Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

30 March 2023

Women travellers on Indian railways

In 1869, newspapers in India and Britain reported that the Viceroy of India had approved a proposal to construct special carriages for Hindu and Muslim ‘Lady Travellers’ on the East India Railway.  This was considered the best means of preventing ‘insults’ to Indian women travelling by train.

East India Railway steam locomotive pulling carriagesEast India Railway train  from Illustrated London News 19 September 1863 Image © Illustrated London News Group. British Newspaper Archive - image created courtesy of The British Library Board.

The carriages, reserved for ‘respectable native women’, were to be of a first-class standard but with lower fares than other first-class accommodation.  It was recommended that there should be a European female guard and a European female ticket collector in attendance.  The guard would ensure that the women were comfortable, and any male relatives would be provided for in an adjoining carriage.  The Dacca Prakash suggested that there should also be carriages where females could ride with relatives if they objected to being separated.

Hindoo Lady Travellers 1869Article entitled 'Hindoo Lady Travellers' from Leicester Guardian 27 October 1869

In 1910 the Committee of the Bengal National Chamber of Commerce raised concerns about female carriages on the railways.  Committee Secretary Sita Nath Roy wrote to the President of the Railway Board expressing alarm at ‘the repeated robberies and outrages’ perpetrated in the carriages reserved for women travellers.  He referred to the recent robbery at Tinpahar when a Bengali woman was cut with a knife, her jewellery stolen, and three of her children thrown out of the train window.  Roy said that women in the secluded compartments found themselves ‘absolutely helpless in the hands of ruffians and desperadoes’, and did not know how to use the alarm bell when they or their property came under attack.

Newspaper article on women travelling on the railways in India 1910Article on women travelling on the railways in India from Englishman’s Overland Mail 4 August 1910

Unless remedial steps were taken, the Committee believed that there might be a considerable falling-off in passenger traffic on the railways.  The Committee therefore suggested some ‘protective measures’:
• Female carriages of all classes to be put together where possible and a trusted police officer with two or three constables place at the front and rear.
• Intermediate and third-class carriages should not be partitioned into compartments.
• Two female guards should be posted to protect women passengers on night trains.
• Windows should be protected with strong iron bars.
• Female carriages should have side lights.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive (also available via Findmypast) e.g. Friend of India and Statesman 10 June 1869; Leicester Guardian 27 October 1869; Englishman’s Overland Mail 4 August 1910.


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