Kate Colquhoun

Historical sensation

During the summer of 1864 the British newspaper-reading public was gripped by reports of the first ever murder on their railways. First came descriptions of the discovery of a bloody railway carriage and the battered body of an elderly, respected City man. Police posters on street corners across the land screamed bloody murder. A crushed hat, found in the compartment but not belonging to the victim, was the only clue.

Shock was quickly followed by widespread anxiety. Fear began to radiate along the length of every train and, as the reaction of the public grew more febrile, some considered arming themselves and others wondered if they should make out their wills before embarking on a train journey. The violent assault on Thomas Briggs in his First Class compartment trounced the public’s peace of mind by bursting out of the usual backstreet or domestic loci to suggest that danger was random and that one’s ordinary day could be plunged into chaotic hell.  Further, it reinforced existing contemporary anxieties about the price that might have to be paid for all this shiny modernity. It apparently proved that the nation’s cleverness had spawned its vulnerability.

‘Sensation’ novels – like Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1860) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s infamous Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) – were then the rage, catching the public imagination and selling in their tens of thousands.  Designed to unsettle readers, their complex plots revolved around stolen inheritances, poisonings, imprisonments, adulteries, illegitimacies and night-shrouded skulduggery. Their settings were not the urban criminal underworld favoured by Dickens but the apparently safe domesticity of rural country houses, insinuating that there were cracks within the Victorian ideal. Titillating with their tales of mystery, suspense and danger, they mirrored emotive press coverage of brutal crime and fed the Victorian appetite for reading about transgression. 

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