Great Train Crimes: Murder and Robbery on the Railways

Great Train Crimes: Murder and Robbery on the Railways

by Jonathan Oates


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Murder and robbery committed on the railways have long held a special place in British criminal history. Railways and trains create special conditions – and opportunities – for criminal acts. Two legendary large-scale robberies took place on the British railways – the Great Bullion Robbery of 1855 and the Great Train Robbery of 1963 – and these extraordinary episodes are often used as examples of the ultimate in criminal audacity.

But as Jonathan Oates shows in this powerful selection of case studies, most railway crime is less sensational yet, in many ways, more revealing. He reconstructs in vivid detail some of the most memorable cases dating from Victorian times to the present day. Included are cases of adults and children who were thrown to their deaths from trains, decapitated corpses found beside railway lines, passengers who were pushed from platforms into the path of oncoming trains and others who were stabbed, shot or strangled during their journeys and were found dead on arrival. The sheer variety of crimes is astonishing, as are the stories that unravel behind them. As he retells these sensational, bizarre, often ghastly tales, Jonathan Oates gives an insight into the reality of railway crime. His collection is a must for addicts of true crime cases and for readers who enjoy railway history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781845631123
Publisher: Pen & Sword Books Limited
Publication date: 06/29/2010
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Dr Jonathan Oates is the Ealing Borough Archivist and Local History Librarian, and he has written and lectured on the Jacobite rebellions and on aspects of the history of London, including its criminal past. He is also well known as an expert on family history and has written several introductory books on the subject including Tracing Your London Ancestors, Tracing Your Ancestors From 1066 to 1837 and Tracing Villains and Their Victims.

Read an Excerpt


The Railways and Crime

I am not a timid man, but I never enter an English railway carriage without having in my pocket a loaded revolver.

Much has been written about British trains and railways. This chapter aims to give the very briefest of summaries about British railway history and then to discuss railway crime and railway policing.

The Stockton–Darlington Railway, which opened in 1825 was Britain's – and the world's – first railway. However, rudimentary railways had been in use in industrial districts since the sixteenth century, where coal was transported on carts which ran on rails. What made the Stockton–Darlington line different was that the train was powered by steam and that it carried passengers as well as goods. The Manchester to Liverpool railway of 1830, though, was the first to be powered solely by steam and carried mainly passengers. Railways were much faster than other methods of inland transport, such horse power and canals, though all three methods of transport coexisted for much of the nineteenth century.

In the 1840s there was an explosion of railway building all over Britain, known as railway mania, as it was believed the railways were a way to a quick profit. A leading figure in this was George Hudson of York, who was not above sharp practice. This was all the work of private enterprise, the state not seeing for itself any role in administration nor supervision of them, though permission had to be sought by private Act of Parliament prior to construction. Many of these railway lines emanated from London. The first long-distance line was the London (Euston) to Birmingham railway, inaugurated in 1837. Another was the Great Western Railway, from London Paddington to (eventually) Bristol, in the following year. By the later nineteenth century, England was covered in a network of railways. Many of these train companies operated small lines and were often short-lived, being soon amalgamated with others.

The coming of the railways was not without criticism. There were many misgivings. Some included the fact that they might disrupt hunting, or that they would pose a health risk to travellers. Conservatives feared that revolutionaries could travel about more easily and quicker. Others thought that criminals from the cities could swiftly travel to the countryside.

Trains had more positive effects, too. They allowed goods to be transported more cheaply. They enabled people to travel around the country more quickly and this led to the breakdown of rural isolation. People saw more of their fellow Britons. Some historians have commented that train travel helped socially unify the island in a way that no other method had done hitherto. They also helped towns and cities to grow, by allowing suburbs to develop, enabling people to live at some distance from their workplace. This was especially the case around London.

In London, the Underground system began in 1863, with the Metropolitan line from Baker Street to Farringdon. Commuter lines were constructed over the following decades, with the District line in the 1880s and the Central line in the early decades of the twentieth century. Electric power replaced steam power in the 1900s. In the 1920s, the different underground companies were amalgamated and nationalized under the London Transport Passengers' Board.

