I am a big fan of Agatha Christie – her books have always entertained me and her work ethic greatly inspires me. As I’m sure you know, Agatha loved a good train mystery, with Murder on the Orient Express being the most famous.
When I was writing The Battered Body Beneath the Flagstones and Other Victorian Scandals, I wanted to include some train stories in the mix. Here is one I found, which involves an aspiring actress, a train carriage and a good old-fashioned mystery…
Twenty-year-old Lillie Bamford was an actress; at least that’s what she told everyone, anyway. The reality was that the Durham-born woman had only achieved a tiny amount of success in that area, and was more well-known for her dressmaking skills; making clothes for locals from her father’s home. Eager for more success in the acting business, however, Lillie joined a travelling troupe, but her dreams of stardom were thwarted when she became involved with the wrong man and fell pregnant. She returned to her parents’ house, gave birth to a son, then moved to Derby in order to stay with an aunt. Her son was left in the care of her parents, though Lillie kept in touch with them; the last message being that she was settling down and intended to find work as a barmaid.
Belgian-born Robert Feron was – by all accounts – a respectable young man who had come to England to study. After his classes had ended, he had somehow migrated to Derby, where he acquired jobs as a silk merchant and foreign correspondent. Always well-dressed and from a fairly rich family, Feron impressed people wherever he went, and it wasn’t long before he was seen out and about with Lillie Bamford.
Relatives and friends later told police that there was nothing particularly outrageous or strange about their friendship. Lillie had only been in Derby for a few weeks, so the relationship with her new beau was light-hearted and fun. Together they seemed to enjoy some good times and nothing aroused any suspicion or concern from Bamford’s relatives. However, on the evening of 13 April 1889, as the young woman was getting ready for a date with her boyfriend, she said something that attracted a definite raising of the eyebrows.
‘I must put on some clean clothes,’ she said. ‘I’m going to die before the evening is over.’
While the comment was strange – creepy, in fact – it was said in such a calm way that the relative thought she was just making a bizarre joke, and said no more about it. A short time later, Feron came to pick up his sweetheart in a cab, presenting her with a bunch of lilies as he did so. The couple bid the family goodbye and went on their way.
They arrived at Derby station at 6.20 p.m., where they were seen laughing and being affectionate on the platform and in the first-class lounge. The couple then boarded a train to Nottingham where they headed to a local hotel for refreshments. While there, nobody reported any suspicious or agitated behaviour. However, when they made their return journey to Derby at 9.20 p.m., things were about to take a sinister turn.
Feron and Bamford were the only couple in the carriage and, as the train pulled into Trent station just six miles away, the conductor opened the door to check their tickets. Instead of a standard conversation, however, he was shocked to discover the young couple completely covered in blood. Closer inspection revealed that Lillie had been shot in the right temple and Feron in the left. He was quite dead, but she still showed signs of life.
The panicked conductor called for assistance and it was decided that the couple should remain on the train to Derby. The hope was that they could be transferred to the main hospital, where Bamford might possibly be saved. During the journey, the train staff had time to investigate the surroundings. The scene was grizzly, bloody and mysterious. Who had shot the couple and where had they gone?
All became clear when a revolver was found in the carriage and six spare bullets were discovered in Feron’s breast pocket. It was obvious the man had shot his girlfriend and then himself at point-blank range. When the train pulled into Derby station, the couple were transferred to the hospital, where Feron was pronounced dead on arrival. Bamford hung on but passed away just fifteen minutes after arriving.
Nobody could understand why the tragedy had happened, since no quarrel or fight had been heard either before or during the train journey. Passengers in the next carriage – who were reported to be in a great deal of excitement after hearing the news – told reporters that there had been no signs of violence coming from their carriage at all. Furthermore, they swore they hadn’t even heard any gunshots echoing through the walls.
An answer to the mystery seemed in sight when detectives searched Feron’s pockets and found an abundance of notes and letters to his parents and various friends. ‘I intend to take my own life,’ said one. ‘You will know the reason later on.’ Unfortunately he never left any other clues as to why the tragedy occurred, and friends surmised he may have been jealous because Bamford was considered a great beauty with many admirers.
Lillie Bamford’s family were left to forever ponder the strange comments she had made earlier that evening. Had the woman known she would be murdered because her jealous boyfriend had threatened it? Was it an agreed double-suicide, based on her disappointing acting aspirations? Or was her remark about dying just a strange but coincidental comment? They never found out and the mystery of the railway deaths was never solved.
This story and dozens more can be found in my book, The Battered Body Beneath the Flagstones and other Victorian Scandals. It is available to buy or order from all good book shops and the Little, Brown website.
Until next time.