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Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Britain's First Railway Murder - a Unitarian Connection

Guest blog by Alan Ruston, President Unitarian Historical Society

The publication in May 2011 of a book describing a nineteenth century murder highlights the violent death of a London Unitarian. Kate Colquhoun has written under the title Mr Briggs’ Hat: A Sensational Account of Britain’s First Railway Murder, Little Brown, 352 pages, £16.99.

Thomas Briggs was the chief clerk of the merchant bankers Robarts Curtis & Co of Lombard Street. This made him the senior banker below the directors. He was born in Cartmel, Lancashire in March 1795 and had worked his way up the banking tree, and was now living in Clapton Square Hackney, a most desirable large residence. In those days Hackney was where the aspiring middle class sought to reside. He had a numerous family, and had been brought up an Anglican. However hearing a sermon by the redoubtable and intolerant Bishop Blomfield he decided to look elsewhere. Briggs’ stockbroker friend JE Netherville (another figure with Unitarian connections) who lived in Dalston introduced him to the Rev Robert Aspland, then (early 1840s) minister at the New Gravel Pit Chapel Hackney.

Briggs with his extensive family joined the Hackney congregation. In the 1850s, he was a member of the main committee, the treasurer 1853/4 and from 1856 part of the sub committee charged with erecting a new Gothic style building which they did in 1858. Thomas Briggs took and active part in this process. He was for at least twenty years a regular attendee at worship on Sunday mornings.

On the morning of 9 July 1864 he set out to walk the short distance to Hackney train station and soon arrived at his office. About 9pm the train stopped at Hackney and people raised the alarm as blood was flying out of a first class compartment. Soon Thomas was found still just alive with severe head wounds, but he died the following day. His funeral was held at the Church with a large congregation and he was interred in the burial ground; his family memorial stone was still present in quite recent times.

New style police investigation methods had recently been introduced and suspicion soon fell on Franz Muller, a young German born tailor working in the East End. A twist arose as Muller decamped to New York but the police went there to arrest him. A sensational trial followed widely reported in the newspapers. The evidence was circumstantial, some of it resting on Briggs’ hat that was found in Muller’s possession. He was well represented but the circumstantial evidence was so strong that he was convicted and hanged in the November, one of the last public executions at Newgate.

Changes in the rules of evidence not long after may have helped him, and because he had an accomplice (not found) it was thought the intention was robbery not murder. There was a public outcry but the law took its course. A unique case, not only because it was this first murder on a train, but is considered to be one of the main reasons the communication cord was introduced on trains. And then there was the British police going to New York to arrest him, new and exciting.

The Inquirer took an interest in all this. An obituary and the main features of what happened were described in the 22 July 1864 issue and an editorial on 5 November, just before the execution took place. The Inquirer thought execution was wrong and that the charge should have been manslaughter. Incidentally, James Martineau who many thought the Inquirer slavishly followed, would have disagreed with this stand as he was a strong supporter of capital punishment. The book is to be recommended as it’s well researched and written though not the place to go to search out Brigg’s Unitarian connections.

1 comment:

  1. Thomas Briggs was (or is) my great-great-grandfather. I knew, from Kate Colquhoun's book, that Mr Briggs was a Unitarian, but before reading this blog I never understood why. There is so little that can be known about one's family at so many generations' remove, and least of all the way they thought. I am very grateful for this record of the man's inner life, the principles by which he lived and which make him, to my mind, a forebear to be proud of. I would, naturally, like to know more: can you tell me who, in the Unitarian Church, I should approach with a view to looking at, and studying, any archive material you may have? I shall be greatly obliged if you would contact me at

    With best wishes,