A murder, an investigation, a chase, a court case, an execution. That’s what this book is about. On 9 July 1864, Mr Thomas Briggs – a senior bank official in the City – was murdered while travelling home to Hackney on a train from Fenchurch Street. It was the first ever murder on Britain’s railways and it caused a sensation.
The story actually involves two hats: Mr Briggs’, which was stolen; and the murderer’s (or possibly one of the murderers’, plural, but I shan’t give the game away!), which was left in the carriage. Both were recovered. In the days when forensic policing was still in its infancy, it was these items of headgear which were at the centre of both the investigation and the prosecution case.
The narrative is compelling, exciting, deeply moving in many places, and gallops along at a good lick, not unlike the popular crime novels of the day: it is high drama through and through. In this sense, it really is a page-turner, as they say.
But Mr Brigg’s Hat is so much more than this. It is a thoroughly researched work of history from which the reader will learn much of mid-Victorian London, in particular (in the case of suspects) the daily lives of a specific social layer, I suppose what one might describe the bottom end of the lower middle class, people who lived on the rung above the subjects of Mayhew and Booth. Added to these we have shopkeepers, railway workers, cab drivers, doctors, lawyers and – at stage centre – the first generation of plain clothes detectives, a tiny band of sleuths who carried on their shoulders the expectations of millions of newspaper readers and the reputation of the Met itself.
We are given a snapshot in time of 1864 mid-Victorian London. As you read this book, you will learn without noticing all sorts of useful things about the contemporary historical landscape: public transport; the cost of living; the Law; gaol conditions; 19C New York during the American Civil War; contemporary policing. Most interesting for me were two particular issues. First, the role of the press – both popular and upmarket – in informing and influencing the public, police and politicians alike. Reporting restrictions on criminal cases such as we have today simply did not exist. Second, and related: attitudes generally to capital punishment. Large sections of the public loved it for the spectacle, turning out in their thousands: remarkably, a full forty years after the coming of the railways, we still had public hanging in this country. But, as the author demonstrates, at this time much influential opinion was turning against public executions in particular, and capital punishment in general. Yet it took a full century after the Briggs case for the ultimate sanction to be removed from our Statutes. Kate Colquhoun covers these issues excellently, giving the reader much pause for thought.
When I review a book, the more I like it, the harder it is to review because I rattle through it happily with hardly at thought to analysis. So if I tell you that Mr Briggs Hat has been particularly difficult to review, you’ll know what a joy it was for me. The author has seemingly without effort and without leaving anything out used 280 breezy pages where another would require double that. Quite an achievement.
The book is well-illustrated with photographs, maps, diagrams, prints etc. There are copious notes and references at the back, and a good index.
Mr Briggs’ Hat by Kate Colquhoun (339pp, incl notes and index) is published by Little, Brown. Cover price £16.99 but available for £9.00 from our Amazon iStore, here.