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Are you sitting comfortably?

The Trimming Shop at the GWR Swindon Carriage & Wagon Works in 1935. Photo: Mike Peart’s collection.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about standards of seating comfort in modern-day rolling stock. Passengers have complained about the hardness of the “ironing board” seats, and the jokers among them have suggested that for added comfort one should insert the copy of your favourite newspaper between self and seat! The situation seems to be worse for those people who are themselves, perhaps, less well-upholstered in the seating department. The arguments for modern-day seating seem to be reasons of cost, ease of maintenance, ergonomics, and the fact that increased speeds mean shorter journeys with less time sitting. Railway seating seems to have ranged from the earliest days of the 1830s where seating was on wooden boards in vehicles often open to the elements. It probably peaked with 20th Century graduated luxury provided by generous upholstery and fixtures according to the class of travel. We now seem to be witnessing an apparent decline to clinical 21st Century harder tack and austerity in the eyes of some.

In 1900, the Great Western Railway (GWR) introduced new coaches for the Irish boat trains from London to West Wales. These central gangway coaches were the first GWR coaches to have electric lighting with electroliers which were controlled by the guard to “full” or “half on” settings. They were also the first to have the communication cord running in tubes inside the coach under the cantrail except over the doors from where they could be pulled. Walnut and sycamore panelling with blue morocco leather upholstery was used in first-class interiors; mahogany panelling and velvet upholstery was provided in second-class, and oak and red wool fabric was used in third-class.

For 1930, the GWR announced that all third-class corridor and restaurant car stock built by them would be decorated in a new style. Upholstery in compartments would be in grey and black moquette with the colour grey predominating. The floors would be covered with grey lino with a black line border, and the interior panelling would be finished in walnut. Ceilings would be painted white enamel. Additionally, the seats would be half an inch wider and the armrests would lower by an inch more which would make for greater comfort. In first class, the armrests would be raised by one inch. Had the GWR discovered that the human race was getting larger and wider? Then for their new “Art Deco” influenced streamlined express diesel railcars in 1933, the upholstery chosen was brown leather over Dunlopillo cushions with brown interior décor using green Rexine faux leather panelling and woodwork in walnut.

For its 1935 Centenary anniversary year, the GWR announced it would be building 211 new coaches of 13 types at its Carriage & Wagon shops at Swindon Works. These ranged from third-class non-corridor coaches for suburban services to kitchen, dining and sleeping cars for long-distance trains. It was mentioned in passing that a third-class corridor coach might need as many as 25,000 screws, 70 yards of moquette for seating, 340 pounds of paint and varnish, and 32 well-chosen photographs of picturesque locations on the Company’s network. All timber was sourced from the Empire as far as possible! These were the bygone days where compartments had blinds or curtains, leather straps for lowering windows and luggage racks with netting hand-woven by deft fingers. We can, at least, experience some of these delights on today’s heritage and private operator trains where you can still sit comfortably.

Mike Peart

Mike Peart is the co-author of Volumes 3, 4 and 5 of “History & Development of Railway Signalling in the British Isles”and Trains of Hope” published by The Friends of the National Railway Museum. He’s been an active Friend of the NRM since 1994. Friends of the NRM is an independent charity, established in 1977 to support the National Railway Museum. We have raised £1.8m to date in support of the museum in funding, restorations, exhibits and acquisitions of new artefacts. We also support and promote research and educational projects relating to the history and development of railways.

Read more about our contributions here

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Frank Paterson
Frank Paterson
Sep 20, 2021

Interesting - I've had four journeys on Azumas in the last week and had nostalgic longings for the unergonomic moquette cushions of yesteryear

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