A first class mystery on the District Railway

Those interested in old Underground tickets may have noticed that third-class tickets issued by the District Railway immediately after electrification bear the words ‘Ordinary Car’ on them. I have often wondered what this meant.

We should remember that when the District Railway opened, and until its electrification in 1905, it accommodated the usual three classes of traffic found on most British railways. Each class had its own set of tickets, a different colour for each. Historian Charles Lee (possibly working from Edmond’s history) specifically mentions abolition of second-class, but neither makes any reference to disturbance to either of the other two. Second-class was abolished in various stages during 1905. As far as I can see it was never available on the Ealing and South Harrow line, opened in 1903 with electric traction from the start.

I have found in my collection a newspaper cutting, from what has just been identified as The Morning Leader, that deepens the mystery. It is from their 19 September 1906 edition and is heavily critical of American methods. One paragraph reads: ‘The public has not forgotten that when the line was first opened there was no first-class accommodation, but only special cars, of which nobody understood the meaning’. Reference to ‘when the line was first opened’ is odd, as the District was an old Railway; it is possible from the context that the reference was to the Ealing & South Harrow line and I do not have an alternative explanation.

The Times records that when the Ealing and South Harrow opened in 1903 there was only one class (third). The words are worth repeating though.

So far as the fittings of the cars of these new trains are concerned no distinctions of ‘class’ are observable. Of course, if in this matter also American practice be followed, there will be one class only on the electrified District Railway; but no final decision has been come to on this point. It is possible that, as a concession to British custom, some of the cars will be labelled ‘reserved’, and for these, of course, an extra fare would be charged. Apart from this it is understood to be the intention of the authorities to introduce a uniform fare of about 2½d for any distance.

The Times’s speculation might have some validity, though the uniform fare was never achieved. A Railway Magazine paragraph, in the August 1905 issue (p168), is somewhat critical of the District’s unpropitious electrical start. This says ‘…on each train there is a ‘reserved’ coach, and passengers using this vehicle pay an additional fare to the conductor’. This is the only positive reference to any such form of operation as this. Although I have numerous District tickets in my collection, I have very few from this precise period, and those I do have are nearly all third-class (marked ‘ordinary car’) with just one or two first-class, with no reference to any kind of car. We know, of course, that after electrification and until the Second World War there was generally at least one first-class car available on all District trains (though not always a whole car was first-class).


Railway Returns, HMSO on behalf of Board of Trade, copious in volume and produced each year until nationalization, covers first-, second- and third-class ticket sales for every railway including the MDR. First-class sales are fairly consistent throughout electrification period with nothing to suggest any perturbation, despite culling of second-class fares.


Electrical Review, in June 1905, describes the new District cars in detail, but doesn’t mention class. It does say the cars were upholstered in platted cane, ‘with few exceptions’ (implying there were exceptions—perhaps superior accommodation?). The Tramway & Railway World of February 1905 also covers the railway and states ‘in most cases the seats are covered in rattan which has been rendered non flammable’; rattan can be formed into what we might today call ‘wicker’, which is what the Electrical Review has called platted cane. However TRW goes on: ‘A certain number of the cars are provided with crimson plush seats, and this plush has also been rendered non flammable’. Frustratingly, nowhere in that long article is it mentioned why certain cars have plusher seats, nor is there a photo.


Other than the references just given, I have struggled to find any further reference to ‘special’ or ‘reserved’ cars and the obvious source of knowledge, the ‘District Railway General Instructions’ (of which I have studied three copies), is curiously silent on the matter, which is odd given the excruciating detail entered into about all other ticketing matters.

G.T. Moody, writing to Modern Transport in 1951 mentions in a letter:

At the start of electric working on the District the trains were one class only, but as the result of public demand first-class accommodation was reintroduced and provided by the simple means of reupholstering some of the ordinary cars in red velvet.

I can only offer up Moody’s recollection as I find it. He evidently believed first-class was withdrawn and then reintroduced after complaint. Of course his suggestion that reupholstering in red velvet was undertaken needs interpreting in the light of knowing some cars already, apparently, had ‘crimson plush’, and half a century after the event we might ask if his memory was entirely accurate. I cannot ask him to clarify now!

