When one thinks of dangers associated with early railways, one thinks of derailments and train crashes. Many of the people who came to see George Stephenson's first train on the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825 expected to see a disaster, and disasters were not long in coming: In 1830 William Huskisson, a Member of Parliament, died when struck by a passing train. Nonetheless, for most passengers extortion and outright robbery proved more common dangers than train wrecks. According to Peter Kalla-Bishop,
In the mid-nintettenth century, the railway traveller — and men in particular — often had to cope with danger as well as discomfort. Trains were frequented by cardsharps, thimble-riggers [con men who play the shell game], pickpockets, robbers and murderers, whose fondness for dressing up as clergymen often gave the impression that the Church of England had ordered a mass exchange of incumbents.
These threats to the wallet and the person could not be avoided by wisely choosing a compartment occupied by a lady. In the absence of corridors many of these apparent ladies turne dout to be blackmailers who, unless their demands were met, proved only too ready to march upo to a porter at th eend of the journey and make accusations of "improper advances." The word around the clubs was that it was safer to travel in make company while bearing in mind the advice of The Railway Traveller's Handy Book of 1862: "In going through a tunnel it is always as well to have the hands and arms disposed for defence so that in the event of an attack the assailant may be immediately beaten back or restrained."
The first murder on a British train was Thomas Briggs, a 69-year-old clerk, battered to death and thrown onto the line while travelling to London on the 21.50 from Broad Street to Poplar in July 1864. The motive appeared to be robbery as his gold watch and chain, and gold-rimmed glasses, were found to be missing. [14-15]
How do Kalla-Bishop's comments affect your notion of the Victorian years as an age of civility?
Did crime on the trains simply echo crime in British cities?
Can you think of any Victorian novels that include such attacks? How does Kalla-Bishop's information help explain Dickens's nostalgia for coach travel in Pickwick Papers?
Kalla-Bishop, Peter. The Golden Years of Trains, 1830-1920. London: Phoebus, 1977; New York: Crescent Books, 1977.
Last modified 8 February 2013