The first in an occasional series on books about London and its history…
Mr Briggs’ Hat: A Sensational Account of Britain’s First Railway Murder, Kate Colquhoun, Abacus, 2012
An in-depth examination of the UK’s first “railway murder”, Mr Briggs’ Hat also provides a rich series of snapshots of life in Victorian London, from that of the murdered middle class banker Thomas Briggs to the life of German immigrant tailor Franz Muller – the man accused of his murder – and a countless cast of cab drivers, policemen, and court officers.
The scene is set on the first page – the discovery of blood in a train carriage at Hackney Wick Station on the evening of 9th July, 1864 – and from there Colquhoun slowly unfolds the details of the case against an intricate picture of life in London (and briefly, New York) during the latter half of the 19th century.
If you’ve read Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or even Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck (retelling the story of Dr Crippen), you’ll be on familiar ground although this story is perhaps not as compelling as either of those. Yet, like both books, Mr Briggs’ Hat draws back the veil of respectability that shrouds many of the lives of those involved in the story to show the sometimes sordid but always interesting reality beneath.
It also does a good job of conveying just how ‘sensational’ this now largely forgotten story this was when it broke and the hysteria which followed. It can be hard to understand the 19th century mindset from out 21st century viewpoint but Mr Briggs’ Hat makes a good job of it.
As with books of its ilk, it’s easy to forget that this is a real story and that real lives were dramatically affected by the events it describes. But it’s that fact which also draws you in.