Class Segregation and the Evolution of the British Railway Carriage Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Class Segregation and the Evolution of the British Railway Carriage

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Railways were first developed in Britain in the early years of the 19th Century as a means of transporting goods. Although the British Isles are surrounded by water, it was not always possible to get from A to B by sea. There were roads, which allowed horse-drawn carts and coaches to travel, but road surfaces were never smooth and roads usually had tollbooths every couple of miles, slowing down journey times and making them expensive prospects. Canals were far smoother and allowed a horse to carry 25 times more, but much slower and you were more restricted as to your destination. For moving goods around, only one method of transportation allowed a fair speed and a fairly smooth ride enabling even delicate goods to be transported: railways.

Soon after railways were invented, it was realised that there was demand to move one particular type of commodity back and forth on a regular basis. The cargo? Humans. People from all sorts of backgrounds and from all walks of life. As Britain was quite clearly layered, with different people in different levels, the trains carrying British people too would be similarly segregated to reflect what was considered the natural order inherent in the class system. But can we really learn how society saw itself and how it has changed over the last two centuries in Britain by seeing the seating arrangements integral in the evolution of railway carriage design?

Wagon Trains and the Coming of the Coaches

A photograph of Queen Adelaide's Coach.

In 1807 the first horse-drawn waggonway carried the first rail passengers, on the Oystermouth & Swansea Railway1 in Wales. Even today the most common width between a railway's rails, known as 'Standard Gauge', is 4 feet 8½ inches (1,435mm), a measurement based on the usual width of a horse-drawn carriage2. This measurement not only was common along the waggonways of 19th Century Britain, but also the ancient Persians had cut grooves into sharp bends of their roads to prevent messengers' chariots from overturning, and the grooves were 4 feet 8 inches apart.

In 1825, 18 years after the first railway passengers were carried, the Stockton & Darlington Railway opened. This was the first steam railway and was designed to transport coal. On opening, it owned 150 coal wagons and one passenger carriage, named Experiment, with seats along the inside walls. The world's first passenger steam railway, the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, opened in 1830. Stephenson's Rocket was famously the first locomotive on the line. The station in Manchester is now the site of the Museum of Science & Industry. When the station was opened by the Duke of Wellington, the victor of the Battle of Waterloo hid from the crowd; they were opposed to his extortionate policies, especially the Corn Laws designed to keep the cost of corn high. He was not particularly impressed, and feared that the railway would 'encourage the lower classes to travel about'.

The very earliest railway carriages, or 'coaches', were just that: coaches. These four-wheeled carriages were made by stagecoach manufacturers and were designed to look like stagecoaches. They also incorporated stagecoach technology, such as:

  • Droplight windows – a window in the stagecoach's door that could be opened by dropping it
  • Tumblehomes – Curves at the bottom of the carriages, both on the sides and at the ends, where the carriage joins the underframe. These were originally to prevent a stagecoach's wheels from protruding too much.
  • Quarterlights – quarter-circle shaped windows found on either side of the door.

Stagecoach class segregation was also incorporated – on a stagecoach, First Class passengers paid extra to sit inside, Second Class passengers sat on top of the stagecoach while Third Class passengers, well, they walked. On a railway, passengers could no longer sit on the top of the coach; the trains travelled too fast and the use of low tunnels and bridges meant that this was simply unsafe. Instead other, less luxurious areas inside carriages were provided for these Second Class passengers.

The Liverpool & Manchester Railway initially operated entirely different trains at different times of the day for each class; First and Second only, of course – the working class could continue to walk. Yet soon groups of Manchester's working class weavers were clubbing together to pay for one weaver to transport three or four weavers' goods to Liverpool by Second Class rail.

Inevitably with demand, Third Class passengers were soon allowed to travel from town to town on some generous railways. Many companies tried to discourage the rabble from travelling on their lines and preferred cleaner cargo, such as coal, than the great unwashed, but magnanimous railway lines allowed the riff-raff on their railway. Naturally, as befitting their Third Class status, open-air goods wagons were provided for them, usually standing-room only.

