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By Tom Shillam on

Carriage Keys and Claustrophobia: Early Railway Compartments

How has the mystery and potential danger of rail travel been reflecting in popular culture, from newspapers to songs?

In this guest blog post, Tom Shillam looks at the anxiety-inducing travelling conditions of early railway services and how these were reflected in popular culture.


Late at night on 9 July 1864, the driver of a train of empty carriages from Hackney Wick to Fenchurch Street, in suburban London, spotted the body of a man lying between the lines.

Not long before, a train had passed this spot and stopped at Hackney. There, two men climbed into the compartment of a first-class carriage. Discovering stains of blood on cushions, they alighted, horrified, and called the guard.

The victim turned out to be Thomas Briggs, a city banker, and the culprit was quickly identified as Franz Müller, a local tailor. Müller was missing and both the Government and the North London Railway Company offered £100 rewards for his capture – about £8,623 in today’s money. Remarkably, this was the first railway murder in Britain – at least three decades after Britain first experienced ‘Railway Mania’.

Müller was described as ‘age 30, height 5 feet 6 or 7 inches, complexion sallow thin features, a foreigner – supposed German – speaks good English; dress black frock coat and vest, dark trousers, black hat’.

The murder gripped the Victorian imagination for years to come – it was in the ensuing 10 years that detective fiction around the concept of locked-room murder developed – and provoked interest further afield; New Yorkers questioned the ‘English man’s adhesion to the system of substituting boxes for carriages’. [1]

This was in reference to first and second-class carriages on British railways which were separated into compartments. These compartments were locked from the outside by guards in-between stops – some travellers purchased and carried their own carriage keys, but most had to cope with an acute claustrophobia. They were also cut off from the rest of the train; where third and fourth-class carriages were a single space, travellers in first and second-class had no means of contact with the outside world. How were they to know that, in the terrifyingly anonymous setting of a railway carriage, another Franz Müller wasn’t waiting to pounce? [2]

Following Briggs’ murder the sensation of being stuck in a ‘box’ became too much. Newspaper columns filled up with complaints about railway companies’ dogged refusal to install a reliable method of communication between compartment and driver, and parliamentary debates got heated. Mr Darby Griffith, MP for Devizes, brandished a railway key in the face of several gentlemen opposed to reform, demanding to know whether they believed that it would be an offence, or illegal act, for him to use it in the event of an accident to free himself from a compartment. [3]

One journalist, writing in the Hereford Journal, demanded that the ‘practice of locking railway carriages’ be abolished altogether, pointing out that these keys were ‘very useful to the possessors’ but ‘a great nuisance to others’. These scraps of metal had become symbols of concealed distrust in railway compartments – the journalist worried about ‘the designing villain’ locking ‘his victim in if it suits the scoundrel’s purpose’. [4]

Some writers went further; an article in The Hull Packet declared that the lack of some form of communication cord through the compartments was a ‘heinous offence against the public’ of which ‘railway directors’, among others, were guilty. It rejected the claim made by railway companies that carriages were locked simply to prevent honest people jumping out, claiming the real reason was their desire to ‘prevent swindlers, who have not paid for their tickets, from jumping in’. [5]

In 1866 a bill was introduced to compel the directors of railway companies to introduce a method of communication between sealed-off compartments and the guard’s van; finally, in 1868, the Regulations of Railways Act made this mandatory on all non-stop trains travelling more than 20 miles.

The method of communication would be a ‘communication cord’ running along the outside of the train under the roof gutter, attached to a bell in the guard’s van. [6]

Promising in principle, it was to be a disappointment in practice: this new-fangled piece of technology often failed at the critical moment. On leaving Blisworth Station in 1871, for example, a Mr Galloway was forced to pull the cord ‘about 20 times’ to no avail, after a man in his compartment ‘went mad’. Galloway was forced to brawl with the man until the next stop, Rugby, where he thought the man ‘was dead…it was something frightful’. [7]

Frightful, frantic, frenetic – all are fitting labels for the way in which citizens like Mr Galloway regarded rail travel in the ensuing decades. A host of cheap, sensational periodicals were overrunning Britain at the time and, following Briggs’ murder, there was an opening in the market for railway-related scandal.

