“Outrage” was a popular word in Victorian headlines and the context where it probably appeared most often was railway travel – more particularly the dangers for what our male ancestors liked to call the “weaker sex”. Countless journeys were made by women without incident so it is a mistake to think that compartments without connecting corridors, as was normal for trains of that era, were the frequent scene of impropriety – or worse. But “Outrage” readily drew the attention of readers, particularly in an age where sex could not be openly discussed.
Of course there were times when the closed compartment presented a danger for women. In 1864 Harriet Marsh, a “very pretty young woman about 17 years of age in the service of a lady at Dulwich”, boarded a train at Blackfriars Station to return home. John Adlam, a “tall fine-looking man” also got into the compartment. He was wearing a uniform and Harriet observed the word “Inspector” on his collar. He was employed by the London, Chatham and Dover Railway Company. Once the train had started Adlam put a hand under Harriet’s crinoline. She moved away and said she would jump out of the train if he did that again (there were cases where women did precisely that, or opened the door and balanced precariously on the running board outside). He put her hands on her breast and she said she would cry “Murder!” if he did not desist. At that time there was a station at Camberwell Gate (later known as Walworth Road and closed for good in 1916). Here the Inspector got out. A very distressed Harriet returned to Dulwich where she reported the incident to her mistress. The inspector was convicted of indecent assault and given six months hard labour in Wandsworth prison.
For some male passengers sharing a compartment with a female passenger could become a hazard. In 1859 the Reverend Robert Maguire was brought before the Lambeth Magistrate, accused of “grossly insulting” one Louisa Lettington by pushing a leg beneath her skirts during a journey from Kingston into town. Compartments were narrow and skirts could be voluminous. The Magistrate accepted that it was a genuine accident and one for which the reverend gentleman had apologised at the time.
“Outrage” reports in the press spurred calls for ”Ladies Only” compartments – calls from men knowing what was best for the opposite sex. But where railway companies did introduce such compartments they were very underused. It seems most Victorian women preferred to rely on their own common sense than male condescension.