26 December 2020

The Metropolitan Police and the first railway murder in Britain

By the early C19th, London had become the world’s largest city. To deal with concerns re preventing crime, Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel introduced the Met­ropolitan Police Act to Parliam­ent 1829. But people were afraid that the new police force would be used by the government to spy on them. So under the Act, the police were to prevent crime and were prohibited from investigating past crimes.  

LNWR Policeman with flag, c1846
British Transport Police History Group

In 1840 Richard Mayne created a group of plain-clothes detectives but by 1842, these detectives were able to come into the open. 

In the 1860s, 10,000+ miles of railway lines were in the process of redefining Brit­ain. Cheap, efficient travel spread out, connecting distant towns to each other. And the world’s first underground rail in London had opened, bypassing the cluttered horse-drawn traffic. In fact rail travel powered the indust­rial revol­ution.

But with this change came a new fear of train travel. The trains were self-contained carriages lit with a single gas light and with no passage between, meaning that each carriage was essentially a locked room between stations.

Banker Thomas Briggs moved his large family from stuffy, polluted London to spacious, leafy Hackney, just 20 minutes by train. Briggs (69) still work­ed as Head Clerk in the Bank of Robarts in London, commuting daily to work on the North London line. He was 5’9”, a stout standard middle class man who dressed in a waistcoat, silken top hat and carried a heavy cane and leather bag! Now the story, from Dark Histories and Transport Police History Group .

On 9th July 1864, Briggs bought his first class ticket and chatted with the regular ticket collector. At 9:50PM, he boarded the train, settled back, placed his bag and cane down, and travelled home.

Later that night two bank clerks boarded a North London Railway train at Hackney and found their first-class carriage soaked in blood; this was the same carriage Briggs had boarded 4 stops prev­iously. Conduct­or Benjamin Aimes telegraphed Chalk Farm station where the train was to term­inate, and emptied the train.

In the compart­ment was a walking stick, Briggs’ leather bag and a hat. Mean­while Alfred Ekin was driving an empty train in the opp­os­ite direction, when he noticed a dark shape on the ground. Stopping his train, he headed back to find it and to remove it from the tracks. But he found a man, barely alive. He carried him to the local pub where PC Dougan ran to assist. On searching the body, Dougan rem­oved a diamond ring, cash and letters addressed to Robarts Bank. By 2am, the family had been contacted… then Briggs died. How­ever no one had seen suspicious people leave Hackney Station that night, nor people covered in blood.

The police were looking to quickly resolve the case, to allay fears and to avoid press criticism. So they app­ointed Inspector Richard Tanner as lead detective. At 31, Tanner was an ambit­ious, brill­iant rising star in the Met.

Franz Muller
British Transport Police History Group

A hefty reward for information (£300) was offered. John Death, a Cheapside pawnbroker, had dealt with a watch chain matching the desc­ription released by pol­ice. Inspector Walter Ker­ressey visited Death immed­iately and con­firmed that an English speaker with a German accent pawned a chain only 2 days after the murder.

Later, cab driver Jonathan Mat­t­hews reported a man who owned a hat matching the Beaver hat found in the carriage. Matthews told of a 25 year old German tailor called Franz Muller who’d imm­igrated to Brit­ain in 1862, a distant relative by marriage. Matthews’ story was a solid lead, espec­ially since he supplied the police with Muller’s calling card, including photo­graph and address.

Insp Tanner visited & found that Franz Muller had indeed lodged there for two years; the land­lady Mrs Blyth said that the amiable Muller had left 3 days prior (16th July), aboard a slow sailing ship bound for America named Victoria.

So Tanner urgently requested permission to chase Mul­ler across the Atlantic. An arrest war­rant was granted and Tanner left for Liver­pool that night (20th July), taking Death and Matthews on a much faster City of Manchester steam-ship. Thus the group could land in New York before Muller and await his arriv­al. But NB this was right in the midst of America’s Civil War (1861–5)!