Then another discovery in my collection makes matters perhaps more, rather than less, confusing. It is a special notice of September 1905 that was to be gummed in the instruction book (but wasn’t in any of the ones I have seen). The instructions include the following form of words:

While the train is stopped at a station, the conductor and gatemen at either end of the Special and 1st Class Smoking Cars (when provided) must politely keep announcing ‘1st Class passengers only’ and must see that those who are obviously 3rd Class passengers do not enter those Cars but are directed where to go. Between stations they must examine tickets of passengers who have entered these cars at the previous station.

What to make of this? I shall overlook the intriguing potential for disaster created by expecting staff, on sight, to tell the difference between a first-class passenger and one who is ‘obviously 3rd class’. Imagine that today! There must be a distinction between a first-class car and a special one or there would be no point in the instructions being written this way, but exactly what it is seems elusive. Nor is there any specific instruction about issuing a ‘Special Car’ ticket on board, as suggested in Railway Magazine.

Press reports for September 1905 confirm that the arrangements suggested by my official notice were implemented; at that time the new electric trains and lower fares were producing serious overcrowding about which the press reported extensively. The Daily Mail, reporting on 28 September, stated it had sent a reporter out during a recent evening and found the capacity provided ‘totally inadequate’ with widespread overcrowding. Relevant here is that in one of the ‘Special Cars’ were found 42 standing, including 16 ladies. On another train 30 were found standing in a first-class car. To the reporter’s horror, on yet another train, in first-class car no 489, 24 had to stand, including two navvies. The item precipitated letters on 30 September. One writer stated: ‘There is apparently no advantage now in taking a first-class or “special car” ticket … and two girls … being recognized by the conductor on duty, were given accommodation in the “special car”, No 235 … though displaying third class tickets’. He went on to observe that: ‘It has been generally observed by most of the older season ticket holders that riding on the special car depends on what terms of friendliness a passenger is with the motor-man on duty’.

Given that these ‘special’ or ‘reserved’ cars existed, they must surely have been labelled up. I have studied in vain large numbers of photos of cars at the time of electrification. All photos that I can find of the original stock as delivered are ambiguous or show only motor cars (I conclude first-class were always trailers). This is annoying, but something may yet turn up. Later photos only indicate ‘First Class’ (or ‘1st Class’) being displayed.

Various historians have gone into the history of the District to varying degrees, but none of them mention the points I raise here. This is surprising in the case of Charles Lee, who knew the District at the time of electrification and actually wrote a book about passenger class distinction. Actually there isn’t a ‘proper’ history of the District Railway, yet.


I notice in passing that at the half-yearly meeting in summer 1907 Sir George Gibb was complaining about the huge reduction in first-class traffic, and possible withdrawal of first-class accommodation altogether, though we know this did not happen. The Observer enquired of other railways who also reported a falling off, so this was not just a District phenomenon.

What do I conclude from this?
  1. After electrification it was the intention to have only one class (ie third-class).
  2. Only one class was at first provided on the Ealing & South Harrow.
  3. On the District main line (and possibly later on, on the Ealing & South Harrow) some kind of ‘special’ or ‘reserved’ car was available which could be occupied on payment of a supplementary fare to the conductor.
  4. First class (smoking) carriages were also available to an extent at least. Maybe it was reintroduced piecemeal.
  5. The above arrangement for some reason was found to be unworkable and first-class was ‘reintroduced’. If so this was during 1906.

This leaves several questions hanging, for example:

  1. Which cars or parts of cars were ‘reserved’?
  2. How were the cars labelled up?
  3. Were tickets or receipts issued on the trains and what did they look like?
  4. Was first-class ever actually abolished, or were those tickets available in the special cars (bearing in mind tickets issued from other railways would have carried on stating first-class)? Possibly sales of special car receipts were counted as first-class for the purposes of the Board of Trade returns, explaining why there is no break.
  5. When did the facility start and stop?

It would be ever so good to get more positive evidence for all this, and a photo of a car so labelled up. Perhaps a reader can help?




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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 http://www.metadyne.co.uk
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