In the later twentieth century, however, the railways underwent a decline. In part, this was because of the increased competition from newer forms of transport, such as buses and cars. The latter became more prevalent as the century progressed. In 1923 there was a huge amalgamation of the hundreds of railway companies which had existed since the previous century into just four large concerns (London Midland and Scotland, Great Western, Southern and London and North Eastern). The Second World War wreaked havoc with the networks and in 1948 they were nationalized, becoming known as British Rail. At this time, there were about 19,000 miles of railway track, 5,000 stations and 1,000 tunnels, much of which would have been familiar to their Victorian forebears. Yet more swingeing change was to come. In the next two decades, thousands of lines of track were taken out of service, mostly after the Beeching Axe of 1963, which closed down many small stations. This led to a loss of identity and economic disruption in the affected areas, but also to the end of trains only carrying six people in a day. Diesel trains replaced steam wholly by the later 1960s. In the 1990s, the railways were controversially returned to private hands.

Without wanting to sound like a spokesman for the railway companies, it is very, very unlikely that railway passengers will be murdered. Since the nineteenth century there have been less than 30 victims, excepting the underground bombings of 2005. Passengers are more likely to die from accidents, such as that at Harrow in 1952 (112 deaths) or that at Southall in 1997 (6 deaths). The worst single Underground accident was in 1975 when 42 people were killed when the train crashed into the barrier at Moorgate. Yet these figures pale in comparison to the thousands killed each year on Britain's roads. As a previous writer on crime on railways has noted:

statistics indicate that a person boarding a train which is not a football special is more likely to reach his destination unmurdered, not even molested, than if he had chosen some form of transport other than a bullet proof, bomb resistant, self catering, oxygen carrying automobile fitted with a carbon monoxide measuring gauge and driven by a nun.

Another writer, one John Pendleton, in 1894, agreed, 'on English railways the crime of murder has been rare' pointing out that there had, to date, been 28 murders on French railways and only 4 on English trains (though there had been none in Germany).

That having been said, train travellers are not immune from crime any more than travellers in any other form of transport are. Those on ships have risked pirates, and road travellers were once in danger from footpads and highwaymen. However, although the exploits of pirates and highwaymen have been glamorised and sanitised, those of train-board criminals have not, on the whole, been afforded such romanticizing. Perhaps this is because their crimes are all too recent and all too real and still currently dangerous, whereas the likes of the fictional Captain Jack Sparrow and the real life Dick Turpin are safely in the distant past, as far as Britons are concerned.

The first Underground bombings, 1883–1885

I heard an explosion something like the report of a cannon.

It is unlikely that any readers of this book will have forgotten the terrible terrorist bombings on the London Underground on 7 July 2005, when three young Muslim men caused death and injury to hundreds of people. However, few if any among the media pointed out that this was not the first time that bombs had been used on the London Underground. The IRA rarely targeted the Underground, but in the late nineteenth century bombers chose this location for their attack.

Until 1921, Ireland was ruled by Britain. This was resented by many Irish people. Violent attempts had been made to achieve independence in the late eighteenth century and at several times in the next century. In the years 1880–7 this took the form of a dynamite campaign in England and Scotland, with attacks being carried out in Liverpool, Glasgow, Birmingham and London. Some targeted prominent buildings, such as the Tower of London and the House of Parliament. Others were aimed at the railway network.

The first bombs to go off in the Underground tunnels were heard on Tuesday 30 October 1883. One went off about 600 yards from Praed Street (since 1948 incorporated as part of Paddington) station on the Metropolitan line at 7.51 pm as the train was heading towards Edgware, and the other between Westminster station and Charing Cross on the District line, just after 8 pm. In the former instance, there was a flash of white light, followed by a loud explosion. Those on the train were thrown off their feet and injured by glass. The second carriage to the last one suffered the most damage. Although the framework of the carriages was not badly damaged, the windows, door frames and outside panels were shattered. Nearby houses were said to have been shaken.