Luckily the detect­ives travelled so quickly across the ocean that they had 3 weeks of waiting, time for extradition preparat­ions to be outlined, before Muller’s ship arrived on 5th Aug. After alerting the pilot boats, the Met men waited on the New York docks.

After Victoria docked, Tanner went aboard and waited. The passengers were called for a quarantine check and when Muller responded, Tanner arrested him for Briggs' death. Muller denied it but when the police searched Muller’s cabin, they found both Briggs’ gold watch and a silk top hat.

During the extradition hearing, Muller was defended by Chauncey Shaffer, a flashy solicitor who de­fended difficult criminal cases. Schaffer unsuccessfully claimed that the extra­dition proceedings were invalid.

Tanner, Kerressey, Death, Matthews and Muller returned home on 1st Sept aboard Etna, docking in a crowded Liv­erpool port on 16th Sept. The police charged Muller at Bow St, then took him to Holloway Pris­on to await trial. The German Legal Pro­tection Society, an orga­nis­ation of influential Ger­man immig­rants, paid for Muller’s def­ence.

In court (27th Oct) the defence attacked the press’ hand­l­ing of the story before trial. Plus they doubted that Muller could have man­aged to attack the stout Briggs in minutes, carrying his body and tossing him out. The defence also worried about anti-German prejudices.

The trial lasted for 3 days, then the jury was out for only 15 min­s: guilty. So the judge ordered public execution by hanging. Appeals were lodged by the German Legal Prot­ection Society, yet on 14th Nov Muller was hanged on Old Bailey’s scaff­old. Matthews collected his reward.

This, the first railway murder in Britain, was successfully, and very speedily handed and the public could relax. And several proposals to make trains safer for passengers were discussed in parliament, and enacted. The case also indicated the commitment that Scot­land Yard showed in the first pursuit of a criminal over the Atl­ant­ic.

Only later could Scotland Yard use scientific forensic investigative methods .


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Quite a story! Unbeknownst to himself, and in the truth is stranger than fiction category, Briggs spawned an entire industry that spanned the careers of Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie, among many others.

I've always been amused by the British surname Death. There was a Victorian photographer named Henry Death whose name is doubly odd considering early fears of some to have their photographs taken.

Andrew said...

Extradition seems to have been much less complicated then. In at least two cases of crime committed in our country, we are looking at the process taking more than a decade. I can remember reading of the case where police caught the faster vessel across the Atlantic and made the arrest in America.

Pipistrello said...

What an incredible story! Especially since the details are so typical of the Golden Age crime stories mentioned by Parnassus. The Met certainly started well with the tidy result here; no Amateur Hour clumsiness to be embarrassed by!

Student of History said...

Without reliable forensic investigative methods, I wonder how confident the Met was about its charges against Muller.

Hels said...


Charles Dickens was probably the first novelist to follow the police around and to get ideas for his fictional stories. Then Arthur Conan Doyle made murder mysteries even more popular in the later half of the 19th century. Thankfully both of these writers were given to high school students in my day, as part of our English curriculum. However I had no idea of the role of the Metropolitan back then.

Re Death as a surname, I would read britishsurnames.co.uk/surname/death.

Hels said...


interesting question, isn't it? As far as I can find, the first British-US extradition agreement wasn't approved until a 1794 treaty between the two countries. My problem is what was extradition acceptable for - which crimes? which citizens? how long after the crime was committed?

Hels said...


it must have been a critical time for the police. When Richard Mayne created the plain-clothes detectives in 1840, he knew he was taking a huge risk. So these detectives had every urgent need to be intelligent, professional, legally honest and successful.

They had taken on a big task!!! Scotland Yard, headquarters for the Metropolitan Police, had become the police force responsible for policing all of London's boroughs.

