Murder on the Railway

I recently finished reading a book called Mr Briggs’ Hat by Kate Colquhoun, “a sensational account of Britain’s first railway murder”. In fact the subtitle isn’t particularly apt because this is a sober yet fascinating account of a famous Victorian crime, the investigation and trial that followed it. It’s a gripping story because it involves not only the elements of the classic “locked room” murder mystery, but also the pursuit of the suspect across the Atlantic to New York.

I won’t describe the story in full, as the details can be found in many places on the net. In a nutshell, the victim of this crime was a 70-year old well-to-do banker by the name of Thomas Briggs, who was found lying on the tracks of the North London Railway, between Bow and Hackney Wick (also known as Victoria Park) stations on the evening of 9th July 1864. He was carried to a nearby pub, but died later that evening of  extensive injuries to the head.

Briggs had boarded a first class compartment of the 21.45 train from Fenchurch Street station in order to travel to his home in Hackney. When the train had arrived at Hackney Central, at 22.10, one  compartment, with nobody inside, was found to be covered  in bloodstains; an empty leather bag and a walking stick were also found. It wasn’t hard to put two and two together;  some of Briggs’ possessions were found in the compartment, as was a battered hat. After Briggs’ death his family were asked to identify the various items that had been found, which they did, apart from the hat, which wasn’t his. Mr Briggs’ own hat had vanished.

All the evidence suggested that Briggs had been violently attacked and then thrown from the train. Perhaps he had tried to defend himself and in the course of a struggle had knocked off his assailant’s hat. In the rush to leave, or perhaps because his own was damaged, the murderer must have picked up the top hat Mr Briggs had been wearing. Briggs’ watch had apparently also been stolen.

After many false leads and a great deal of frustration the police finally developed a plausible suspect, an impoverished German tailor by the name of Franz Muller. Muller had apaprently been trying to raise money in order to travel to America and had in fact already boarded a ship to make the Atlantic crossing by the time the police were on his trail. However, Muller had travelled the cheapest way possible, on a sailing ship, steerage class.  Detective Richard Tanner, who led the police investigation, realised that if he travelled on a faster steamship he could still get to New York before Muller. So off he went, with a number of key witnesses in tow so he could produce them at an extradition hearing. This was all at the height of the American Civil War, incidentally, but the Muller case still made front page news in New York.

In fact Muller’s ship, the Victoria, took 40 days to reach New York – it must have been a terrible journey! – and Tanner arrived almost three weeks before that, so he had plenty of time to prepare to arrest his man. When Muller arrived he went meekly and when his possessions were searched the police found a watch with a serial number that matched Mr Briggs’. Muller also had a hat, but it didn’t quite match the description of the one belonging to Mr Briggs, as it had apparently been cut down. Such was the fame attached to this case that the style of a cut down top hat subsequently became universally known as a “”Muller” . Winston Churchill liked to wear one, apparently…

Anyway, Tanner secured the extradition warrant and returned to England with Muller, who was committed for trial at the Old Bailey and held on remand at Newgate. The trial lasted only three days, and it took the jury only 15 minutes to return a verdict of guilty. Muller was hanged at the public gallows at Newgate on November 14 1864. A huge crowd turned out to watch and there was so much disorder that the police feared a full-blown riot would break out. Such was the concern about this event that within a few years the practice of public executions was discontinued.

One of the reasons for the unrest at Muller’s execution was that there was a public outcry about the result of the trial. Many questions that had arisen during the trial had never been satisfactorily answered and Muller had continued to protest his innocence. He claimed that he had obtained the hat himself at a second-hand shop and had bought the watch in a similar fashion down at the docks, where stolen goods were regularly flogged. The law of the time, however, considered defendants on murder charges (and their spouses)  to be “incompetent witnesses”, which meant that they were not allowed to take the stand  in their own defence. Muller was therefore never given the opportunity to give his own account of what happened that evening. He had an alibi, in fact, that he’d spent the evening with a ladyfriend so she was called as a defence witness. It turned out however that she was a prostitute, and therefore lacking in credibility to a Victorian jury, and was also profoundly deaf. The prosecution tore her to shreds on the witness stand.

