When a recent Institute of Economic Affairs report proposed reintroducing third-class carriages to the British rail network, in order to ease the overcrowding that has caused some commuter routes to resemble the Black Hole of Calcutta, the reaction was a chorus of criticism. The very mention of “third class” inevitably carries with it Victorian connotations. Not surprisingly, no Coalition politician has dared pick up the gauntlet, while Labour politicians such as Lord Myners denounced the idea of a “cattle-class carriage at the back, or one for toffs at the front”. (Has the noble Lord, whose extensive portfolio includes the chairmanship of the Guardian Media Group, really never travelled first-class, even when he was the City minister under Gordon Brown?) Bob Crow lived down to his reputation as the quintessential Luddite union boss by accusing the Tories of turning the clock back 50 years to put the workers in their place. Heaven forbid that railways should go the way of airlines and introduce budget fares!
Yet what struck me about this eminently reasonable proposal by David Starkie (Transport Infrastructure: Adding Value) is that it speaks of “standing room only” in the proposed “economy” (not “third”) class carriages. That was certainly not true of the original third-class carriages. In 1956, after Labour had nationalised the railways in 1948, third-class carriages were renamed “second class”; in the 1960s this became “standard class”.
Perhaps, though, Victorian third-class travel really was grim? If you happen to visit the Honoré Daumier exhibition at the Royal Academy, you will see a wonderful depiction of what it was really like. Un Wagon de Troisième Classe (1862-64) shows men, women and children looking cheerful enough, if a little stoical, in their by no means luxurious but far from overcrowded carriage. And everyone is sitting down. If 19th-century railways had been seen as a vehicle for class oppression, Daumier — a radical republican who served time in prison — could have been relied on to show it as such. Instead, he painted what he saw: poor people liberated to travel unprecedented distances for work or pleasure, faster and in far greater comfort than the grandest royal coach by road. What a pity Daumier is not around to puncture the synthetic outrage and hypocrisy of Myners, Crow & Co with one of his popular satirical prints.