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Full steam ahead! Murder on the Victorian Railway

2013 March 10
by lucinda matthews-jones

George Dent and Julie-Marie Strange, Trainspotters Extraordinaire

A review of ‘Murder on the Victorian Railway‘ first shown 21 February 2013, BBC 2. To watch an earlier interview with Kate Colquhoun, the author of Mr Briggs’ Hat, click here.

The body on the tracks; the carriage spoiled with blood; the missing watch; the clue of the hat.  Murder! On the Railway! Not, in this case, an Agatha Christie or Conan Doyle mystery, but, the murder of a businessman, Thomas Briggs, on a Hackney-bound train one evening in 1865. Based on the book, Mr Briggs’ Hat, by Kate Colquhoun (2011), Murder on the Victorian Railway dramatized the mystery for television.

The book meticulously follows the story from the discovery of Briggs’s body on the tracks to the trial and execution of the man accused of murder, a German migrant, Franz Muller. As the first murder on the British railway, the bloody demise of Mr. Briggs generated a frenzy of popular panic centred on the anonymity of the city and the danger of the private railway compartment. The menace of the highwayman had not, it seems, quite disappeared with modern travel and the railway as the epitome of progress, for a short while at least, hit the buffers. Ladies travelling alone were particularly vulnerable, potentially trapped in a compartment with a stranger, travelling at high speed through the countryside with no witnesses to any scale of impropriety or crime.

Mr Briggs’ Hat is the latest in a spate of books (others include Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House (2008) and Angela Bourke’s The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story (2001)) that fix upon a single moment in history to illuminate broader social, political and cultural conditions. In the book, Colquhoun uses this device with admirable restraint, shunting the mystery first in a tightly coupled narrative that echoes some of the sensation that surrounded the case. The TV programme followed the mystery, asking not ‘who dunnit’ (they told us straightaway, derailing some of the tension) but asking whether the executed man suffered a miscarriage of justice, his arrival at the hangman’s noose heralding termination at the wrong platform. This turned out to be a red herring, or, the wrong kind of leaves on the line. Muller did do it. The real question, as the book makes clear, was whether or not he had meant to murder or bungled a robbery with tragic consequences.

Compared to Colquhoun’s express pace, the documentary had more the air of a heavily-loaded freight train. The programme sought to educate, using the murder as a green signal on mid-Victorian living conditions, economics, crime rates, and social ‘ills’. But we proceeded with caution on yellow: the attempt to cram such a broad range of information into one-hour gave a branch line feel (no buffet car!). The excellent Toby Jones’s doleful tones as narrator struck a ‘We are sorry to announce…’ tone that seemed at odds with the claims of the programme for the sensation the murder caused. The story was dramatized using actors to give witness statements based upon contemporary documents. As with the book, the hero of the affair was the steady and meticulous Inspector of the Police hot on the rails of Muller. A hotchpotch of twentieth-century steam footage, complemented by contemporary photographs, etchings, maps, and stills of evidence from the case gave the film the sheen of authenticity. Victorian images of scenes from the story were photo-shopped to resemble the programme’s actors, an imaginative device, but one that threatened to undermine the authority of authenticity. Dressed in character, actors performed in twenty-first century locations to give the programme a quirky look: the re-enactment of a witness statement to the coroners’ inquest was filmed in the authentic pub but with no effort to historicize the setting; Hackney station, in all its current plastic, steel and glass glory, stood in for the Moorish architectural style favoured by the North London Railway. Was this device a clever pitch for empathy from the contemporary viewer to feel the shock of recognition with the seething Victorian metropolis, or cheap television?