The compartment  in which the crime took place was a mess, with blood spatter and general signs of a disturbance. Why then did nobody else on the train hear anything? And how did Muller avoid getting any blood on his own clothes? A poor man like Muller would not have an extensive wardrobe, and his landlady (who also washed his clothes) hadn’t noticed any bloodstains on the night of the crime, or in the days afterwards before Muller left for New York. And how did he get off the train? Nobody saw him at Hackney station. Did he jump onto the tracks?

An important prosecution witness was a cab driver called Matthews, who testified to having helped Muller pawn various items. However, Matthews reliability was called into question when inconsistencies were found between his testimony on the witness stand and statements he had made earlier to the police. It also transpired that he was heavily in debt and clearly had his eyes on the reward that had been offered in connection with the murder. In fact it was £300, a huge sum in those days…

Another important question was raised at trial by  a railway employee who had noticed Mr Briggs, a regular passenger on the North London railway, on the train at Bow station in a first class compartment with not one but two other men, neither of whom matched the description of Muller (who was short of stature  and of slight build). The prosecution rubbished this testimony too, but it turns out that the police had found four other witnesses who had seen the same thing: Briggs in his compartment with two other men. In those days, however, the police were not obliged to disclose evidence to the defence if it was not used at trial. Had five independent witnesses all delivered corroborating testimony then there might well have been reasonable doubt about Muller’s guilt.

Above all, Muller just didn’t seem to behave like a murderer. He had told his friends well in advance of his departure for the United States, and had travelled in his own name without any attempt to conceal his identity. He was mild mannered and polite, on the small side, and not at all what the public expected of the perpetrator of such a violent crime. He was also quite small. Was he really capable of beating the much larger, if older, Briggs to death and then heaving his body out of the train all on his own?

All the evidence against Muller was circumstantial. No eyewitness put him on the train that night in 1864 and there was no forensic evidence to connect him with the crime scene. There was a bloody thumbprint on the hat left at the scene and a bloody handprint on the carriage door, either of which could have been conclusive, but decades were to pass before fingerprint analysis was to become an established part of forensic science. DNA or other trace evidence could of course also have been used to determine whether any of the blood in the carriage was Muller’s or even if he had worn either hat.

And what was Muller’s motive? Contrary to the suggestion that he was looking for money to allow him to move to New York, he seems to have had enough money already to pay for his ticket, because he had already bought it when the murder happened. It could have been an impulse. Perhaps he saw Briggs, who was wont to doze off on the train, and attempted to rob him but woke him up and a struggle ensued; but this seems very out of character.

However, the final words on this case should perhaps be those uttered by Muller himself just seconds before he took the drop. The prison chaplain, anxious for the confession that would bring closure to the case, stepped forward and asked “Did you do it?”. Muller reportedly answered, in German, “Ich habe es getan…”

Anyway, I found Mr Briggs’ Hat a fascinating read, fully of atmosphere and detail of the period and it yields fascinating insights into the social history of Victorian London. One of the things that got me especially interested in it was that the place it all happened is so close to where I used to live and work in the East End of London. On which note…

..I was curious about the route taken by Thomas Briggs from Fenchurch Street to Hackney, as no underground or overground railway goes that way nowadays. A bit of research (i.e. Google) revealed just how extensive the railway network was in the 1860s. Here is a map showing the relevant routes:

You can see that the service Mr Briggs took travelled in a roughly easterly direction out of Fenchurch street, along the route of the London and Blackwall Railway to Limehouse (the station there was named Stepney in those daysn, before swinging to the north. This railway is long since defunct but for much of its length this part of the route is followed by the modern Docklands Light Railway which carries on towards Poplar and London Docklands. However, the train Mr Briggs diverged from this route; it carried on  over the Regents Canal and across Burdett Road (where apparently there once was a station, although it didn’t open until 1871) before reaching Bow Station where it linked up with the North London Railway.  This part of the route doesn’t exist at all nowadays,  although there is still a railway bridge over Burdett Road carrying trains to and from destinations further to the east. Moreover,   “Bow Station” wasn’t either of the current stations at Bow (Bow Road, on the District and Hammersmith and City Underground lines or Bow Church on the Dockland Light Railway) but a much larger station which has now also vanished, but whose location you can  find next to the blue arrow on this map:

The line extending out of the top of the map is the route taken by the North London Railway at the time, essentially up the eastern side of Victoria Park, passing through Old Ford, before turning to the west to arrive at Hackney.

So what happened to this railway and all its stations? Well, if I tell you that they were all closed to the public in 1944 then you can probably guess. This part of London was heavily bombed during the Second World War, and not only during the Blitz. In fact Bow Station was hit by a V1 flying bomb and damaged beyond repair, but that was after operations on the North London Line had already been suspended because of bomb damage.

You can find a huge amount of fascinating detail about the disused stations on the North London Railway and elsewhere here.

14 Responses to “Murder on the Railway”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    In yet another example of the strange overlaps between this blog and my own interests and experiences, I used to live, coincidentally, in a modern block of flats partly built on land reclaimed from the old North London Railway, just north of the old site of Bow station. It is possible that Thomas Briggs was first attacked within thirty metres of the site of my old apartment.

    Bow station has indeed gone, but Bow Church station on the Docklands Light Railway lies immediately on the other side of Bow Road today. I used to walk past the site daily on my way to and from work. The building of the old Bow Road overground line station still exists, converted into a betting shop, in the shadow of the bridge over Bow Road, which still exists today.

    • telescoper Says:

      The old Bow station was by all accounts a much larger building than the two surviving stations in the Bow area, and it even incorporated a concert hall which was used not just for musical performances, but also educational and political meetings. The huge efforts made by philanthropists to educate the East End poor in this era should not go unmentioned, as they led to the establishment of the People’s Palace in Mile End, which later became part of Queen Mary College.

      I forgot to mention that the pub that Briggs was taken to, after he was discovered on the line, was in those days called the Mitford Castle. Although its name has changed, the pub still exists and is now called the “Top O’ The Morning”…

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    I’ll remember to look out for the “Top O’ The Morning” the next time I go for a stroll in the eastern part of Victoria Park.

    The size of Bow station surprised me when I first saw old photographs of it a few years ago. It seems a very large structure, particularly if you know the site today. Some of the site is covered today by a secondary school, and by a college in the building that once was the Poplar Town Hall (which was located in Bow, rather than the area I would call Poplar).

    • telescoper Says:

      When I was planning to move to London to take up my job at Queen Mary in October 1990, our first attempt to buy a flat fell through so we found a cheap rented flat for a few months, which was in fact in a tower block just off Devons Road, which is technically in Poplar. It was by no means the poshest place I’ve ever lived, but the flat was spacious, warm and comfortable. It was in fact in Sleadford House, the rightmost one of the pair shown in this (excellent) photograph:

      Gayton House and Sleaford House, E3

      The route I usually walked along to get to Queen Mary took me through Tower Hamlet Cemetery, but before reaching that I had to pass under the railway line leading to and from Bow.,-0.027552&spn=0.009573,0.018818&sll=51.516274,-0.048838&sspn=0.036961,0.075274&vpsrc=6&z=16

      If you scroll up and you can see the location of the pub just next to the canal. It looks like the defunct railway line is still shown on google maps, actually…

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        That flat in the tower block must have had an excellent view. Council-built apartments met sensible standards in terms of size, something that unfortunately does not apply to privately-built flats of the past two decades. While it may be a luxury to have two bathrooms in a a very well-presented private apartment, there is no luxury in tripping over boxes or piles of books, as I have discovered since living in London.

        The satellite images on Google Maps and Bing appear to show a single railway track on the line from Limehouse, past Tower Hamlets Cemetery and over Bow Road. I’m not aware of passenger services on this line: it may be used for freight or moving trains between other lines.

        Google Maps is wrong about the railway lines in Bow. It shows the Docklands Light Railway travelling north-northwest from Bow Church station and continuing parallel to Fairfield Road and up towards Hackney Wick. In reality, the DLR line turns eastwards north of Bow Church station and runs parallel with the main rail line to Stratford. The map needs correcting.

