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The bloody origins of the modern bowler hat

The short bowler hat as we know it developed from a brutal murder in London in the 1860s. In the second half of the 19th century, bowlers were worn mostly by the working classes in Britain, with a crown that was much taller than the bowlers we’re used to now. More similar to the top hat, in fact. This 1877 photo from John Thomson shows the original height (the fellow on the right).

Chris Payne’s book Chieftain: Victorian True Crime Through the Eyes of a Scotland Yard Detective explains how the murder of Thomas Briggs in 1864 led to the development of the more compact bowler hat that we would recognize now. Briggs’s unconscious body was discovered on the trainline outside Hackney Wick, London. His head had been battered multiple times and his body thrown out of a moving train. Briggs later died in hospital.

The victim was known to wear one of the tall, bell-crowned hats pictured above. However, the hat was missing from the murder scene. Instead, there was a black beaver hat made for a smaller head. This turned out to be a vital clue. When the police eventually tracked down the suspect, Franz Mueller, they found a shorter-than-normal bowler hat in his possession. On further inspection, they found that Mueller had cut out a section to make it fit better, then repasted the felt to disguise the alteration. The case was covered extensively in the newspapers, and 50,000 people turned up to watch Mueller’s execution.

Payne reports that hatters cashed in on the huge publicity around the trial by producing cut-down bowler hats like the one below, which they called ‘Muller hats’. These shorter hats eventually become more popular than the original high-crowned affairs, until the taller bowlers disappeared entirely.

This murder case also contributed to East End slang, where the word ‘mullered’ meant ‘murdered’. This eventually came to mean ‘very drunk’ (e.g. I was mullered last night) and is still used in this sense.

Forthcoming events

Thursday, March 28: Historical Crime Panel in Penarth Pier Pavilion, Wales arranged by Griffin Books. I’ll be in conversation along with Alis Hawkins and Katherine Stansfield. Location to be confirmed. Tickets here.

Thursday May 21st: An evening event in Pinner in Brooks Bookshop. I’ll be in conversation along with Leigh Russell and Len Tyler.

Saturday June 8: Heffers’ “Murder Will Out” Crime Festival in Emmanuel College, Cambridge. ‘…. a murderously good day of panel discussions, book signings – and answering those author questions you’ve been just dying to ask.’ Featuring: Fiona Barton, Simon Brett, Julia Chapman, Rory Clements, Mick Finlay, Lucy Foley, Elly Griffiths, Mick Herron, Lisa Jewell, Gytha Lodge, Alex Michaelides, Anthony Quinn, William Shaw, Laura Shepherd-Robinson and L C Tyler.

Book tickets here.