One witness, Corporal Warren, said:

All I remember of the explosion was a very bright flash immediately followed by a terrible report like that of a cannon. It was on the outside of the carriage. I was struck by something which knocked me insensible, and when the train arrived at the station I staggered across the platform. I remember nothing more, except that a soldier picked me up.

William George, a fellow passenger, recalled:

On Tuesday evening I was a passenger from Queen's Road, Bayswater, to Gower Street [known as Euston Square since 1909]. The train was rather full. I was in the last carriage of the train. We passed along alright as far as Praed Street. Afterwards I heard an explosion something like the report of a cannon. I saw a flash, and the lights in our carriage went out suddenly. For one moment I thought it was caused by the lamp in our carriage, but the next moment I found myself scrambling among the other passengers. When I had collected myself I removed from my head a piece of glass about an inch and a half in length. I heard two reports – one a very sharp sound and the other a dull sound. I remembered no more.

The second explosion occurred just as the Mansion House train was pulling into Charing Cross. This was less dangerous, with only lights and windows at the station being blown out. Volumes of black dust from the tunnel enveloped the platform, and at first a gas explosion was suspected. Telegraph lines were cut and trains had to be suspended pending investigations. Windows from the nearby St Stephen's Club were also broken. Fortunately there were no trains in that part of the underground at that time. Mr Killingsworth Hedges, an engineer, remarked, 'That the disaster was in no way due to anything connected with the trains is evident from the fact that at the time it occurred, there was no train in the section between Charing Cross and Westminster.'

About 40 people on the train near Praed Street were injured by these bombs. Most were sent to St Mary's Hospital so that their injuries could be seen to. Dr Owens, the medical superintendent there, oversaw their care. Fortunately, none had life-threatening wounds. Most only suffered cuts from flying glass. Only four people had to be admitted as in-patients. Richard Brown, aged 45, was the most badly hurt. An artery had been cut and he had, at first, bled profusely. Walter Warren, a corporal in the Dragoon Guards, suffered from concussion as well as numerous cuts. Some suffered from shock and others from temporary deafness. Two days after the explosion, all were recovering. Two schoolboys were sent to a nearby hotel for the night and went home the next day.

On 2 November, both the Home Office and the Metropolitan and District Railway companies offered £500 each for the apprehension of the perpetrators. Meanwhile, Colonel Mejendie, an explosives expert employed by the Home Office, had been busily investigating the rolling stock which passed over the lines just before the explosions, as well as interviewing the railway staff who had witnessed the explosions. Chemistry experts were also employed. Inspector Frederick Abberline, a key officer in the hunt for Jack the Ripper in 1888, was also one of the leading detectives in this case. They found four rockets, but upon examination these turned out to be fireworks of the type used by schoolboys in the run-up to 5 November, not dynamite cartridges. Yet dynamite had been used to cause these explosions.

It was thought that the explosive near Charing Cross was the work of someone on an earlier train. A vessel containing the explosive, and set with a time fuse, was lowered by a piece of string and dropped over the window of the last carriage. It was thought that the string had been measured so the explosive could be slung just above ground level and then could be dropped without causing a premature explosion. Then the string was cut and the time fuse began to burn.

However, that at Praed Street was laid in a hole in the tunnel's brickwork. Apparently there was a ten-minute interval between trains in the case of the latter and men had been allowed to wander into these tunnels. This practice was now cancelled.

Then there was the question as to culpability. Some initially thought that the explosions might have been accidental or the work of discharged railway workers. Yet this was deemed a deliberate plot, similar to that against the local government offices in Charles Street, Westminster, earlier that year. It was thought that the criminals were not men knowledgeable of London, because neither blast damaged any public buildings as that in March had. The aim of the explosions was evidently to cause alarm, wreck trains and injure passengers. However, no one was ever apprehended for either crime.

Yet Londoners did not panic and remained calm. As The Times observed on 1 November, 'It is greatly to the credit of the people of London that there has been no approach to panic, still less to any rash impulses of suspicion and vengeance.' Perhaps this was partly because there was no loss of life – when Fenians had killed over a dozen people in Clerkenwell in 1867 with a bomb, some Irish workers in the capital were sacked because of doubtless unjust suspicion against them on account of their nationality. Ironically, it was noted, in 1883, 'If among the dynamite party there was a man willing really to take his life in his hand, the doctrine of spoliation and disruption might have been terribly asserted.' In other words, had this been a case of what would now be termed a suicide bomber, death and devastation would have been high – as was discovered in 2005.

