Murder on the Victorian Railway


Boudoir or scene of crime?

A first class compartment: boudoir or crime scene?

Last night’s Murder on the Victorian Railway (BBC2)  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, 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. It explored the sensational murder of a railway passenger, Thomas Briggs, a respectable gentleman aged 70, in 1864, and the even more sensational capture and trial of Muller, the last man executed publicly in England.

The case raised the fears of Victorian society about rail travel. In the 19th century, all carriages were compartment style, without corridors, so that passengers between stations were closeted together out of the public gaze. This presented opportunities to those who would exploit them. In the case of Briggs, 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.

The Briggs murder was, we are told, the first killing on a train, but there were many other ‘outrages.’ The most celebrated was that of Colonel Valentine Baker, who in 1875 was found guilty of an indecent assault upon a young women. The pair had shared a compartment and some pleasant conversation before the colonel attempted to embrace Miss Dickensen and reached under her skirts. The lady opened the door of the carriage and stepped onto the running board, where she stayed until they reached the safety of the next station. (Bailey 2004, p1)

Colonel Baker was well connected: married, a distinguished cavalry officer and friend of the Prince of Wales. The case was guaranteed to attract public interest, but it was not an unusual incident, nor was it the first. I cannot say when the first such case did occur, but a very similar case occurred in North Lancashire in 1851. The ‘respectable’ man was Mr Henshall, chief superintendent of the Westmorland police. [1] Henshall had been accused of disgraceful conduct towards a ‘respectable female’ with whom he had shared a compartment on a train from Preston to Lancaster.  He had had made an explicit proposition to the woman, had tried to kiss her and to put his hands up her clothes, which were considerably torn in the struggle. Henshall was found guilty and fined £5 at Lancaster Quarter Sessions. At the subsequent Westmorland Quarter Sessions, Henshall was criticised, not for this offence but for his expenses claims, and he resigned. Although his prosecution Lancaster was not mentioned at the Westmorland Sessions, it seems likely that the case was important in Henshall’s decision to resign.  (The details were reported in the Lancaster Gazette and the Westmorland Gazette)

It was possible to commit crimes and outrages on suburban trains, but it was much easier on rural trains where stops were fewer and stations less busy. It was not only men who exploited the opportunities on the train: one can read into the description of Henshall’s victim as a ‘respectable woman’ the awareness that other types of women also used the railway. I have found no case that details any indecency offence committed by a woman, but prostitutes such as Mary Reynolds did pick up men at stations and travel with them.

Mary Reynolds

A quite different offence was playing at a game of chance in a public place. Card sharpers operated in railway carriage compartments, often as a team: the members would act as though unknown to each other in order to dupe the mug into heavy losses. This cartoon is misleading in showing a card sharper operating alone, but it is correct in its depiction of the policeman. (Notice how the cigar moves from the sharper to the policeman.)

At Brough Hill Fair in Westmorland, plain clothes policemen were on duty at the station and often apprehended men for ‘card sharping’ and the ‘three card trick.’

Amiable gentleman three card trick Chips

Cartoon from Illustrated Chips, 17 July 1897

I have found one very disturbing example of the dangers of rail travel. In 1888, a fourteen year old girl who was working as a servant was put into a carriage on a train at Keswick by her employer. She was on her way to visit her parents. Her father was waiting for her, as arranged, at Penrith station, but she never arrived. The Westmorland Gazette reported that ‘the girl was nowhere to be found in the train and she had not been heard of.’

There are several reasons why she might have disappeared, but even if the girl was complicit in her disappearance, even in 1888, every explanation suggests a criminal offence.  What is particularly disturbing about this case is that it was not recorded in the Keswick Police Occurrence book. In 1888, it would not be seen as a police matter until a specific crime or accident was reported.

The railway was new, but people understood liminal spaces and soon learnt the risks and opportunities of rail travel. The police were aware of these possibilities: at least one policeman (Henshall) attempted to exploit them for his own gratification, but most police activity at stations was directed at finding or cornering offenders.  However, policing was still constrained by the limitations of their detective technologies: evidence needed to be obvious, and an absence of clear evidence was more likely to be regarded as a reason for inaction than for suspicion.



Bailey, P., 2004. Adventures in space: Victorian railway erotics, or taking alienation for a ride. Journal of Victorian Culture, 9(1), pp. 1-21.


[1] This was not a police force in the modern sense. Henshall had three men in his team; their duties were to apprehend offenders when asked to do so by the public, and to bring those charged to prosecution. His salary was £150 per annum, but Henshall also received expenses, or fees, which boostd his income.