Off the rails: the first murder on a British train

Posted on 11th May 2016 by simonbeattie


Something else for the London International Antiquarian Book Fair?  A scarce slipsong ballad, jauntily memorialising Franz Müller’s trial for the murder of City banker Thomas Briggs on a London train.

Late in the evening of 9 July 1864, Briggs was attacked in his first class compartment whilst travelling home on the train from Fenchurch Street to Chalk Farm.  His assailant struck him, stole his gold watch and spectacles, and threw his body from the compartment.  Spotted by the driver of a train travelling in the opposite direction, Briggs was found alive, but died of his wounds shortly after being carried to the Mitford Castle pub on Cadogan Terrace.

The investigation and trial proved sensational.  After an appeal for information, and the offer of a large reward for information by Briggs’s bank, a Cheapside jeweller confirmed that a German man had pawned belongings later identified as Briggs’s.  The jeweller’s logo was recognised by a cabman from a jewellery box belonging to his daughter, who had been engaged to German tailor Franz Müller until his unexplained disappearance.  Müller had fled to New York, but he was extradited to Britain to face trail, where he appeared before the Old Bailey in October 1864.  The present work gleefully covers the trial to date, referencing Müller’s return from New York, and citing the Cabman’s evidence:

‘Muller’s got the watch, you see, so it proves that he is guilty … / For if it should be him, on the gallows let him swing, / For the murder on the railway train.’

The author proved prophetic: Müller was found guilty, and was executed by hanging one month later.

Opponents of the railways had long painted a gloomy picture of the lone passenger’s safety; the lack of connecting corridors in the earliest trains meant that robberies and assaults were sufficiently common to provide the press with a steady stream of material.  Briggs’s murder further inflamed the public, and the ensuing outcry contributed to the Regulation of Railways Act (1868), which resulted in the establishment of communication cords, as well as the creation of railway carriages with corridors.  In some cases old rolling stock was modified to include circular peepholes in the partitions; these became known—somewhat macabrely—as ‘Muller’s Lights’.

Posted in

One response to “Off the rails: the first murder on a British train”

  1. Thomas Briggs was my Great Great Great Great Uncle.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *