When did the tube do away with first class?

The late Victorian era saw carriage classes scrapped on the London Underground. But did it make the tube the ‘great leveller’ it was hoped to be?

The London Underground, by virtue of being subterranean, was a socially ambiguous space in Victorian London. When the Metropolitan Railway opened in 1863, passengers were able to choose a class of ticket in the model of established rail custom, which prevailed until the 2d. flat fare of the City and South London Railway (C&SLR) in 1890 and Central London Railway (CLR) in 1900.[1] The vertical conception of the city mirrors the spatial hierarchy of lower and upper classes, illustrated in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine: the Underground was middle-class infrastructure inhabiting a working-class space, creating a ‘threshold space, an underground masquerading as a world above’.[2] The Underground served ‘both the bowler hat and the cloth cap brigades’ in catering for the Victorian leisure class and offering early morning workmen’s fares.[3] The ‘cosmopolitan throng’ of the CLR suggests it was a modernist utopia that transgressed from the norms of social segregation; in fact, class consciousness haunted the Underground despite social and technological innovation.[4]

The C&SLR was the first line to adopt classless carriages, eschewing the preceding futile ‘parody of the Victorian class system’.[5] The C&SLR was distinctly modern: it was the first deep-level tube – constructed using a tunnelling ‘shield’ rather than subsurface cut-and-cover – and, perhaps most importantly, powered by electricity. The uninviting ‘sardine box railway’ was a precursor to the CLR, which carried passengers between Bank and Shepherd’s Bush as what is now part of the Central Line.[6]

The carriages originally intended for first class passengers had luxurious upholstery, where others had basic rattan and signs urging passengers not to spit. Photo: The Twopenny Tube

Many contemporary reports gloss over the fare in favour of lauding the ‘new, comfortable, lightsome, and up-to-date London’ ushering in the twentieth century.[7] Though technological change appears to overshadow social, Haewon Hwang’s characterisation of the Underground as a ‘democratising force’ relates Marxist readings of space to London’s newfound accessibility.[8]  This is echoed in the British press response to the electrified tubes: London was achieving ‘technological equality’ in its advanced transport system open to all.[10] Theorists considered the class distinctions in carriages to be a ‘baleful possibility’, and painted the jumble of passengers on classless trains as a ‘living mosaic of all the fortunes, positions, characters, manners, customs, and modes of dress’.[11] Eric Banton’s appeal to the ‘scene of varied and ever-changing life’ at Bank, the ‘kaleidoscopic procession of pedestrians’, echoes this exaltation of shared space.[12]

However, the classless tickets on the C&SLR and the CLR did not make the London Underground a classless space. In his oft-quoted essay from George Sims’ anthology Living London, Banton’s account of the CLR depicts tolerated integration rather than egalitarian utopia:

The City magnate, failing to find a first-class carriage, has found that the single-class trains on the electric lines provide a means of travelling scarcely less comfortable than that to which he has been accustomed […] The office boy, finding these trains have no third-class carriages, has sat him down in great content beside the City magnate and still the heavens do not fall! [13]

Though they occupy the same space, the socially-stratified hierarchy remains: the middle-class magnate has lessened himself and the office boy is content to be ignored. It is conservative rather than radical: a ‘vision of toleration’ with a superficial dismissal of social distinction.[14] The CLR, dubbed the ‘Twopenny Tube’ by the Daily Mail, was not always intended to open with its eponymous fare.[15] The dreary perception of the C&SLR left promoters disenchanted with the classless carriages, but they were eventually adopted on the CLR to maintain its public image as a ‘people’s railway’.[16] This indecision contributed to economically indiscriminate but materially varied carriages. Some had luxurious maroon haircloth upholstery and others basic rattan – as well as signs urging passengers not to spit (Figure 1).[17] The word ‘class’ is faintly visible on the train’s outer panel, a palimpsest of Victorian class divisions. The Underground has been likened to Marc Augé’s ‘non-place’, mediated by advertisements designed to deter diverse passengers from looking at one another.[18] Though the trains were technically classless, social consciousness remained a spectral presence behind the ‘vision’ of equality. The Daily News’s optimistic evaluation of the classless tube as a ‘great leveller’ is reductive; nevertheless, it is a neat spatial metaphor for shifting conceptions of the verticalised city at the turn of the century.[19]

Bibliography

Ashford, David, London Underground: A Cultural Geography (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013)

Banton, Eric, ‘Underground Travelling London’, in Living London, ed. by George Sims, 3 vols (London, Cassell and Company, 1902-03), iii (1903), pp. 147-151

Bruce, J. Graeme and Desmond F. Croome, The Twopenny Tube: The Story of the Central Line (London: Capital Transport Publishing, 1996)

‘The Electric Railway’, Daily News, 5 November 1890, p. 5 <http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/8FR6J5&gt; [accessed 3 November 2018]

