Women-Only Railway Carriages, 1891

This August the most zeitgeisty thing you could be doing was voting in the Labour Party leadership election. Specifically, voting for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party leadership election, if the “Jez We Can” polls are to be believed.

That his campaign has steadily grown in strength while press coverage for him has been relentlessly negative is fascinating – even The Guardian of all papers ran article after article warning of the disaster to come if he was elected. But who knows what will happen? We learned how unreliable polls could be a few months ago on the day of the General Election. And if Corbyn does win, maybe it will be a disaster, maybe it will be the start of a new era, or maybe it will be less interesting than anyone currently thinks. As far as I’m concerned though, this is an exciting time for grass-roots Labour supporters right now.

As we’ve seen though, the press is overwhelmingly against Corbyn. And I can’t see that changing if he is elected leader. The furore of the last few days over the idea of reinstating women-only train carriages reminds me of the 1980s, where “looney left” was thrown around as a conversation-ending, ridicule-inducing tactic for left wing policy ideas. Notice how there wasn’t this furore when Tory Transport Minister Claire Perry mooted the idea herself not too long ago?

For the record, Corbyn said this, as part of a proposal on ending street harassment

“Some women have raised with me that a solution to the rise in assault and harassment on public transport could be to introduce women only carriages. My intention would be to make public transport safer for everyone from the train platform, to the bus stop to on the mode of transport itself. However, I would consult with women and open it up to hear their views on whether women-only carriages would be welcome – and also if piloting this at times and modes of transport where harassment is reported most frequently would be of interest.”

It wasn’t his idea, and it’s not even something he’s definitely proposing. He’s simply listened to women giving their opinions and offered a consultation process on their brainstormed ideas to solve a problem.

It might well be decided to be an ineffective idea, in the end, but shouting down the debate before it even starts, well, it’s doesn’t feel very helpful – a sign of a media that is encouraged to be full of fully-formed, strongly-held opinions on everything, immediately. If we don’t have the space to consider new ideas without ridicule, then nothing much will change.

Well, I say “new ideas”, but this isn’t new, as has been repeatedly stated by opponent of the concept, worried that the way forward wouldn’t involve such a retrograde move. Railway carriages marked “Ladies Only” were finally withdrawn in 1977, when the old type of corridor-less train became obsolete. The old-style train was made up of a series of compartments with no access between them, and so was potentially a dangerous trap for a woman alone with a predatory man. Because of this style of carriage, and an increasing number of assaults suffered by female travellers on the trains, the concept of the women-only carriage was discussed from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards.

This article from 1874 shows that the Metropolitan railways had already introduced ladies’ carriages – but there was some debate as to whether this was legal. This was the first mention I found of women eschewing the ladies’ carriages in favour of sitting in the smoking compartments instead – an issue that men complained about for the next half century at least. I don’t know why women intuitively flocked to the smoking carriages for fifty years or more, but I would guess that it was because they were popular and so routinely full of travellers. Perhaps there may have been both less chance of being left alone with an unknown man, and a higher likelihood of other women travellers there as well. If not all train companies designated separate carriages for women, then it may have been easier to adopt this method instead.

Staffordshire Sentinel, 16th November 1874

Staffordshire Sentinel, 16th November 1874

There were a lot of reports of assaults on women on the railways in the nineteenth century, and the debate on ladies’ only carriages became a hot topic of the day. Here’s a letter from 1876 referring to recent attacks and calling for ladies’ carriages to be introduced in all trains.

Dundee Evening Telegraph, 5th September 1887

Dundee Evening Telegraph, 5th September 1887

And another, where Ellen Johnson was saved from attempting to jump from the train to escape her attacker, by another passenger walking along the outside footboard to reach her carriage.

Huddersfield Chronicle, 6th June 1891

Huddersfield Chronicle, 6th June 1891

This is a fantastic piece, quoted from the Queen – this wasn’t Queen Victoria wading into the debate, that wouldn’t have been quite her style. It’s Queen magazine – which is still around, although these days it’s called Harper’s Bazaar. It points out that the cases of assault on women that the public hears about are the dramatic ones – where the woman has fought off her assailant, or else felt forced to take the dramatic step of jumping from the train to escape. But “We hear nothing of the cases, probably far more numerous, where the woman, whether successful or not in keeping off her assailant, has afterwards from dread of publicity kept silent….The risk that a woman travelling by herself runs is not one whit less to-day than it was yesterday; indeed it is rather greater, for the opportunities for attack are greater.”

This piece describes how the Victorian communication cord used to work – it consisted of a cord on the outside of the train linked to the guard’s van. So a woman, mid-attack, would need to open the window, and attempt to reach the cord far above her head on the outside of the train, then pull it hard enough to attract the attention of the guard. The article calls for other means of instantaneous communication to be introduced, which could now be electrically-powered, and that this should be enforced by Parliament if the train companies did not agree of their own volition.

Dorking and Leatherhead Advertiser, 16th April 1892

Dorking and Leatherhead Advertiser, 16th April 1892

This article in The Morning Post from 1896 says that ladies didn’t tend to make use of specially-designated carriages very often, when they were available. Although there was apparently a litle known, and therefore little-used, policy of the railway staff being obliged to provide any women who asked with a suitable carriage to sit in which would then become a carriage where only women would be allowed to be admitted.

An MP, Mr Ritchie, confirms to a correspondent that The Board of Trade has written to all railway companies to encourage the introduction of women-only carriages on all their trains, in 1897.

Edinburgh Evening News, 26th March 1897

Edinburgh Evening News, 26th March 1897

Commercial travellers complain about the long-standing “problem” of women sitting in the smoking compartments. This was evidently the Victorian and Edwardian equivalent of the person having a loud conversation on their phone in the “quiet carriage” today. Here, the problem is that “Travellers could walk up and down a train, and find every compartment labelled “smoking” packed with women and children, who gleefully looked out of the windows and smiled at those who wanted to smoke.” Smiling and gleefully looking out of the window – the cheek of it! Mr R. Mitchell, making the complaint, says that “he knew women often preferred to travel in smoking compartments because they said they felt safer; but he thought railway companies should prohibit women or children travelling in smoking compartments unless they were accompanied by a male adult.” Priorities, there.

Nottingham Evening Post, 28th October 1912

Nottingham Evening Post, 28th October 1912

In 1924, the introduction of women-only carriages on all trains is still being discussed in the House of Commons – showing that it was still a far from widespread practice. Again, the issue of women in smoking compartments is raised, but this time it’s stated that this is quite likely to be on account of the lack of aforementioned ladies’ carriages. Mr “Not All Men” Becker was standing up for men’s rights here with his “May I ask whether carriages could be provided for men only?”

Gloucester Journal, 26th July 1924

Gloucester Journal, 26th July 1924

As the old-style trains were replaced with the new designs, so the debate lessened. The issue has raised its head again now, because of the increased number of attacks on women on the railways – the number of sex offences on UK railways rose by a quarter last year. The idea of women-only carriages is still a current one in some countries – Japan, Brazil and India still have them, after all. My twopenn’orth is that this could only really be enforced, particularly on night trains, by guards on the train, and if there’s guards on the train, then why do you need the separate carriage? But I’m open to the discussion.

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2 Responses

  1. Great review. Hope it’s widely read.

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