logo - Join me in the 1900s mid C20th
The webmaster, Pat Cryer, as a young child

Compartments, carriages and
coaches in early British trains

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A train compartment, 1940s, showing its door to the corridor open

A train compartment with its door to the corridor open. Enhanced detail of a screenshot from an old film.

When I was growing up in 1940s and 1950s Britain, trains for passengers were made up of the coaches, a steam engine at one end and a guard's van at the other end. However these trains were more different from modern trains than this description suggests:

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Train carriages

The coaches of trains were always known as carriages, which was presumably a hang-over from the horse-drawn carriages of Victorian and Edwardian times.

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Train compartments

There were something like 6 or 8 compartments inside each carriage.

Each compartment had a set of two padded bench seats: one facing the engine and the other with its back to the engine.

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No smoking compartments

Smoking was an accepted way of life in the 1940s, so almost all the compartments allowed it. The only notices about smoking were in a few 'No Smoking' compartments. These compartments were normally at the front and back of a train, but they were patronised by relatively few people because everyone was so used to cigarette smoke that they hardly noticed it.

Chatter among passengers

Before the war, passengers gazed across at each other from their upholstered bench seats, and no one spoke; heads were hidden behind newspapers.

Come the war, we were all one, strangers no more. Talk about air raids, food rationing, battles and films filled the carriage.

Yet, when the war ended this chatter ended too, The reserved English manner returned and people gazed anywhere rather than make eye contact.

Kath O'Sullivan (formerly Margerison)

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Luggage racks

Old train luggage rack, corded like a hammock, 1940s and 1950s Britain and probably before

Luggage rack, corded like a hammock, photographed in the York Railway Museum.

Luggage racks were above the passengers' heads, and were corded like hammocks.

Luggage racks as hammocks on long journeys

On a wartime train journey from Leeds to Edinburgh in early 1945, the train was packed with troops. I saw men asleep on the luggage racks and asleep on luggage in the corridors. This was by no means unusual.

Kath O'Sullivan (formerly Margerison)

Being corded, dirt and dust simply fell through them, which must have made cleaning easier - although of course, being fabric, they would hardly ever have been washed.

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Communication cords - for an emergency stop

Emergency train communication cord inside a 1920s or 1930s British train

The communication cord of a 1920 or 1930s train. Photographed in a the Steam Museum, Swindon.

Emergency train communication cord inside a 1950s British train

The communication cord of a 1950s train on the Bluebell Line. Photo courtesy of Les Haines.

Emergency train communication cord inside a 1960s British train

The communication cord of a 1960s train. Photographed in a Swanage Heritage train.

Note how the fine for improper use has increased, from nothing (apparently) to £25 to £50 - but see Malcolm Keen's comment on the penalty in the 1940s.

In the case of emergency, passengers could stop trains from inside their compartments. There was a chain which passed along the train to ring a bell to alert the driver to stop. It was called the communication cord even though it was a chain, and it was high up, out of the reach of children. I seem to remember that it was behind a thin pane of glass which passengers had to break to reach it, but none of my photos show this, so maybe I am mistaken.

Emergency train communication cord inside a 1940s British train

Pulling a communication cord. Screen shot from an old film.

I never knew of anyone who pulled the communi­cation cord, although it must have happened. The penalty for improper use was severe. As the photographs on the right show, the penalty was £25 in the 1950s and £50 in the 1960s - which was quite a lot of money then. In the 1940s, the penalty was probably less, but I can't remember the amount. In the early trains, passengers appear to have been trusted, as no penalty for improper use was stated.

In the photo, the communication cord is called an Alarm. However we did refer to it as a communication cord.

On the penalty for misuse of the train communication cord, I recollect that in the 1940s and possibly the earlier part of the 1950s it was £5, presumably with one of those lovely large white fivers that had to be folded to get it into the wallet.

Malcolm Keen

If you can add anything to this page, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.