In pitching broad, the programme suffered from too little depth on the railway itself and there was little here for the railway anorak, politely known as an ‘enthusiast’. Was the railway just too, well, trainspotterish for a murder mystery? Let us compensate with some railway facts! The termination of Mr Briggs was not, altogether, the first murder on a train. In 1861, the corpse of a magistrate was found bludgeoned with two shots to his head and one to his heart in a railway carriage on a Paris bound train. The TV programme made the point (somewhat crudely) that railway carriages were designed expressly to keep the classes strictly apart but the North London Railway only offered 1st or 2nd class travel at the time of the Briggs affair: not so different from ‘standard’ and ‘business’ class now. Compartment carriages, especially those used on a fifteen-minute frequency Victorian commuter railway, were designed primarily to squeeze as many bums on seats as possible. You see, rail travel in the twenty-first century is an historic experience. Interconnecting corridors in carriages wasted space and, with a line of only some fourteen miles in length, the NLR did not expect its passengers to want to move around while in transit.

Compartment style carriages had been employed in Britain since the beginning of passenger railways in the 1830s, being a natural development of the horse-drawn carriage. Following the Briggs murder, ‘Muller Lights’, a small glazed porthole between adjoining compartments, were installed by some rail companies but this ‘safety’ feature was double edged as passengers complained that they allowed prying eyes into private compartments. The American preference for open-plan carriages, with transverse seats set either side of a central passageway, only spread to Europe in the 1870s, although British passengers still valued their privacy, leading to the retention of compartments, but with a corridor along one side of the carriage. Flexible gangways linked individual carriages, allowing free movement to lavatories and dining cars. Compartment carriages were still being commissioned into the 1960s and only fell out of favour with British Rail in the 1980s when crime levels, particularly in the South East, rose sharply. Nevertheless, the affection of the British public for the private compartment, more likely the scene of a romantic interlude than a brutal crime, remained and they are now a staple feature of preserved railway travel.

The thrill of danger in the railway compartment, even when fitted with communication cords, ‘Muller lights’ or corridors remained a favourite device for popular crime writers for decades after the Briggs affair. Mary Braddon’s dramatic opening to the novel Wyllards Weird (1885) and Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington (1957), just two examples, suggest how potently the illicit potential of the railway carriage lingered in the public imagination. Despite the public frenzy surrounding the Briggs affair in the 1860s, it would be over twenty years until the next murder on a British train.

George Dent joined BR Rail Riders at the age of five, and has the stickers to prove it; Julie-Marie Strange spent a rainy holiday in Carnforth aged nine, ended up in Steam Town, bought an anorak and never looked back.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. March 11, 2013

    Murder on the Victorian Railway was interesting but a little flat. It seemed to me to be rather like a very good but worthy schools’ TV programme. It offered real evidence in the form of talking heads, actors voicing the actual words of those involved, but written words often fail to convince satisfactorily when delivered as speech. One was left feeling that Hackney Station, the scene of the crime in 1864, was many more than three miles away from the Whitechapel of Ripper Street, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00wk6pq which has benefitted from much greater investment in complex characterisation and dramatic plots, delivered in an energetic production.

    However, Murder on the Victorian Railway raised some very interesting points of history. The murder of a railway passenger, Thomas Briggs, raised the fears of Victorian society about rail travel. In the 19th century, passengers closeted together out of the public gaze presented opportunities to those who would exploit them. In this case, the seclusion allowed the murderer to attack Briggs unseen.

    The railway compartment was a ‘new’ type of space, taking one from the anonymity of a crowded urban space (the railway station) into the seclusion of a private chamber. Although the railway was new, it was actually a reinvention of liminal space, the type of edgy situation (for example, fairs) where exciting things might happen, where people could get away with behaviour that was normally impossible or totally unacceptable. Liminal spaces have always existed, and people have always been aware of the dangers and possibilities they present. For first class travellers, their compartment resembled the upholstered comfort of the bedroom or boudoir, a point not lost on those who either feared or relished the opportunities thus presented.

    There were many other incidents that shocked readers of Victorian local newspapers, but fell far short of murder. I have detailed some local cases on my own blog , http://www.guywoolnough.com/murder-on-the-victorian-railway/

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