        I remember thinking several years ago that building over the line running from Bow to Hackney Wick removed the possibility of reopening old railway lines for future local transport needs. This loss of old, disused railway lines is an issue that affects many British cities, and makes the possibility of developing local light transport networks more difficult in the future. It applies in many places – including Cardiff.

      • telescoper Says:

        The railway Bridge at Burdett Road is still in use – it was fairly recently rebuilt, in fact. Trains run by C2C operate from Fenchurch Street along the old route described in the post, alongside the DLR, through Limehouse Station (which was called Stepney in the old days, by the way) and then it swerves north, on across Burdett Road and up towards Bromley-by-Bow along the route past Tower Hamlets cemetery. It no longer stops at Bromley-by-Bow, however; the next stop after Limehouse is West Ham, whence it carries on into darkest Essex.

        This is in fact the route followed by the old London Tilbury and Southend Railway.

        Come to think of it, I travelled along this route myself years ago when I gave a public lecture in Southend Library, of all places; I was worried I might get thrown out for talking in the library. I decided to go via Fenchurch Street out of curiosity, because I’d never used that station before. I had no idea that it went so close to where I used to live because it was dark during the journey and I couldn’t see where I was.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Yes. I’ve just looked at the modern A to Z map and that shows modern railways that are actually in use (unlike Google Maps). That does include the route from Limehouse past Tower Hamlets Cemetery and on through Bromley-by-Bow. It also includes the section across Bow Road up to the main railway line from Liverpool Street to Stratford that I mentioned earlier. The Wikipedia article about the old Bow Road station claims that section of track across Bow Road today is “used only for emergency diversions and stock moves”.

      • telescoper Says:

        So it seems that nowadays the only way to get from Fenchurch St to Hackney Wick would be via Stratford….unless we’re playing Mornington Crescent!

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Hanger Lane.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    There are traces of old railway lines all over London (and elsewhere). If you walk up Lisson Grove from Marylebone station to Lords cricket ground you go over a bump in the road that was a bridge over an old goods line; detour below and you can see where it is boarded up. Not all of the defunct lines were for carrying people; this one carried coal. And Lords had its own underground station, which explains why it is so far from the tube stations of St Johns Wood (to the north) or Baker Street (south). Marylebone station itself was intended to be extended west, but the land was bought by someone else which is why you have to walk down some platforms to get to others.

    Beeching gets a bad press for closing down many train lines, but in rural areas there was a logic to it as it became normal for families to own cars and the railways were built before the car. Whether it was right judged from the future, who knows?

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, there’s a host of disused “ghost” stations on the underground system, many of them still pretty much intact below ground but sealed at Street level. See, e.g.

      I was on a district line train from Whitechapel which lost power at a point that was coincidentally right next to the old St Mary’s station. It was quite spooky.

      In fact the expansion of the underground put paid to many of the local overland railway services. For instance, the reason why the station at Burdett Road fell into disuse was the presence of the much more popular underground station at Mile End.

      Another thing that should be mentioned about the Victorian railways is that the incredible expansion that had taken place by 1850 had its downside. Many of London’s poor were simply evicted from their (rented) homes which were then demolished to make way for the tracks and stations.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I’ve looked closely at the walls of the tunnel while travelling between St Johns Wood and Baker Street but could see no traces of the boarding-up of the platforms of the old Lords station. What I don’t know is where its street entrance/exit was (can anyone help?) I know that the lines themselves run under the banqueting suite immediately inside the precincts of the ground along the Wellington Road.

  4. […] Mr Briggs’ Hat, which tells of the death of an English banker called Thomas Briggs on the train to Hackney at the hands of a German tailor called Franz Müller, and of the latter’s pursuit to New York […]

  5. If Muller didn’t do it (or at least, commit robbery with violence, if not actual murder), how did he come by Mr. Briggs’ hat and watch and chain, do you think? And whose hat was found in the carriage, if not Muller’s? Matthews’ ? Were the two men in the carriage with the victim Muller and Matthews (the cabman), or the two bank clerks who alerted the station staff at Hackney Wick to the blood in the carriage (and who also worked at the same bank as Mr. Briggs)? I would be interested to know your thoughts.

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