‘Electric Utopia’, Daily Mail, 4 Aug. 1900, p. 3 <http://find.galegroup.com.chain.kent.ac.uk/dmha/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=DMHA&userGroupName=uokent&tabID=T003&docPage=article&searchType=BasicSearchForm&docId=EE1862518861&type=multipage&contentSet=LTO&version=1.0&gt; [accessed 4 November 2018]

Hwang, Haewon, London’s Underground Spaces: Representing the Victorian City, 1840-1915 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013)

Pike, David L., Subterranean Cities: The World Beneath Paris and London, 1800-1945 (New York: Cornell University Press, 2005)

Pincher, Peregrine, ‘The Sardine-Box Railway’, Punch, or the London Charivari, 7 February 1900, p. 97 <http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/8FqCz0&gt; [accessed 4 November 2018]

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang, The Railway Journey (California: University of California Press, 2014)

‘The Twopenny Tube’, Daily Mail, 1 August 1900, p. 3 <http://find.galegroup.com.chain.kent.ac.uk/dmha/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=DMHA&userGroupName=uokent&tabID=T003&docPage=article&searchType=BasicSearchForm&docId=EE1862896226&type=multipage&contentSet=LTO&version=1.0&gt; [accessed 4 November 2018]

‘The 2D. Tube Leads’, Daily Mail, 3 August 1900, p. 3 <http://find.galegroup.com.chain.kent.ac.uk/dmha/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=DMHA&userGroupName=uokent&tabID=T003&docPage=article&searchType=BasicSearchForm&docId=EE1862518687&type=multipage&contentSet=LTO&version=1.0&gt; [accessed 4 November 2018]

Wells, H. G., The Time Machine: An Invention (Martino Publishing: Connecticut, 2011)

Welsh, David, Underground Writing: The London Tube from George Gissing to Virginia Woolf (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010)

Wolmar, Christian, The Subterranean Railway: How the London Underground was Built and How it Changed the City Forever (London: Atlantic, 2004)


[1] ‘Underground’ refers to any part of London’s underground rail system; ‘tube’ refers to the deep-level lines.

[2] David L. Pike, Subterranean Cities: The World Beneath Paris and London, 1800-1945 (New York: Cornell University Press, 2005), p. 30.                                                             

[3] Christian Wolmar, The Subterranean Railway: How the London Underground was Built and How it Changed the City Forever (London: Atlantic, 2004), p. 6.

[4] ‘Electric Utopia’, Daily Mail, 4 Aug. 1900, p. 3 <http://find.galegroup.com.chain.kent.ac.uk/dmha/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=DMHA&userGroupName=uokent&tabID=T003&docPage=article&searchType=BasicSearchForm&docId=EE1862518861&type=multipage&contentSet=LTO&version=1.0&gt; [accessed 4 November 2018].

[5] David Welsh, Underground Writing: The London Tube from George Gissing to Virginia Woolf (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010), p. 5.

[6] Peregrine Pincher, ‘The Sardine-Box Railway’, Punch, or the London Charivari, 7 February 1900, p. 97 <http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/8FqCz0&gt; [accessed 4 November 2018].

[7] ‘The 2D. Tube Leads’, Daily Mail, 3 August 1900, p. 3 <http://find.galegroup.com.chain.kent.ac.uk/dmha/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=DMHA&userGroupName=uokent&tabID=T003&docPage=article&searchType=BasicSearchForm&docId=EE1862518687&type=multipage&contentSet=LTO&version=1.0&gt; [accessed 4 November 2018].

[8] Haewon Hwang, London’s Underground Spaces: Representing the Victorian City, 1840-1915 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013), p. 85.

[9] Hwang, p. 85.

[10] Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey (California: University of California Press, 2014), p. 71.

[11] Constantin Pecqueur, Economie sociale, quoted in Schivelbusch, p. 71.

[12] Eric Banton, ‘Underground Travelling London’, in Living London, ed. by George Sims, 3 vols (London, Cassell and Company, 1902-03), iii (1903), pp. 147-151 (p. 151).

[13] Banton, p. 151.

[14] Pike, p. 44.

[15] ‘The Twopenny Tube’, Daily Mail, 1 August 1900, p. 3 <http://find.galegroup.com.chain.kent.ac.uk/dmha/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=DMHA&userGroupName=uokent&tabID=T003&docPage=article&searchType=BasicSearchForm&docId=EE1862896226&type=multipage&contentSet=LTO&version=1.0&gt; [accessed 4 November 2018].

[16] Wolmar, p. 155.

[17] J. Graeme Bruce and Desmond F. Croome, The Twopenny Tube: The Story of the Central Line (London: Capital Transport Publishing, 1996), p. 10.

[18] David Ashford, London Underground: A Cultural Geography (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013), pp. 6, 16.

[19] ‘The Electric Railway’, Daily News, 5 November 1890, p. 5 <http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/8FR6J5&gt; [accessed 3 November 2018].