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In 1960 a man from Edgware was cross enough to write to The Times.  Under the title ‘Mammoths of the Tube’ he complained

Sir – One complains of the congested conditions prevailing today on the London Underground Railway system. Lately his condition seems to have been aggravated by various females carrying baskets, bags, and other articles which appear to me, a lay male, grossly oversized. These baskets would bring disgrace on a pack donkey.handbags_2

He demanded the bags be banned. Complaints like this were nothing new; the relationship between male and female passengers on the Underground was one that was slightly fraught from its earliest days. Opened in 1863, the Metropolitan Railway had a fairly complicated system dividing its passengers.  There were divisions between first, second, and third class, then there were smoking and non-smoking carriages, and in 1874 – 5 the introduction of ‘ladies only’ carriages. If anything was bound to incur the wrath of the middle-class male commuter it was the latter.

Often the carriages were underused. In rush hour this meant male commuters found themselves squeezing into overcrowded carriages whilst the ladies only carriages were empty. The inferred injustice was often doubled as ladies could take male passengers into the carriages under ‘their protection.’ One male passenger wrote to The Times in 1874

Would it be unreasonable, sir, that a carriage or two should be set apart for married men, or for gentlemen afflicted with corns, cripples, invalids, clergymen etc? At any rate, it is not too much to ask that we should be protected from the ladies, since they decline to afford us their protection.

Suggestions were also made that the system was actually illegal. In any case, it was so unpopular the Metropolitan quickly abandoned it. But antagonism between male and female passengers continued.

In 1891 the periodical Moonshine published a short piece entitled ‘what you ought to do (if a lady on the Underground) – by one who knows.’ It presented the lady passenger as incompetent, beginning with ‘on presenting yourself at the booking office, be careful to reach the window from the wrong direction, and be the more careful to do this at stations where directions are painted up largely and plainly’. But the article, not a particularly inspired attempt at humour, reveals one main point of contention between male and female passengers – smoking.

Smoking had originally been banned on the Metropolitan. In 1868 the company successfully prosecuted Lord Ranelagh 20 shillings for the offence; he paid cash immediately on being found guilty by a magistrate. But the smoking lobby had by 1874 managed to get smoking carriages introduced on both the Metropolitan and the District. These carriages were effectively a masculine space. To the male passenger tucked up with a newspaper and a pipe in a smoking compartment nothing appears to have been worse than the arrival of a lady. Moonshine outlined that the lady passenger should

…eventually dive into a first class [carriage], but be especially careful it is a “smoker.” Don’t discover the fact until the train is in motion, and then cough and choke in an alarming manner. Continue this until you have every pipe extinguished, and both windows open, and then get out at the next station.

It seems that male passengers felt pressured to stop smoking in the presence of women, though the stereotype wasn’t always a valid one. In 1894 the Huddersfield Chronicle ran an article entitled ‘a lady to the rescue’ noting

The lady in the smoking compartment has again come to the front. A smoker who entered a first class carriage on the Underground railway found himself joined by a young lady just as the train was moving off. Half afraid of the answer, he asked her if she objected to smoking. “Not at all” was the reply, and, the smoker placing his Havannah between his teeth, he produced his matchbox. Alas, it was empty! He had resigned himself to a smokeless journey, when, to his surprise, she handed him a dainty little sliver case well stocked with vestas.

Class added another element to these issues. Female passengers who travelled in first or second class were usually referred to as ‘ladies’. It was these who were at the centre of the smoking carriage debate. In contrast, ‘women’ was the term usually applied to female passengers travelling in third class and whom the smoking debate largely passed by.

Smoking wasn’t the only issue, fashion presented problems as well, especially in the confined space of the tubes. In 1914, a gentleman complained to The Times

Last night I entered the tube lift at the Post Office station [now St Pauls], just at the time when the crush of the people homewards bound is at its height. I saw two young girls entering the lift just in front of me, both wearing two or three hat pins protruding about three or four inches. While I was still contemplating on the very evident danger and trying in a pure sense of self-preservation not to come into touch with these uninviting necessities of the otherwise attractive toilette of the women of to-day, one of the young ladies moved, in conversation with her friend, her head to one side and one of her hat pins went right into the eye of a gentleman standing next to me.

The incident wasn’t isolated. Three weeks earlier a lady was fined £3 for inadvertently scratching another in the face with a hat pin. Such was the problem that the London County Council’s tramways had signs inside trams urging ladies to wear protected hat pins.

Complaints about female passengers from their male equivalents appear to have tapered off after the Great War. A similar situation occurred regarding working-class passengers, who had also been complained about by their middle class counterparts. Both groups had steadily increased in numbers up to the Great War, and the war itself dramatically increased the presence of women on the underground. This made such an impression that the Superintendent of the Underground dubiously claimed in 1918 that female passengers caused delays because

Although females may travel regularly, they are certainly not so quick in entering or alighting, and it is remarkable how they will stand in the doorways, necessitating passengers who wish to enter or alight pushing by them, instead of getting out of the way.

Instead complaints increasingly focussed on the rush hour, where everyone, male, female, working-class and middle-class were squashed together like never before, something the modern tube passenger can well sympathise with.

Further reading;

A. A. Jackson, London’s Metropolitan Railway.

D. Turner, The rise and fall of ‘ladies only’ railway compartments in the 19th century at http://turniprail.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/rise-and-fall-of-ladies-only-railway.html




About Simon Abernethy

Simon Abernethy is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge studying the relationship between social class and commuting in London. He also makes a mean pear cake.

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