At the top end of the social spectrum, Queen Victoria had her first Royal Coach made by the Great Western Railway in 1840. This railway was Broad Gauge at the time, and so she needed another coach for the rest of the rail network, supplied by the London & Birmingham Railway in 1842. Victoria was not amused by railways and banned any train on which she was sat from exceeding 40mph, even if it disrupted the railway's timetable for the rest of the day.

When mixed-class trains first ran, the First Class carriages were kept at the back of the train, far away from the locomotive so that, should the engine explode, only Third Class passengers would be slaughtered, the Second Class passengers merely maimed and the First Class passengers would escape unharmed. The ride was also more comfortable the further from the locomotive you were, with the carriage experiencing less vibration through the unsuspensioned wheels.

Carriages reserved for First or Second Class women only were also common. In 1834 the first oil lamps were provided for First Class passengers. Smoking was usually forbidden by most rail companies until 1868, when Parliament made it compulsory for railway and Underground companies to provide smoking carriages. From the beginning, trains running on Britain's railways stayed on the left-hand track on double-tracked sections of line.

External Wheel Carriages

The principle reason why Isambard Kingdom Brunel developed Broad Gauge for the Great Western Railway, with rails 7 feet 0¼ inches apart, was again because of stagecoach technology. Stagecoaches had large wheels with the body of the coach between the wheels, while he felt that standard gauge railway carriages, with the bodies above the wheels, restricted the size of the wheels and raised the carriage unnecessarily high. If the wheels were alongside the carriage, rather than beneath it, then not only would the stability be improved by lowering the centre of gravity, friction would also be reduced in the wheels' axle bearings.

In 1838, four carriages were built to his specification, with large external wheels. However, as the carriage's width had to be less than 6 feet 9 inches in order to accommodate the wheels, and access to the carriage was restricted by the obstacles of the large wheels, the idea was soon abandoned and more conventional carriages were introduced.

Compartment Carriages

In 1844 the Regulations of Railways Act, also known as the 'Penny-a-Mile Act', was passed. This required that even Third Class carriages had to be roofed3 and the passengers inside would be treated a bit more like humans. At least one Third Class train had to be run each day along each line. These cheap trains were known as 'Parliamentary trains' - the maximum charge for Third Class carriage was to be one penny per mile, with a minimum speed of 12mph. For the first time, the poorest passengers had the privilege of getting off the wagon and, like their betters, enjoy the comfort of a compartment carriage. This opened the floodgates, and within 5 years over half of all rail profits came from passengers paying for the cheapest tickets. At the same time, Second Class travel would be 1½d per mile and First Class between 2d or 3d.

Carriages at the time were typically wooden and between 15-20 feet long, with four wheels, one on each corner. The carriage would be divided into three, possibly four, compartments. On busy lines each carriage would be for one class of people, but on more rural networks tricomposite carriages, with a compartment per class, would run.

Each compartment covered the entire width of the carriage and was completely separate from all other compartments. Each had its own doors to the outside, one each side of the carriage. Once inside the compartment, there was no access to any of the other compartments except by opening the door, leaving the train and entering a different compartment. A First Class compartment was capable of comfortably seating six or eight passengers, in luxury chairs equipped with armrests. Different railway companies used different layouts.

First Class travellers enjoyed the luxury of room and comfortable seating, while Third Class passengers would be crammed on to small benches. In exclusively Third Class carriages, the compartments would not necessarily be entirely separate, with gaps at the top and bottom common; slum dwellers are used to draughty conditions and don't need privacy, after all.

Living passengers weren't the only ones segregated into class. When the London Necropolis Railway opened in 18544, the carriages reserved for First Class corpses enjoyed a greater degree of decoration than those for their Third Class counterparts.