Crime fiction couldn’t fill this completely – many Victorians yearned for something more bloodcurdling. Illustrated Police News, one of Britain’s first tabloids, catered for these readers.

Launched in 1864, its circulation grew rapidly, and as Scottish travel writer Innes Shand recorded, it was soon ‘to be found in every town and village in England’. Its sensational reconstructions of brutal crimes, whether on railway carriages or otherwise, frustrated Shand: ‘It is an unflattering comment on our boasted civilisation that the worst papers have the largest circulation’, he blasted. [8]

But was the murder of Thomas Briggs really that much of a turning point?

Long before the hysteria about carriage keys and communication cords reached fever pitch, middle-class travellers had been worrying about locomotive compartments. These travellers commonly complained about feeling like ‘parcels’ trapped in a ‘mechanical horse’.

Before railways revolutionised travel, the everyday humdrum of middle-class life hadn’t been disturbed by industrial capitalism. Labourers had long since moved from the field into the factory and adjusted to a ‘mechanical’ rhythm of life, but the better-off remained rooted in time and place. Each region of the country, isolated from others, had its individual time-of-day, minutes ahead or behind neighbouring regions, and communities seemed to spring up out of the soil; in the coach chamber, a former method of travel for the better-off, conversation flowed.

But conversation did not flow in first and second-class compartments, despite their design being based on the coach chamber, with passengers facing one another. Familiar sights, sounds, smells and voices were replaced by something comparably brutal and relentless; a locomotive engine which, said many travellers, ‘shoots through like a bullet’.

Complaints about the speed of the machine were rife; one was unable to enjoy the ‘beautiful prospects of hill and dale’ which had been delightfully close at hand in the coach chamber. People felt like they were ‘flying’. Until then their livelihoods had been intimately tied up with nature and landscape, hence the comparison of trains to horses. The sense of no longer being subject to the whims of Mother Earth, but to those of a monumental industrial machine which appeared to operate of its own accord with no regard for the laws of nature, was too much for some. [9]

William Wordsworth’s words, upon hearing of a plan to extend a railway from Kendal to Windermere in 1844, sum this up aptly:

“Is there no nook of English ground secure from rash assault?

And is no nook of English ground secure
From rash assault? Schemes of retirement sown
In youth, and ‘mid the busy world kept pure
As when their earliest flowers of hope were blown,
Must perish; – how can they this blight endure?
And must he too his old delights disown
Who scorns a false utilitarian lure
‘Mid his paternal fields at random thrown?
Baffle the threat, bright scene, from Orrest head
Given to the pausing traveller’s rapturous glance;
Plead for thy peace thou beautiful romance
Of nature; and, if human hearts be dead,
Speak, passing winds; ye torrents, with your strong
And constant voice, protest against the wrong!” [10]

Ultimately the sense of unease in railway compartments ran much deeper than its earliest expression, right after the first railway murder, might suggest. Early railways were carving not just into cherished countryside, but directly into the ‘human hearts’ of a way of life as yet unaffected by the industrial winds of change sweeping the country.


[1] Kate Colquhoun, Murder in the First-Class Carriage: The First Victorian Railway Killing (New York: The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc.).
[2] Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialisation of Time and Space in the 19th Century (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1986).
[3] Railway News and Joint-Stock Journal, Volume IV—December 1865, 38.
[4] “Locked In,” Hereford Journal, August 31, 1867, 4.
[5] “The “Locking-In” Grievance,” The Hull Packet and East Riding Times, October 5, 1866, 5.
[6] Colquhoun, Murder in the First-Class Carriage.
[7] Communication on Railways with Guard or Driver,” Birmingham Daily Post, November 1, 1871, 6.
[8] Innes Shand, “Contemporary Literature (No VIII). Newspaper Offices, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine.” in Popular Print Media 1820-1900, Volume III, edited by Andrew King and John Plunkett (New York: Routledge, 2004), 253.
[9] Schivelbusch, Industrialisation of Time and Space.
[10] “Poem by Wordsworth, Suggested by the Proposed Kendal and Windermere Railway,” British Library, accessed March 5, 2017,

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