Long before Agatha Christie envisioned murder on the Orient Express, or before she wondered what might have taken place on the 4.50 from Paddington, murder, mystery and mayhem were already well established on the railways of Britain and beyond.
The first victim of murder on British railways was 70-year-old Thomas Briggs. In this special blog, we will take a look at his story, as well as nine others sourced from the pages of our newspaper Archive, which tell the strange, the tragic and mysterious tales from railway journeys past.
Indeed, as the railway network began to spread across the United Kingdom, it became a new locus for criminals, with new opportunities for theft and more serious crimes presenting themselves. The railway carriage became a place of danger, of intrigue even, and it is no little wonder that the railways would go on to inspire a wealth of detective fiction.
And so, without any further ado, here are ten stories from the Archive which illustrate the murder, mystery and mayhem that took place on British railways from the 1860s through to the 1920s.
1. The First Railway Murder – 1864
An atrocious crime was perpetrated late on Sunday evening, in a first-class carriage on the North London Railway, when a Mr. Thomas Briggs, engaged in the banking establishment of Messrs. Robarts, Curtis, and Co., of Lombard-street, was murderously assailed, plundered, and thrown out of the train.
Thomas Briggs, Chief Clerk of a bank, was 70 years old, had been with some friends in the Old Kent Road. He then left them at some time between eight and nine o’clock in the evening, stating, as the Glossop Record reports, that ‘he would go by omnibus to the city, and then take the train to Fenchurch-street Station for Hackney.’ But Thomas Briggs would never make it to Hackney.
The Glossop Record tells of how the horrible crime was uncovered:
On the arrival at Hackney of the 9.45 train from Fenchurch Station, a gentleman called the attention of Haines, the guard, to the state of a compartment of a first-class carriage, No. 69. He had opened the door at Hackney with the intention of getting in, and had placed his hand on one of the cushions, which he found to be covered with blood. The guard on looking in found such to be the fact. Not only the cushions, but the floor, sides, and windows were besmeared with blood; in some places there was quite a pool.
It must have been a horrific scene, and the horror was only added to when a group of women in the adjoining carriages alerted the guard ‘that some blood had spurted through the carriage window on to their dresses as their train came from Bow.’
Meanwhile, the body of the unfortunate Thomas Briggs was discovered by an engine driver and stocker as they returned to the Bow locomotive works, crossing over Ducket’s Canal to the side of the Mitford Arms Tavern. Remarkably, Briggs was still alive, although he was ‘bathed in blood,’ having suffered many blows to the head. Despite the attention of many doctors, and his ‘old female servant,’ Briggs passed away ‘at midnight on Sunday.’
The Glossop Record went on to address the perpetrator of the crime, the motive thought to be robbery, Briggs’s watch being missing, as was his banker’s bag, which at the time of the attack was empty:
How the murderer got away is a matter of much doubt. In the struggle he must have been stained with blood. At that time of night there are not many passengers alighting at Hackney Wick – especially on Saturday evening…It is very doubtful, however, whether the scoundrel – besmeared as he might be with blood – departed by the station, and it is thought more probable that he ran down the embankment into Wick Lane. The marshes and by-lanes would afford him a ready means of escape.
In response to the dreadful crime the Home Office offered a reward of a £100, whilst the bank where Thomas Briggs worked likewise offered a reward of £100 for ‘the discovery of the murderer.’
In the end, after the police investigation led across the Atlantic, German man Franz Muller was arrested and charged with the murder of Thomas Briggs, the first murder to take place on the British railways. Despite claiming he was elsewhere at the time of the crime, Muller was convicted of the murder and publicly executed. As a direct result of Muller’s crime, communication cords began to be installed in trains. If Thomas Briggs had had access to one, things might have turned out very differently for him.
2. ‘Desperate Encounter In A Railway Carriage’ – 1870
But crimes continued to be committed on the railway in spite of the introduction of communication cords, as one James Duirey, a commercial traveller from Belfast, was to discover in 1870 as he travelled in a first-class carriage from Carlisle to Penrith.