By 1851, two decades after the country's first passenger railway service began, railway routes stretched over 6,100 miles across Britain. Two decades later this had doubled to over 12,000 miles, reaching a peak of over 20,000 miles by the outbreak of the Great War, and settling back down to around 12,000 miles by the early 21st Century. In 1851, there were over 100 different railway companies in England alone, with over half the lines owned by the largest dozen. Despite this, passenger carriages hadn't progressed beyond adding two more wheels halfway along the carriage, to make the carriages slightly longer and able to carry a few more passengers. Most Express trains were reserved only for First and Second class, with long-distance Third Class rail travel confined to slow, stopping services. Yet one of the largest companies, the Midland Railway, was to transform rail travel in Britain forever.

Blame it on the Bogie

The Midland Railway was in terms of miles the second largest railway in Britain after the Great Western, and had been formed in 1844 by the merger of three rivals, the North Midland, the Midland Counties and Birmingham & Derby Junction railways. Though the railway had lines as far north as York and as far south as London, it had no direct route between the two. This meant it struggled to compete with the Great Northern and North Eastern railways which both had extremely profitable direct routes from London to the north of England and Scotland. Most of the Midland's lines had been built when the founding companies were fierce rivals, resulting in unnecessary duplicate routes between the same Midland cities. The Midland needed a new strategy to keep up with its faster, more direct rivals.

In 1860 the Midland Railway, led by General Manager James Allport, introduced Third-Class carriages on all of its routes and in 1872 all Midland's Express trains provided Third Class carriages. In 1874 the Midland Railway pioneered the first standard-gauge bogie carriages in Britain. A bogie is a four-wheeled chassis found at the bottom of either end of a carriage. These make it easier for carriages to navigate corners and also improve the riding experience, with suspension between the wheels and the bogie and further suspension between the bogies and the carriage itself. They also enabled carriages to get longer. The bogies were first found on the Bradford to London St Pancras Pullman service. During this time carriages were still made of wood, but metal 'flitch plates' were clamped along the sides to increase the carriage's strength, allowing the added length.

Pullman the Other One

The Pullman Company was an American carriage company founded in 1862 by George Pullman, dedicated to building luxury carriages decorated with carpets, upholstered chairs and curtains. In 1879 a Great Northern Railway Pullman service introduced the first dining carriage in Britain. This was the revolutionary idea of having a restaurant carriage, in which First Class passengers were able to enjoy a waiter-served meal on the train. Previously, passengers brought a packed lunch or took advantage of a scheduled comfort stop5.

Third Class passengers had a long wait for dinner, as it would not be until the 1890s that Third Class passengers were allowed to use Dining Cars. From 1882 the Pullman Car Company made carriages in Britain for the British market, where they would be used on the most luxurious routes.

In 1876 the Midland Railway introduced sleeper trains on their London to Scotland services and in the 1880s the first carriages with public toilets were introduced, initially available only for the use of First Class passengers – other classes had to remain sitting cross-legged until the next designated comfort stop. The toilets were located between two First Class compartments, so that only the passengers in the adjoining compartments could access it.

Allport was not just dedicated to improving the trains for First Class passengers. In 1875, he abolished Second Class on Midland's trains, turning the former Second Class carriages into Third Class carriages. Third Class travellers were now able to sit on upholstered seats with backrests for the first time, rather than hard narrow benches. They were also were given so much legroom their knees didn't automatically knock against those of passengers sitting opposite them. Respectable society was dismayed at this pampering of the lower orders, but a revolutionary revelation was discovered; Third Class passengers preferred to travel in comfort, and soon whenever possible chose to travel Midland Rail. Third Class compartments still seated between eight and 12 people per compartment, but it was a noticeable improvement.

Clerestory Carriages

In 1892 the Great Western Railway introduced their own luxury carriages to rival the rise of the Pullman carriages: Clerestory Carriages. These had special raised overhead windows running along the middle of the carriage's length, to allow extra light and ventilation into the top of First Class carriages. This took advantage of the fact that the Great Western had originally been built for Broad Gauge trains and thus had higher tunnels and bridges, allowing trains to run taller carriages. Clerestory carriages first ran on their Paddington to Birkenhead line.

