen out of general use; the author recalls that a ‘a few’ Ladies Only compartments were provided in second class (but not the others); what happened to these compartments after 1938 is not stated. After WW2 the LNER conducted some research into what passengers wanted to see in the next generation of carriages. It was about half and half as to whether Ladies Only compartments were desirable, but, oddly, twice as many men thought it a good idea than women.

On nationalization British Railways continued the practice of providing Ladies Only compartments, seemingly preferring permanently assigned compartments labelled up with a green label; locations towards the end of trains by the guard’s compartment were usually selected.  The Times, of 4 November 1957, shows that some attempt was made to confine these compartments to their proper purpose when it was reported: ‘A guard, Mr A Purdy, was injured on Saturday when he tried to stop three youths from entering a ‘Ladies Only” compartment of the 4.30 p.m. Shepperton to Waterloo train at Earlsfield. He was treated at a London hospital’. We are not told what happened to the youths or whether the compartment was occupied.

The Honourable Member for Croydon East, Mr Herbert Williams, was sounding off in the House of Commons on 3 March 1950 about smoking in trains. Part of his speech is quite illuminating: 

Walking along any railway train, one nearly always finds vacant space in the compartments labelled ‘No Smoking’. As a rule there is also vacant space in the rarer compartments labelled ‘Ladies Only’. I remember a discussion once between two ladies of my acquaintance. They were talking about a third lady and what sort of a woman she was. One lady said ‘She is the kind of woman who on a long journey always goes into the compartment labelled “Ladies Only”.’ What that meant I could not quite discover.

Various diverse sources suggest that on the Eastern Region dedicated compartments were provided on the Mark I and former LNER sets that ran on GN services from Kings Cross and Moorgate until electrification. On the Southern they remained in use on 4-LAV units until the 1960s, and 4-SUB units working into Waterloo had them (whether it was all units and until what date I do not know). How this worked I do not understand as photos clearly show the end compartments labelled up but they were actually semi-compartments interconnected with the next in groups of three, and the adjacent one (connected internally) is not labelled. Ladies Only was also available on the South East division and on London-Brighton services (and probably others). All these trains had permanent labels. The Western and London Midland Regions had designated carriages that were occasionally seen in London, but I have no details although the Euston – Watford electric sets had them into the 1970s; the Manchester South Junction and Altrincham line had Ladies Only compartments on its 1950s electric stock, again at the ends of the units by the guard. This was adjacent to the First Class section and fitted out in similar rig, but whether it required a First Class ticket I have not discerned. Apparently a number of overnight trains had Ladies Only compartments designated by paper labels on stock used for something else during the day. 

It is perhaps surprising that Ladies Only Carriages lasted as long as they did. On 10 March 1977 British Rail announced the facility would be withdrawn and that as soon as the carriages passed through their depots the labels would be removed. Newspaper reports indicate that there were 100 compartments so dedicated remaining on the Liverpool Street – Southend service, where trains were still predominantly of compartment stock. 

It seems that this was a direct result of the Sex Discrimination Act. While the bill was being discussed during October 1975 the Member for Southend East pointed out that anticipating the Act’s passing Ladies Only labels were being removed. He had taken the matter up with BR Chairman Sir Richard Marsh who said it appeared the marking of carriages this way was felt likely to become illegal. Marsh evidently took the matter up with the Board’s legal adviser who after further consideration felt that the proposed measure was ‘not as restrictive as first thought’. The culling was thus withdrawn. The Minister considered that there was not intended to be anything in the bill to alter in any way BR’s freedom to have Ladies Only carriages or not. The 1977 BR announcement indicated that there had in fact been some suggestions that provision was no longer lawful and, mindful that the end of compartment stock was in sight, the Board felt that it did not want to face a test case. The Guardian reported that the Equal Opportunities Commission expressed delight about the decision, not one that Parliament appears to have intended.

There is probably quite a lot more to be said on the subject of Ladies Only compartments and where and when they were used. I cannot promise to follow this up any time soon, but would be happy to add anything more if it becomes available or if anyone has anything else to add.

Main Sources:

Oxford Companion to British Railway History, by Simmons and Biddle.
London’s Metropolitan Railway, Alan Jackson
The Times
The Manchester Guardian
The Observer
Various blogs and websites that mention the subject in passing.

About machorne

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is
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1 Response to Ladies Only Compartments

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