Salacious crime newspaper the Illustrated Police News seized on the story, making it a subject of one of its typically lurid illustrations on 12 November 1870. The accompanying article told the story of a ‘Desperate Encounter In A Railway Carriage,’ as James Duirey was set upon by manufacturer Thomas Bell.
The Illustrated Police News sets the scene as follows:
The circumstances detailed are of the most singular character. The two gentlemen left Carlisle in the same first-class carriage. Shortly after the train left Carlisle the prisoner charged the prosecutor with having stolen his ticket. The prosecutor assured him that he had done no such thing, and suggested that he better look in his own pockets.
But instead of doing so, Bell ‘jumped up and seized his fellow-traveller by the throat, swearing that he would take his life.’ The Illustrated Police News described the attack in further vivid detail:
Mr. Bell, in an excited manner, rushed at his fellow traveller, seized him by the throat with one hand, and with the thumb and finger of the other hand thrust up his nostrils, dragged him violently backwards and forwards in the carriage until Mr. Duirey’s face was sadly cut and bruised. In the course of the encounter, Mr. Duirey’s linen collar was torn from his neck, and thrown, saturated with blood, on the carpet, while the windows of the compartment were completely smashed.
Meanwhile, James Duirey’s fellow passengers ‘heard the cries for help,’ but the communication cord, installed in the wake of Thomas Briggs’s murder, ‘was not workable,’ and so ‘Mr. Duirey had to struggle against the violent assaults of his excited adversary for thirty-two minutes, the time occupied in travelling between Carlisle and Penrith.’
When the train finally did arrive at Penrith, Thomas Bell still accused James Duirey of having stolen his ticket, although when Bell was searched, ‘the ticket was found on’ him. Bell was then arrested and conveyed to Penrith Police Station, where he then attempted to take his own life, saying that he ‘would rather suffer death in this way than that [he] should have been covered with such disgrace.’
Thomas Bell was then charged with assault, and ‘attempting to commit suicide,’ a crime at the time. It was a remarkable incident to take place in a first-class railway carriage, and again illuminated the importance of having a working passenger communication cord.
3. ‘Malicious Mischief In A Railway Carriage’ – 1884
Railway carriages were, however, not just scenes of violence between people, as they also fell victim themselves to damage inflicted by those who travelled within them.
Take, for example, the ‘malicious mischief‘ enacted by ‘some persons travelling in a first-class compartment of a London and North-Western train between Crewe and Manchester.’ The Aberdeen Evening Express on 1 October 1884 reported how these unruly passengers ‘amused themselves by throwing out the window the cushions, blinds, rug, and other fittings of the carriage,’ causing chaos on the railway line.
The accoutrements of the carriage found themselves ‘across the down line near Sandbach,’ causing ‘some delay to a London train, which had to be stopped till they were removed.’
What spurred the passengers to such pointless vandalism was not apparent; the Aberdeen Evening Express detailing how ‘The authors of the mischief left the carriage before Sandbach was reached.’ However, two men were afterwards arrested for their part in the malicious hijinks.
4. ‘An Imaginary Enemy’ – 1890
Another railway carriage found itself a victim of violence in 1890, but this time in a slightly different way. Wick newspaper the Northern Ensign and Weekly Gazette on 11 February 1890 reported on another case of ‘malicious mischief committed in a railway carriage between Thurso and Hoy,’ involving another travelling merchant, who was named Mr. Doughty.
Now Mr. Doughty ‘had taken some drink before commencing his journey,’ and whilst on the train ‘he threw off his coat and hat and challenged the world at large to come on if it dared.’
The Northern Ensign and Weekly Gazette describes what happened next:
While in this warlike and defiant mood, he struck his foot against the foot-warmer, but on the assumption that it was the warmer that struck him, he snatched it up and in order to teach it a lesson, he violently knocked what no doubt he took to be its head against the seats in the compartment. The foot-warmer did not feel it, but the seats did and sustained a good deal of damage.