Improving lighting not only made it easier to read The Times and The Daily Telegraph, but at a time when lighting was still based on gas and oil lamps inside a wooden carriage, reducing the amount of time these lamps were required increased First Class passengers' safety. The idea was successful and was notably copied by the Great Central Railway which introduced stained glass clerestory windows in carriages for the opening of its London Marylebone to Sheffield route in 1899. Like the Great Western, the Great Central Railway was built with higher tunnels allowing for the larger carriage size required6.

Corridor Carriages

The first electrically-lit7 train was the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway's London to Brighton Southern Belle Pullman service in 1889, which was also the first train with corridor carriages. In a corridor carriage, passengers can wander up and down the length of the carriage through a corridor that runs along one side of the carriage, providing access to each of the compartments, usually by means of a sliding door. The London to Brighton Pullman was also the first train with corridor connectors or 'gangways', allowing passengers to travel from one carriage to the next, through the length of the whole train.

Three years later in March 1892, the Great Western Railway not only introduced its own side-corridor trains between Paddington and Birkenhead, but this was the first train to be heated, using steam from the locomotive piped to under-seat radiators. Previously, to stay warm on a train in winter passengers hired foot-warmers, which were large metal hot water bottles filled with sodium acetate solution, or wore extra layers, used blankets and huddled together. Four years later in 1896, the Great Western added restaurant cars to their trains.

Another key improvement at this time took place following the 1889 Omagh train disaster. This accident led to the Railway Regulation Act, which introduced railway signalling, replacing the rather haphazard timetable approach8 and made it mandatory for all passenger carriages in the UK to be fitted with an automatic brake. Although effective brakes had been in existence for some time, railway companies had felt it was cheaper overall for trains to have occasional accidents than equip them with brakes. Now they were legally obliged to fit brakes, but confusingly there were two incompatible systems available: the Airbrake, using compressed air, and the Vacuum brake. Both involved a flexible pipe running to each carriage's brakes; should this brake cable become detached, the brakes are automatically applied. The law did not specify which system would be adopted, leading to rival companies deliberately adopting different systems from the ones that their neighbours used. By the time of nationalisation after the Second World War, both systems were still in use, and so British Rail finally adopted the vacuum brake, before changing their mind and then adopting the airbrake in the 1960s.

Semi-corridor carriages were also introduced and remained in service through the 20th Century. These had corridors running halfway down each corridor to the centre of the carriage, where lavatories were located. Each half of the carriage had access to its own lavatory in the centre, but not the entire length of the carriage.

In the opening years of the 20th Century, Second Class was finally abolished nationwide, except for the few trains to the channel ports for ferry services. Most railways had only First and Third classes, until 1956 when Third was renamed 'Second', later renamed again to 'Standard' in 1988.

After the passengers had boarded the carriage and travelled to their destination, they then experienced the joy of trying to exit the carriage before the train moved on to its next destination. This was often quite complicated, done by opening the window at the top of the door, generally through the use of a leather strap, then leaning out of the carriage and opening the door from the outside. These external opening doors were introduced as a compromise between two schools of thought. One felt it was safer for carriage doors to be locked between stations to prevent passengers from falling out, while another believed that locking the doors could cause a disaster should the wooden carriages catch fire, especially when lighting was provided by gas or oil. As a compromise, external opening doors made it possible to open the door in case of an emergency, but too difficult to do inadvertently.


After the experimental narrow gauge Volk's Electric Railway had opened in 1883 and Ryde Tramway Pier had been electrified in 1885, standard gauge electric trains had their origins in the London Underground. In 1846 the Royal Commission on Metropolis Railway Termini had led to laws preventing railways from being constructed within the very heart of the capital itself, creating a a rail-free zone encircled by a boundary that roughly followed the route of the later Metropolitan and District Lines. Instead, the construction of an underground network was permitted. In 1863, the Metropolitan Railway opened the world's first Underground, between Bishop's Road and Farringdon. In 1890 the world's first deep tube line, the City and South London Railway, became the first standard-gauge electrified railway in Britain. Other Underground railways converted to electricity soon after, as did the Liverpool Overhead Railway. The railways that operated around the south of London faced increasing competition from the cleaner, electric Underground railways, which also enjoyed quicker turnaround times.