The bombers struck again in February 1884, and this time their plans were more ambitious. There were attempts made to destroy parts of four major London railway stations: Victoria, Charing Cross, Ludgate Hill and Paddington. The only one which actually detonated was at 1 am on Tuesday 25 February at Victoria. It was fortunate that the station was almost deserted and that no lives were lost – a quarter or half an hour earlier and that would almost certainly not have been the case. A large portion of the long frontage of the station was blown to smithereens. Various offices there were completely wrecked and the gas pipes were leaking. Fire broke out, but the station staff contained the blaze until the Fire Brigade could arrive and douse the flames. Apparently at 8 on the previous evening, a respectably dressed man had deposited a portmanteau at the cloakroom, as the attendant recalled. One of the cases was heavy and the gentleman asked it be handled with care. It was this case which was later to be found – or rather the remains of it – at the centre of the area affected by the explosion. Luckily, the clock fuse, which was probably set to 12, went off an hour late.

After the explosion at Victoria, extra vigilance was clearly visible in other major railway termini in London. At Charing Cross, on Wednesday, 27 February, just before midnight, bearing in mind what had happened at Victoria, the cloakroom porter was told to investigate any items which looked suspicious and had been deposited in the cloakroom there. He found a black portmanteau which seemed unusually heavy, and was later found to weigh 27 pounds. It was opened, and beneath some old clothes, and some daily English newspapers of 20 and 21 February 1884, were found cakes of a peculiar nature, which were labelled Atlas Powder. This was an explosive made of pure nitroglycerine and sawdust, added together so it would not explode in handling by its operators, and was manufactured in America. It was illegal to import it into England. There was a detonator attached which should have caused the device to explode, but it had failed to do so. The man who left it may have been about five feet ten, because that was the size of the trousers found within the case.

A similar discovery was made on the afternoon of the same day at Paddington. Two days previously, a brown leather portmanteau, studded with brass knobs of American make, and of a similar weight, had been deposited in the cloakroom there. It was opened and inside were found 46 cakes of Atlas powder, some in a cash box and the others surrounding it. There was a clockwork timer attached, but for some reason, perhaps a faulty mechanism, it had failed to detonate. It was timed to explode at midnight, but the clock had stopped at 9.10. It was exactly the same as the devices found elsewhere. However, in this case there was a copy of the New York Sun of 6 February 1884. Although the attendant was questioned about the man who left it, he could give no clue to his identity because on that evening, it had been very busy and usually between 300 and 400 cases were deposited daily. Yet the man depositing the bag was probably reasonably well to do because the case was not inexpensive, costing between 20s and 25s.


Excerpted from "Great Train Crimes"
by .
Copyright © 2010 Jonathan Oates.
Excerpted by permission of Pen and Sword Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Plates,
1 Railways and Crime,
2 The Gold Bullion Robbery, 1855,
3 The First Railway Murder, 1864,
4 An Officer, But Not a Gentleman? 1875,
5 The Murder on the Brighton Line, 1881,
6 The Death of a Farmer, 1901,
7 The Mystery of Merstham Tunnel, 1905,
8 The Newcastle to Alnmouth Railway Murder, 1910,
9 Murder on the Brighton Line, 1914,
10 The Most Foul of Murders, 1915,
11 Death of 'the White Queen', 1920,
12 A Crime of Passion, 1927,
13 Murder on the Underground, 1939,
14 Wartime Murder, 1942,
15 Death at West Croydon Station, 1945,
16 Death of a Railway Servant, 1952,
17 The Difficult Passenger's End, 1962,
18 Throat Cutting on a Slow Train, 1964,
19 Death of a Housewife, 1965,
20 Killed for a Snub, 1965,
21 Miscellaneous Train Crimes, 1897–2008,

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