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21 February 2013

Victorian-era TV crime drama re-tells first-ever murder on a British railway train

A BBC TV documentary which debuts tonight, Murder On The Victorian Railway, retells the story of a brutal killing that shocked and captured the imagination of Victorian society.

Little did Thomas Briggs know when he boarded the 9.30pm train from Fenchurch Street to Hackney on the night of 9 July 1864 that he was taking a deadly journey into the history books.

Mr Briggs, 69, had enjoyed dinner in Peckham with his younger relation Caroline and her husband David, a regular event since the death of his wife some years earlier.

He was nearing the end of a career in the City that had seen him rise to the post of chief clerk at Robarts’ Bank in Lombard Street.

He could afford a first-class carriage for the short rail journey home, with only two scheduled stops at Bow and Victoria Park (also known as Hackney Wick).

By coincidence, two junior clerks from the same bank boarded the train at Hackney station, choosing the same carriage as Mr Briggs. But there was no sign of their older colleague. All that remained were a hat, stick, and bag – all smeared and sticky with blood.

It wasn’t long before the victim was discovered. The driver, taking an empty train back to Fenchurch Street station, braked hard to avoid hitting a dark mound on the track ahead. It was Mr Briggs; he was unconscious and had been badly beaten.

He was taken to the nearby Mitford Castle pub (now the Top O’ The Morning) in Cadogan Terrace, Bow.

He had been robbed of his gold watch and his smart top hat – the one left in the carriage was a low-crowned beaver.

Briggs was taken home to Clapton Square, but never recovered consciousness and died the following morning – the first person ever to be murdered on a British railway.

Appeals for witnesses were made and rewards offered, with details of the hat and watch circulated to shops and pawnbrokers across London.

Within days, jeweller John Death of Cheapside came forward, struck by the resemblance between the missing watch chain and one he had been offered on the morning of 11 July by an anxious young man with a German accent.

The watch chain was duly identified as that belonging to Mr Briggs. On 20 July cab driver James Matthews supplied the name of the suspect.

He had seen his young daughter playing with a box from Death’s shop only days before, given to her by a friend of the family who also, stated Matthews, wore a low-crowned beaver hat like that found in the railway carriage.

Now the police knew who they were looking for: Franz Muller, a German tailor lodging with a Mr and Mrs Blyth in Victoria Park.

However, Muller had fled the country on 16 July. He was now on board a sailing ship bound for New York.

But when he arrived, Muller was met by Inspector Tanner of Scotland Yard along with the witnesses Death and Matthews. They had taken a much faster steamship and arrived a fortnight beforehand.

He was extradited to London and tried for the murder of Thomas Briggs at the Old Bailey in October 1865.

He swore his innocence to the end, but the evidence was overwhelming and Muller was sentenced to be hanged.

He was executed on 14 November, only at the very last breath confessing to the hangman that he was indeed guilty of the crime.

Murder on the Victorian Railway airs tonight on BBC2 at 9pm.

 Robert Whitelock plays tenacious detective Richard Tanner in Murder on the Victorian Railway

Robert Whitelock plays tenacious detective Richard Tanner in Murder on the Victorian Railway

 Robert Whitelock plays tenacious detective Richard Tanner in Murder on the Victorian Railway The notorious Franz Muller sparked a transatlantic police chase

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