The three main railways south of London, the London, Brighton & South Coast railway, London & South Western railway and South Eastern railway all began electrifying their lines. The world's first inter-city electric railway was the London to Brighton route in 1909. As with the different braking systems, these three neighbouring companies adopted different forms of electric power – the London, Brighton & South Coast railway adopted overhead electrification while neighbours London & South Western railway and South Eastern railway both chose the third rail system. This had the advantage of being cheaper, more practical in the low tunnels and bridges found on the South Eastern and did not obscure signal visibility, and frankly was far more aesthetically pleasing; overhead wires look ugly. Overhead cables can provide more power, though, resulting in fewer substations being required. The third rail system was adopted across the region in the 1920s, although compartment carriages rather than corridor carriages were favoured on most routes. Having a door to each compartment, these had the advantage of being quicker for passengers to board, making it easier to keep to a tight timetable.

Electric cars blurred the line between carriage and locomotive, with the electric motors frequently being placed inside former carriages. These railcars or trains were known as EMUs, standing for Electric Multiple Units, and Diesel Multiple Units were also introduced.

Before the Second World War, almost all railway carriages had lights that the guard could easily switch on, such as when going through tunnels, making carriages much less scary, especially at night. During the war they again became dark and crowded places, as the number of trains run was reduced and lighting during the blackout forbidden. In 1941 First Class and restaurant cars were abolished for the duration, in order to make better use of all available space on trains.

After the Second World War, First Class was reintroduced, and carriages' structural framing became made of steel, particularly in the famous British Railways Mark 1 coaches.

Double Deckers

In 1949 two Double Decker trains known as Class 4DD were introduced on the Charing Cross to Dartford line - the only double-decker trains ever to run in Britain. The idea failed for various reasons including the fact that the upper deck was cramped and poorly ventilated, and there were frequent delays when passengers boarded and disembarked. Also, as Britain's rail network has much lower tunnels and bridges than other railways9, such as on the continent, the concept of double-decker trains was impractical on any route with pre-existing bridges, tunnels or other overhead obstacles. The double decker carriages were finally withdrawn from service in 1971.

Open Carriage

An open carriage is the type that most railway passengers are probably familiar with today. The layout is open-plan (no compartments) with seats on either side of the carriage and a central aisle running between them. These first became popular in the early days of British Rail, as the layout was believed to resemble the interior of motor-coaches and the carriages were able to carry more people. It was easier for passengers to board the train and find a seat, especially as early open carriages maintained the high number of doors, up to ten a side, found in the compartment carriages still in use at the period. Later open carriages had vestibule areas at either end of the carriage. These contained the door to the outside and prevented a draught from running the length of the carriage whenever a passenger left or boarded the train.

Women passengers found open carriages less threatening than compartment carriages, where they were unable to change seats should an unpleasant passenger sit near them.

Electrically-operated doors, first introduced in the 1920s, finally replaced the last remaining slam door open carriages in 2010. Perhaps the most notable recent development is the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994, allowing passengers to catch trains to mainland Europe. By the closing years of the 20th Century 'Quiet Coaches' had become commonplace, areas where passengers are asked to refrain from using mobile telephones and personal stereos in order to avoid disturbing their fellow travellers.


Is it possible to compare how railway carriages in Britain have evolved from their earliest days to changes in British society as a whole?

To begin with, Third Class passengers were carried in open-topped wagons rather than inside carriages – this could be seen to symbolise their exclusion from society as a whole. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act excluded the very poorest from society, locking them up without rights in workhouses. Just as the wagons lacked suspension, making for a bumpy ride, society too was undergoing an uneven period in the wake of the Peterloo massacre, protests against the Corn Laws and the growth of the Chartist movement.