The vandalism case was then bought before Sheriff Harper, who fined Mr. Doughty 10s 6d. Doughty ‘promptly tabled ten shillings,’ or about £45 today, but he ‘craved time to raise the odd sixpence’, a request that was granted to him. The Northern Ensign and Weekly Gazette remarked that when this was done, Doughty was ‘once more quits with law and justice.’
5. ‘Bomb In A Railway Carriage’ – 1895
On a more serious note, the Illustrated Police News on 25 May 1895 ran the headline ‘Bomb In A Railway Carriage,’ which was a subject of one of the newspaper’s illustrations that week. The article detailed how an explosion had taken place at Walworth Railway Station at about half past eleven one Friday morning, when ‘officials heard a hissing noise, accompanied by flame and smoke, issuing from a second-class compartment.’
Officials quickly went to the railway carriage, and found there a ‘passenger in a somewhat dazed condition.’ Once the elderly man, whose name was Mr. W. E. Cole, a resident of Camberwell, was helped out of the train, officials discovered in the railway compartment a ‘strong smell of gunpowder,’ and a ‘piece of thin brass tubing,’ which was about ten inches long and an inch wide.
The Illustrated Police News described how the device:
…was open at both ends, and had apparently been filled with gunpowder. The tube was quite black, and had only just been exploded. Further examination showed that one of the windows of the compartment had been blackened, and that the cushion of the seat was slightly singed, showing that when the explosion took place the tubing must have been on the seat of the compartment.
Passenger Mr. Cole reported not seeing the device when he entered the compartment, and stated that the ‘explosion had taken place as he was preparing to leave the carriage at Walworth, and that the tube must have been lying on the seat near the door, for the flame slightly singed his left whiskers.’
Despite being ‘slightly singed and considerably scared,’ Mr. Cole was unharmed, and authorities seemed remarkably unperturbed by the bomb. Indeed, the police looked upon the matter as a ‘practical joke,’ attaching ‘no importance to the incident.’
6. ‘Shocking Death In A Railway Carriage’ – 1899
But other railway passengers were not as lucky as Mr. Cole, and there were some who would lose their lives as part of their railway journeys.
In January 1899 the South Wales Daily News reported on a ‘Shocking Death In Railway Carriage,’ which had taken place in Castle Eden, ‘a few miles north of Hartlepool.’ An excursion train was returning from Middlesbrough early one Sunday morning, passing through Hesleden, ‘when a young man named Marshall complained of feeling ill and put his head out of the window.’
Marshall’s timing was greatly unfortunate, for at that very same moment, ‘Another excursion train from Sunderland passed and struck Marshall on the head.’ His fellow passengers reported that they heard a ‘crack,’ and the poor young man fell to the floor, dying ‘in a few minutes.’
The dangers posed by the railways at a time of limited health and safety led to these types of accidents; and so when people were not being violent amongst themselves, or causing damage to trains, accidents and deaths occurred regularly on the railways outside of human malevolence.
7. ‘The Murder In A Railway Carriage’ – 1901
But as the new century rolled around, crimes continued to be committed on the railways. On 19 March 1901 the Dundee Evening Post pictured 23-year-old George Henry Parker, who was due to be executed for the murder of ‘gentleman-farmer’ William Pearson, which he had committed on the London and South-Western Railway.
The Dundee Evening Post summarised Parker’s crime, which had seen him shoot farmer Mr. Pearson near Surbiton, south west London, as well as Mrs. Rhoda King, who was also in the same compartment, although Mrs. King survived.
The article then went on to narrate the further ‘details of the tragedy:’
Some time before Surbiton was reached Mr Pearson laid down his gold-rimmed spectacles and his newspaper, and went off to sleep. Surbiton was passed, and the silence was maintained. Suddenly there was a short, sharp, report, and Mrs King, who happened to be looking out of the window, immediately turned her face in the direction of her fellow-travellers, and caught sight of Parker pointing the revolver at her.