Hels said...


there was no way the Metropolitan could have known about forensic investigative methods, until they were proposed and developed at the end of the century: blood type analysis, finger printing, toxicology, polygraph testing etc etc. Inspector Richard Tanner could only recreate the crime scene, have an autopsy done and rely on witnesses. He didn't even have a confession.

bazza said...

I suppose many hundreds of 'criminals' were imprisoned and hanged before forensics were around. This story reminded me of how Dr Crippen was arrested on an Atlantic liner with the first use of the telegraph in those circumstances. Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose and the Cadfael stories deal with ancient and medieval detection long before forensics as well.
If you're interested in forensics , there is a very interesting book by crime-fiction writer Val McDermid caleld Forensics - The Anatomy of Crime
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s silently sclerotic Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


Thanks for the reference. I will have a look for it.

Capital punishment was always an obscenity, both for the hangman who did the killing and for the society that was damaged by yet another killing. That aside, Dr Crippen was an excellent example of the discovery and growing use of forensics - he was the first suspect to be nabbed via wireless telegraphy and hanged in London in 1910.

Naturally the Metropolitan could not use forensics that had not yet been invented by the 1860s. But how certain were the detectives that the crims they were hanging were 100% guilty?

Hank Phillips said...

Thank you for the best train robbery story since Michael Crichton--and with a happy ending to boot. Those who imagine murderers ought not to be hanged deem it ethically preferable to rob at gunpoint the entire population in order to keep murderers fed, housed and indolent. It is difficult to imagine a more effective means of promoting the killing of innocents both extrajudicially (rewarding perpetrators with relief from further effort) and judicially--in the case of tax-dodgers dispatched under color of attempting to flee or "resisting" arrest as played and replayed on U.S. news channels throughout the election year. Treating persons who prefer not to be extorted for the benefit of violent strangers is more than a little like the Fugitive Slave Law the 13th Amendment was enacted to repeal. THAT was one of the issues behind the Civil War.

Hels said...


thanks for a detailed response, even though I don't agree with you at all. Intentionally killing someone is murder, whether it is done by a criminal for financial gain or racism etc or done by a lawful hangman. If society doesn't want to pay for the costs of keeping criminals alive, then put them to work 9am-5pm on a prison farm where they can grow their own food and shear their own sheep.

And another thing. If a country allows its civilians to have guns, then that country can hardly criticise its civilians for using those guns to kill. After all guns have NO role, other than killing. That can't be said for knives, ropes, alcohol, drugs or poisons, so I realise some killings could go on even if guns are banned.

To see a case where the assumed killer was very lucky to not be executed, see https://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com/2019/05/mendel-beilis-blood-libel-trial-in-kiev.html. The body was found in 1911, after forensics were already establishing themselves.

Luiz Gomes said...

Boa tarde Hels. Obrigado pela maravilhosa aula de história.

Hels said...


originally I thought this story was important only for its role in the developing British railways and the developing Metropolitan police. But it is relevant history in every country *nod*

City Countdown said...

The Bow Street Police Museum opens in early 2021. This museum will tell the colourful story of the building and the people who worked there, from the venue’s earliest days as a Magistrates Court right up to its more than one hundred year association with the Metropolitan Police.

During its time as a Magistrates Court and then a police station, the building hosted many high profile cases. The exhibition will feature a selection of these cases, including the trials of Oscar Wilde, Dr Crippen, and the Krays.

City Countdown

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - what a thorough write up for us. Thank you - Hilary

Hels said...


In the same era as the detective branch of the Metropolitan Police was developing, detective fiction was also becoming popular. So I was very well read in British literature and assumed I knew everything about the policing system in the later C19th - particularly Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

But no. By the 1990s, there were plenty of articles in academic history journals that were more realist and just as fascinating.

Geelong Seafood said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Hels said...

City Countdown

I hope the opening of the Bow Street Police Museum really does go ahead, as planned.

Geelong Seafood, thank you for also discussing the opening of the Bow Street Police Museum.