By the late 1840s things had improved, both in society and carriage design. Just as laws now ensured that even Third Class travellers had to be catered for on the rail network with the right to travel inside carriages, the poorest classes were beginning to be recognised as part of society. The Corn Laws were repealed and laws such as the Mines Act prevented the exploitation of women and children. Compartment Coaches still kept classes divided and separate, reflecting prevalent attitudes.

By the 1870s seating in carriages had improved for Third Class travellers, improving their experience and position in society as a whole. As rail comfort and safety improved, society too became safer, with the 1856 County and Borough Police Act ensuring that police forces covered the whole country for the first time. Meanwhile the poor were acquiring more rights. The 1870 Elementary Education Act introduced free education for children. Although the country remained unfair, laws such as the 1867 Reform Act had at least begun to strip away layers of corruption and the number of people with the right to vote doubled. The 1871 Bank Holidays Act allowed even the working class to time off work and led to increased numbers of rail trips to the seaside. Just as corridor carriages allowed greater movement within a carriage before passengers found the right seat for them, the right to a basic education meant that it was becoming increasingly possible to have a fluid position in society, and improve your social standing.

Following the Great War, railway carriages began to be electrified and could move on their own without the aid of a locomotive. Similarly, rich women and the poorest men in society finally were awarded the vote following the 1918 Representation of the People Act, with poor women allowed to vote in 1928.

During the Second World War, the nation as a whole pulled together. Just as the whole country pulled together to achieve a common goal, class barriers were broken down with the removal of First Class compartments for trains. Rationing was reflected in the removal of restaurant carriages from trains. The post war period introduced Open carriages, as society too became more open, with the nationalisation of industries and the introduction of the NHS following the 1946 National Health Service Act allowing free healthcare for all.

In the 1960s many of Britain's railways were closed as the rail network was changed forever, while the Swinging Sixties challenged many traditional values and attitudes. By the 21st Century international travel by train is possible, which could symbolise a more multicultural society. The fact that smoking carriages were made compulsory in 1868 and all smoking on railways was banned in 2005 shows how attitudes to tobacco have completely changed. The little bins between seats remind us of our environmental responsibilities and duty to tackle pollution, the shared armrests remind us of our obligations to our neighbours and the lack of leg room shows how Britain has one of the highest population densities in the world. As carriages are no longer divided between Second and Third class, there is instead simply a divide between First and Standard, perhaps representing the few wealthiest members of society and everyone else.

1Also known as the Swansea & Mumbles Railway.2This was a convenient width for one horse to pull. Also, being slightly narrower than the width of two horses abreast, it meant that any gap that two horses could fit through, the cart could follow.3Largely as a result of the 1841 Sonning crash, when many passengers were thrown out of the open wagons, resulting in eight deaths. This crash also led to the 1846 Fatal Accidents Act, which for the first time allowed the relatives of people killed by accidents to gain compensation.4This transported London's corpses from Waterloo Necropolis station to a 2,000-acre cemetery in Surrey as there was limited space available for a cemetery in the city centre. Rival corpse railways existed, but the London Necropolis was the first and largest.5For example, between 1835 and 1895 all Great Western trains that passed Swindon were obliged to stop there for at least 10 minutes due to a contract with the Rigby Brothers. The brothers, who owned the station's refreshment rooms, had exclusive catering rights on all trains via Swindon which forbade the Great Western from providing any other form of refreshments.6This was because the railway's visionary chairman, Sir Edward Watkin, planned the railway to connect with France's rail network via a channel tunnel, and wished to ensure that continental trains would be able to run on his network.7Gas lights had previously replaced oil lights in First Class compartments, but the risk of fire within the wooden carriages was still high.8With the timetable approach, the next train would leave the station a set time, such as 15 minutes, after the previous one and as long as both trains maintained roughly the same speed, no collision would occur.9This is why trains that run in mainland UK usually have carriage heights of 12 feet 10 inches, compared to 14 feet in Europe and 15 feet in America. The Isle of Wight railway has carriages only 9 feet 5 ½ tall.

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