Mr Briggs’ Hat

I’ve just finished reading an absolutely excellent book – Mr Briggs’ Hat (by Kate Colquhoun) and would heartily recommend it to everyone. It’s a sort of historical detective novel, narrating the true account of a Victorian ‘locked room’ style murder, its investigation and trial. It’s as readable as any novel and all the better for the fact that it relates to a case that was infamous at the time, but that I certainly hadn’t heard of before.

An overview – Thomas Briggs was the chief clerk at a bank. On 9th July 1864 he went to work (it was a Saturday, which was then a working half day). When he finished in the afternoon, he visited his niece before going toFenchurch Street to catch the train home (to Clapton – then a desirable village out ofLondon – how things change). He caught the 9.45pm train (that was running late – some things remain constant) and got in the first class carriage.

A short while later Briggs was dead, seemingly the victim of a robbery. The trail lead, eventually, to a German, Franz Muller, who had recently left the country to New York. We follow the police over the Atlantic, through the extradition procedures and then back to Londonfor an Old Bailey trial (spoiler alert – that website gives away the verdict).

It’s brilliantly written and thoroughly captivating, I devoured it in two sittings. Not only is it a fascinating insight into life at the time, but from a legal point of view, it was really interesting to see the similarities and differences in police procedure and court proceedings.

As it was a capital case, there were two judges on the bench (a precaution that was being phased out). The trial Judge that did the summing up (Baron Pollock) was criticised for diluting the standard of proof (they need “not be as certain as if they had seen events with their own eyes. They must simply exercise as much caution as they would in their ordinary, every day business dealings” – sound familiar?). The Judge had also clearly read about ‘Stop Delaying Justice’ and was keen on controlling the lawyers to make sure that there were no unnecessary delays or inconveniences to witnesses.

Another practice that no longer survives was that (in capital cases) the defence could make an opening speech but not a closing one. And the defendant was not permitted to be interviewed by the police, let alone give evidence.

The sheer speed of proceedings is incredible – the trial started on the 24th October that year, just over three months after the killing, and that’s with two of those being spent on the recovery of Mr Muller from New York. It was not even that there were fewer witnesses, they got through thirty in the trial that only lasted three days.

Dominic Grieve would have had a fit at the press coverage. There were no restrictions on what could or couldn’t be said and it was a massive free for all – not just full details of the investigation and court appearances, but speculation from all sides as to whether Mr Muller was guilty or not. A level of trial by press that, even on a murder charge, an English Judge would probably conclude a fair trial was no longer possible nowadays.

Some things were reassuringly familiar : for example, there were problems over disclosure and it transpired that the police had withheld statements from the defence. Also, there were several leads pointing away from the suspect that the police didn’t chase up. And whilst the summing up was a lot shorter than we would be used to, it leaned subtly, but strongly towards the prosecution.

It’s become fashionable in less intelligent circles to bemoan the fact that things have been weighted too far in the way of the defendants in recent years. They might be interested in the protections on offer then that are no longer…

Muller, being a foreigner, was entitled to a trial by a jury de medietate linghae – a Party Jury – one where half consisted of non British nationals. Can you imagine the reaction of the Daily Mail at that suggestion? He waived that right.

Even before that, there were proper committal proceedings in Bow Street Magistrates’ Court with the Prosecution witnesses giving evidence live and being cross-examined (I can think of several cases I’ve dealt with this year that went right up to the day of trial, with all the costs that that entails, that would not have got past that stage). Even then, there had to be a grand jury to prefer the indictment (although that appears to have been pretty much a formality).

Even after waiving the right to be tried half by foreigners, the defence still had peremptory challenges – Mr Muller could get rid of up to 20 of the jurors in waiting without giving reasons, just because he didn’t like the look of them. And at the end of the trial, the jury had to be unanimous. Hearsay of course was not available for use.  

Whilst the law is less brutal, and more thorough, nowadays (and I’m very relieved that we don’t have the death penalty), the book was a good reminder of some of the liberties and protections that we have allowed to slip through our hands. An excellent read on many levels.


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