The Dundee Evening Post continues:
Ere she had time to speak there was another report, and she felt something strike her cheek. Slightly stunned, but concious, the imminence of her peril reduced her almost to speechlessness, but she was able to exclaim, ‘Oh, don’t kill me.’ Parker dropped the revovler, and proceeded to turn out Mr Pearson’s pockets. Mr Pearson never moved. His head had fallen forward, and blood trickled down his face.
Parker was found guilty of the crime and sentenced to hang, his last meal consisting of ‘bread and butter, and eggs,’ with some tea. There were some accounts that Parker had said that the ‘crime was an accident which happened when he was drunk,’ and how he had spent his last days ‘writing sorrowful letters, including one to the widow of the dead man.’
8. ‘The Mystery of Merstham’ – 1905
But some crimes committed on the railways of Britain were not so cut and dried. In October 1905 society magazine The Tatler reported on the ‘Mystery of Merstham,’ namely the discovery of the body of Mary Sophia Money, a dairy maid who hailed from Lavender Hill, south London.
Her body was ‘discovered in the Merstham Tunnel on the Brighton Company’s line to Redhill,’ the discovery being shrouded in mystery. The Tatler tells of how ‘no clear evidence was forthcoming to prove whether the case was one of suicide, accident or murder,’ but soon theories began to point towards the latter explanation.
Officials traced Mary’s final journey, travelling in ‘a first-class compartment numbered 508’ that she was supposed to have journeyed in. Meanwhile, a signalman came forward to say ‘that he saw a struggle going on in the train as it passed his box,’ whilst ‘a gentleman’ said he had seen a woman at Victoria Station answering the description of Mary Sophia Money.
It was thought also that she may have been ‘met by a man who appeared to be her lover,’ but the identity of Mary Sophia Money’s killer was never uncovered, and her murder remains unsolved to this day.
9. ‘A Welsh Mystery’ – 1912
A further railway mystery occurred in Wales some seven years later, as the Fermanagh Herald reported on a ‘strange discovery in a railway carriage’ on 27 January 1912. The article described how a ‘sensation was caused at Chester general station on the arrival of the 4.50 train from Llandudno.’
Under the seat of a first-class carriage, there was discovered a ‘lady’s dressing-case,’ alongside a knife, and a ‘blood-stained pocket-handkerchief.’ Reading like something from the pages of a mystery thriller, the items were accompanied by a note signed by someone called ‘Dolly,’ with a Manchester address.
The note, as reports the Fermanagh Herald, tragically signalled the ‘writer’s intention to commit suicide.’ Searchers were consequently dispatched down the line, but they ‘failed to elucidate the mystery.’
What happened to Dolly the letter writer probably will never be known, her story reading like something to be found in the pages of a novel.
10. ‘Face Shocks A Woman’ – 1929
Our final tale of mayhem on the railway hails from the 1920s, as crime writer Agatha Christie stamped her presence on the decade and beyond. This strange little tale was reported on by national daily the Daily Mirror on 24 December 1929, the article running with the headline ‘Face Shocks A Woman.’
The article concerned one John Robert Moore of Enfield, who was fined £2 for ‘leaving a railway carriage while it was in motion and wilfully interfering with the passengers.’
Whilst Moore did not hurt any of his fellow passengers, it was said the had ‘stepped out of a carriage on to the footboard and peered into the next compartment in which were seated a man and woman.’
The Daily Mirror described how ‘the effect of seeing a face at the window while the train was in motion caused the woman to be taken ill,’ and Moore was fined for his antics.
We’ve delved into ten different stories of murder, mystery and mayhem on Britain’s railways, but there are many more to be discovered in the pages of our newspaper Archive. See what you can discover today!