Horror in the Balcombe Tunnel
Brighton Museum & Art Gallery
Horror in Balcombe Tunnel 1881
64 year old Isaac Frederick Gold, a former stockbroker of 13 Clermont Terrace, Preston, Brighton.
Although of fine build he was of a nervous disposition and slept with his bedroom door locked for fear of intruders.
Rather miserly he was said to be very ‘close’ with his money and when taking savings to the bank only carried a small amount of silver.
Every Monday morning he travelled to London to attend to his investments. He hated these trips because they brought him in to contact with the general public who he was convinced would pry into his affairs and trick him into giving them information he would rather keep to himself.
I always think of him as a frightened Mr Toad from Wind in the Willows trying to melt into his seat. Terrified that he might be approached by a fellow traveller he always pretended to be asleep
Mapleton, Arthur Lefroy
Percy Lefroy Mapleton, aged 22, a failed author, journalist and actor form Carshalton in Surrey, was a vain, greedy petty thief subject to frequent mood swings.
If ever there was a case that supported the phrenologists’ claims that one could identify a criminal by the shape of the head, this was it.
He reminds me of one of the weasels who attacked Toad Hall. Barely 5ft 8in he was a weedy, gangly character who looked like a match with the wood scraped off.
Surprisingly respectful and deferential to his superiors he was very plausible. By 1881 he was almost bankrupt and heavily in debt to certain gentlemen who were pressing him for repayment.
He didn’t have the build of a mugger or the skills of a bank robber or house burglar, however, if he redeemed his small calibre revolver and could find a suitably wealthy victim in the right place he could solve all his problems.
On the sweltering afternoon of June 27th 1881, Percy armed with a revolver, knife and what little money he had left travelled to London Bridge station and purchased a first class single ticket to Brighton.
He got out at East Croydon and walked past the first class carriages until he spotted the solitary Mr Gold who’d caught the 2.10pm from London expecting to arrive at Preston Park by 3.30pm.
Gold’s sleeping ruse was a fairly sound course of action unless the only other occupant of the compartment happened to be a gun toting criminal intent on murder, which on this particular day was indeed the case.
Percy climbed in and sat opposite Mr Gold who was sitting in the middle of the carriage with his back to the engine. Perfect.
Of course gun shots make a loud noise and could alarm or alert other passengers to Mr Gold’s plight and it was also possible that Percy’s actions would be witnessed by members of the public on station platforms or sitting in their gardens. He chose the ideal spot. Noisy and dark!
He fired three or four shots but failed to kill or even incapacitate his intended victim. Mr Gold launched himself at Percy and a desperate and protracted struggle ensued with Mr Gold trying to throttle Percy who was clearly no physical match for his more robust opponent. Finally, in Balcombe Tunnel many miles down the line He managed to open the door and force Mr Gold out of the compartment and to his death.
All that glisters is not gold
An exhausted and blood splattered Percy wrenched open Mr Gold’s purse only to face bitter disappointment. Barely half a sovereign in silver.
In desperation Percy hurled his revolver, blood stained collar and other incriminating evidence out of the window and slipped his victim’s watch into his shoe. In his panicked state he failed to notice Mr Gold’s blood-stained umbrella and was about to throw it out of the window when the train started to reduce speed. Terrified it might be Brighton he looked out the window and noticed it was Hassocks Gate station. He was about to alight and make a run for it when the train started to move off.
Frightened and dispirited he decided to give himself up and make a clean breast of it. However, by the time he reached Clayton Tunnel he’d changed his mind and decided that anything was better than the hangman’s noose. He finally stumbled out of the train, blood splattered and dishevelled, at Preston Park station.
Preston Park Station
He was helped by Collector Gibson and told him that he had been murderously attacked. Taken straight to Station Master Hall he recounted how he had been attacked by two men, one a prosperous looking gentleman in his late fifties and the other a rough ‘country type’ with whiskers. In Mersham Tunnel he heard a loud report and received a violent blow to the head. He remembered nothing after that until he woke up bleeding on the floor of the compartment. Both Hall and Gibson wondered where the two assailants could have got off the train. Guard Watson was curious to know why Percy had a watch hanging from his shoe. Percy said he knew nothing about it and Watson placed it on the seat next to him. A few minutes later it was in Percy’s pocket.
Percy was escorted by Gibson to Brighton station and Station Master Anscombe arranged for a medical examination. Percy was beginning to enjoy all the attention but was not keen to report to the police. In the company of Watson and Gibson he was taken to the police headquarters at the Town Hall where, much to his dismay, he discovered that he had both Gold’s purse and wallet in his pocket. Excusing himself he disposed of them down a lavatory pipe whilst his escort waited dutifully outside the door.
