Murder on the Brighton Line

The Murder of Mr Isaac GOLD by Percy LEFROY, 1881

Mr Golds Murder 27061881When the 2.0 p.m. train from London Bridge arrived at Preston Park Station just outside Brighton on the afternoon of Monday, 27th June, 1881, a ticket collector saw a man step unsteadily on to the platform from a first class carriage. He was covered in blood, hatless, without a collar and tie, and very distressed. The collector went to his assistance and he told the collector that he had been attacked just before the train entered Merstham Tunnel.

He gave a description of two men who had travelled in the same compartment and said that after receiving a blow on the head he remembered nothing more until the train reached Preston Park. The collector saw nobody else alight from the compartment but he observed that a piece of watch chain was hanging from one of the man’s boots. He pointed this out and the passenger remarked that he had put it there for safety. The condition of this strange and somewhat battered passenger, who gave his name as Percy Mapleton LEFROY, was such that the station master arranged for the platform inspector to take him to the Police Station at the Town Hall, while the collector was sent to advise the Railway Police. There-after the situation developed in such a way that the obtuseness of the railway officials and of the Borough and Railway Police became the subject of editorial comment in The Times while other newspapers said unkind things in less polite terms.

LEFROY made an official complaint at the Police Station and was then taken to the County Hospital for his injuries to be treated. The doctor wanted to detain him but LEFROY insisted upon returning to London where he had an important engagement (although he had only just arrived in Brighton). However, he went to the Police Station first (buying a collar and tie on the way) and was interviewed by several officers, including the Chief Constable. LEFROY made a statement and also generously offered a reward for the capture of his assailant. He then went to Brighton Station and at this stage somebody seems to have been a little suspicious because he was taken into an office and searched. Two old (counterfeit) coins were found in his possession. He denied all knowledge of these.

In the meantime the carriage was shunted into a siding and an examination made. Three bullet marks were found and there was blood everywhere – on the footboard, mat, and door handle, and also on a handkerchief and newspaper left in the compartment. There was, in fact, every sign of a fierce struggle. There were also some coins similar to those found on LEFROY.

In spite of obvious inconsistencies in his story and of the highly suspicious circumstances, neither the Brighton Police, nor the Railway Police considered it necessary to detain LEFROY. But they were uneasy and although LEFROY was permitted to join a London train arrangements were made for him to be accompanied by a detective named George HOLMES.

At this period some of the railway undertakings, including the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, supplemented their own Police staff by the employment of Metropolitan Police officers who were seconded by Scotland Yard for the purpose. The salaries of these officers were paid to Scotland Yard by the railways concerned. Detective Sergeant George HOLMES was one of these officers and the widespread criticism of his negligence in this case caused Scotland Yard to disown him by issuing a public statement to the effect that he had been a Metropolitan officer for eleven years but was now working for the railway. It is always easy to be wise after the event but perhaps poor HOLMES was a little slow as will be seen.

While LEFROY and HOLMES were travelling back to London a search of the line was organised. In Balcombe Tunnel railway staff found the body of an elderly man, later identified as a retired corn merchant named GOLD, who lived in Brighton. Mr. GOLD had been shot and stabbed and near his body was found a knife smeared with blood. It was soon learned that he had been robbed of his watch and chain and a considerable sum of money. The news of the finding of the body was passed along the line and at Three Bridges the station master told HOLMES what had happened. HOLMES was also instructed by telegram from Brighton not to let LEFROY out of his sight. LEFROY had recovered his balance by this time and on the pretext that he wanted to change his clothes he talked HOLMES into accompanying him to an address at Wallington, Surrey where a relative kept a boarding house. They arrived at the house at 9.30 p.m. and Holmes waited outside. He waited a long time because, while his attention was otherwise engaged, LEFROY left the house and disappeared.

Mapleton Wanted Poster 27061881A country-wide search was made for LEFROY and his description was published in all the papers. The Daily Telegraph made newspaper history by publishing the portrait of a wanted man for the first time. As usual, men answering the description were seen all over the country and one man was arrested but later released. A conference was held at London Bridge Station and all the railway staff involved were questioned by detective officers. The inquest on Mr. GOLD was opened on 29th June and lasted several days. HOLMES and other officers had a bad time in the witness box and a verdict of wilful murder against LEFROY was returned. The Railway Company then offered a substantial reward for information leading to his arrest.

Great interest was taken by the public in the daily hue and cry for the missing LEFROY and at last on 8th July he was found in a house at 32, Smith Street, Stepney, where he was lodging in the name of’ “PARK”. He had kept the blinds down in his room all day and gone out only at night. Bloodstained clothing was found in his room and since he had already been identified as a man who had exchanged some counterfeit coins and also pawned a revolver, the evidence against him was overwhelming. He was a journalist by profession and a plausible type. When arrested, he said, “I am not obliged to say anything and I think it better not to make any answer.” The arresting officer wrote this down in his note book and read it over to LEFROY who added, “I will qualify that by saying I am not guilty.”

LEFROY appeared at Cuckfield Police Court and in due course was tried at Maidstone Assizes before Lord Chief Justice COLERIDGE. The jury found him guilty after a retirement of ten minutes. Evidence was given by a number of railway witnesses including HOLMES, the booking Clerk who issued a ticket to LEFROY, the guard of the train, the ticket collector at Preston Park, and also by a woman living at Horley who saw two men struggling violently in a train as it passed her cottage.

LEFROY (whose real name was MAPLETON) was hanged at Lewes on 29th November, 1881. At the time of the murder he was desperately short of money and went to London Bridge for the purpose of robbing a passenger. He had hoped to find a lady who would yield to threats but he met a courageous old gentleman who compelled him to murder. LEFROY was a poor specimen and incredibly vain. He asked for permission to wear full evening dress in court because he thought it would impress the jury. He was allowed to take his silk hat and took more interest in this than he did in the proceedings.

It was a long time before the Press and Public forgot the strange lapse of the officials concerned in the case. The L.B.S.C. Rly. were subjected to a great deal of ridicule and no doubt many Police officers were urged to greater care in future. But they had little cause to worry because it was sixteen years before the next murder on the railway.

Webmaster’s Note:
This article was written by William Owen GAY (later Chief Constable of the British Transport Police) and was part of a series “Murder in Transit” published in the BTP Journal.