Although questioned no one checked his credentials, wondered why he had a single ticket or showed any surprise when he insisted on returning immediatly to London, which he’d only left an hour and a half before, to attend urgent business. His desire to be off as quickly as possible still raised no eyebrows. When asked the purpose of his trip he claimed that he had a meeting with Mrs Nye Chart, the manageress of the Theatre Royal to discuss a play he was writing for her. Not only did the police fail to contact Mrs Chart but they were so impressed that he was aquainted with a local personage of such distinction that their attitude towards Percy quickly changed and they issued a generous reward for the capture of his fictitious assailants.
However the police did decide that his movements should be monitored and despite Percy’s protestations, DS George Holmes was assigned to accompany him on his return journey. They duly caught the 6.10 from Brighton. In a neighbouring siding sightseers were watching the team checking over the carriage Percy had travelled in.
Scene of Crime
Less than two hours earlier two railway workers had discovered Mr Gold’s body in Balcombe Tunnel, a broken gold watch chain around his neck. The railway men quickly left the tunnel to reported their find.
Balcombe signal box was alerted and from there a message was telegraphed to London. There was some considerable delay at London Bridge while they waited for permission to relay the signal along the line to other stations. But more significantly, Brighton, the Southern headquarters of the company’s police, was not contacted at all.
By 8.15 pm Mrs Gold, fearful for he husband, walked down to Preston Park station to enquire if there had been an accident of some sort that might have delayed him. Station Master Hall assured her that no such incident had occurred and that everything been had been normal
Due to a slip up at the Post Office it was not until 10.00pm that she received the telegram from Balcombe informing her that her husband’s body had been discovered nearly six hours earlier.
It was not until nearly midnight that Mrs Gold arrived at Balcombe to identify her husband. Unfortunately she was in no fit state to do so and he was identified by her friend Mrs Hollis who was also able to give a detailed description of Mr Gold’s watch. It was gold with the maker’s name, Griffiths, Mile End Road, upon its white face. This could well be the link between Mr Gold and his killer, Percy.
DS George Holmes
Holmes was informed of the body’s discovery when the 6.10 stopped at Balcombe and was advised to keep a close eye on Percy, which he singularly failed to do. On arriving at Percy’s lodgings in Wallington the owners Mr and Mrs Clayton were informed that DS Holmes was Percy’s bodyguard.
In a telegram the Croydon police alerted Holmes to the importance of the watch and asked him to check the make and number. Holmes still appeared not to realise the significance of the information and enjoyed a leisurely chat with the Claytons before approaching Percy. When he finally asked Percy for the number on his watch he replied 56312. The true number was 16261. DS Holmes happily agreed that it was difficult to remember such things and unquestioningly accepted Percy’s claim that he did not know the maker’s name because he’d bought the watch from a friend. Holmes didn’t ask who the friend was.
Holmes checked with Percy where he would be the following morning and left for Wallington Station where he received a second telegram advising him of the make and number of Percy’s watch. Finally he realised the opportunity he’d missed and rushed back to the Claytons only to find that Percy had done a runner.
Evasion, Capture and Verdict
The following day Percy threw the watch off Blackfriars Bridge. He took up lodgings in Stepney under the name of Clark and endeavoured to keep his head down.
The afternoon following Percy’s escape, ‘Wanted for Murder’ police notices giving a concise description of Percy began appearing in almost every public location. A week later they produced a new poster offering a £200 reward. The Daily Telegraph made newspaper history by obtaining and publishing Percy’s picture.
By this time Percy was desperately short of money so he broke cover and sent a telegram to his old employer asking for his wages to be sent to 32 Smith Street, Stepney. They didn’t arrive but two police inspectors did and arrested poor old Percy. It was July 8th.
He was taken to Lewes prison and on November 4th stood trial before Lord Chief Justice Coleridge. Of course he pleaded ‘not guilty’.
It didn’t make any difference. The bloody umbrella found so close to Brighton was the most damning of all the evidence presented. If the numerous contradictions in his evidence didn’t sway the jury, Justice Coleridge’s one sided, lengthy summing up certainly did. The jury took just ten minutes to reach a guilty verdict.
‘Gentleman of the jury, some day, when too late, you will learn that you have murdered me’
On November 29th Percy was hanged at Lewes Gaol by the only competent person in this whole sorry affair.
William Marwood developed the long drop technique and in nine years executed 178 people, not including Irish Nationalists. Percy was in good hands.
Historical consultant David Rowland
www.amazon.co.uk/ David – Rowland