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The Case of the Monkey on the Railway

As guest author Alexandra Foulds notes, this post came about by a chance connection on Twitter – fortunately, though the subject matter is, perhaps needless to say, unfortunate. We’re really pleased to feature it, and look forward to working with St George’s University of London Archives again in the future. As this blog post makes clear, there’s plenty of railway content in their post mortem records.


At the end of 2017 St George’s University of London received funding from Wellcome to conserve, digitise and catalogue the archive’s collections of post mortem examinations and casebooks. These were created by St George’s Hospital and Medical School between 1841 and 1946 and they contain the medical case notes and post mortem reports from patients that died at St George’s Hospital in this period, which at the time was located at Hyde Park Corner.

St George’s Hospital was a voluntary hospital, which meant that the majority of its patients were from the lower classes as wealthier patients could afford to be treated by visiting doctors in their homes. The casebooks list the occupations of the patients, and a great deal of them worked for the railway as brakesmen, guards, foremen, clerks, inspectors, shunters, signalmen, signal-fitters, engine cleaners, engine fitters, and engine drivers. Many of these died from internal causes or as a result of diseases that were endemic in the period, such as tuberculosis, but there are also a lot of cases of patients dying as a result of occupational accidents. St George’s Hospital proximity to Victoria Station also meant that any injured passengers were often transferred to the hospital.

Image of PM/1897/269 (John Harris), St George’s University of London Archives, Creative Commons CC-BY License

As a result, the railway is frequently mentioned in the post mortem casebooks, however, when cataloguing the 1897 volume one of our project archivists came across a railway-related monkey mystery that left us baffled. In the case notes for 31-year-old John Harris, admitted to St George’s Hospital on Friday the 3rd of September 1897, had been written:

‘This patient was climbing on to a railway (after a monkey) and was thrown with great violence on to the platform. There is an extensive fracture of the skull, comminuted and partly depressed behind the left parietal eminence. Laceration and protrusion of the brain. Mr Sheild removed pieces of bone and elevated others. The patient did not rally and died shortly after’.

The cause of Harris’s death is given as ‘fractured skull, lacerated brain’, and the post mortem exam shows that all of his extremities were intact, but Harris had a hole ‘3 ½ inches in length and 1 ½ at the widest and lowermost points’ in his skull and other skull fractures. It also tells us a bit about what Harris looks like, with the examiner noting that he was ‘a well built muscular man […] Height 5ft 4 ½ inches’ with a ‘short red beard – red moustache and hair’.

The patient’s occupation is not listed, however, and there is no explanation at all in the casebook about why he had been chasing a monkey or how exactly he was ‘thrown’ on to the platform.

The Twitter conversation that started this blog post!

When we posted about the case on social media it left certain railway enthusiasts *cough* demanding more. While unfortunately (or maybe fortunately?) this seems to be the only monkey-railway-accident in our collection, we can reveal the results of our detective work into who John Harris was and what happened to him, and why a monkey was on a train. We had to know: was there a great monkey zoo escape in London in 1897 and Harris was a zookeeper? Was this a case of monkey murder? Was there an attempted Planet of the Apes uprising in 1897?

There was an inquest into Harris’ death on Monday the 6th of September 1897 held by the Westminster coroner, which was reported on Saturday the 11th of September in the Yarmouth Independent in a section forebodingly called ‘Train Dangers’. The article reveals that Harris was ‘a petty officer of the cruiser Racoon’ who had been travelling on a special ‘with a number of other sailors from Sheerness to Victoria’ when ‘he suddenly clambered out of the window, and the next seen of him was when he was hurled, apparently from the roof of the carriage on to the line as the train ran through Clapham-road Station’. The only witness to speak at the inquest was a porter at the station who said that he had ‘had his back to the train’ when ‘he felt some pieces of wood strike him on the back of the head, and on turning sharply round he saw the deceased came down on his feet, but was unable to keep his feet, and staggered back against the train’. Harris was then struck on the head multiple times by the footboard of the train until he was eventually thrown on to the side of the rails’. When he was found he was unconscious but breathing and he was transported by train to Victoria station and from there to St George’s Hospital.

The newspaper article states that he died on the journey, however, this contradicts the medical notes from the case which shows that Harris arrived at the hospital alive and underwent surgery. The post mortem examiner comments on ‘a triangular wound (surgical) […] from which project two drainage tubes’ and says that elsewhere on the parietal bone ‘in two places the marks of trephine are visible’. Clearly the doctors at St George’s tried to reduce the pressure on Harris’s brain. Also, despite the mention of the monkey in the doctor’s case notes, there is no indication that the monkey was discussed at all at the inquest. It seems that the coroner was not presented with the whole story, and according to the newspaper article the coroner and jury at the inquest gave a verdict of ‘accidental death’ after judging the evidence ‘to be of a very flimsy character’.

A second article from the Globe on the following Thursday the 16th of September, however, finally sheds some light on the role of the monkey in the case and why Harris climbed on to the roof of the train. It says that the coroner had received more information about Harris’ death. Apparently, when Harris’ ship the Racoon had been ‘stationed off the West Coast of Africa, Harris bought a baby monkey. This soon became the pet of the crew, owing to its tricks’. Harris, we are told, ‘brought the monkey home with him, and when he got into the carriage at Sheerness’ on the day in question ‘the monkey was with him’. On the journey ‘All the occupants of the carriage were larking with the monkey, when suddenly, when nearing Clapham-road station, it snatched a scarf from one of the blue-jacket’s necks and bolted out of the window’. When this happened, it is reported that ‘Harris at once said he must try and get his pet back, as otherwise it might be killed’ and ‘Although his companions tried to dissuade him, and told him of the risk he was running, he said he would rather lose his life than his pet’ and so he ‘at once clambered out of the window’, where it is thought that he ‘must have lost his hold’ and fallen. What became of the monkey and whether it survived or was ever retrieved is unclear.

The mystery of the monkey then turns out to be a story of devotion to a pet, set against a backdrop of nineteenth-century imperialism and commercialism. The monkey was vindicated, although it is maybe not quite a case worthy of Sherlock Holmes.

While this is the only monkey-related case in St George’s post mortem collection it is, however, not the only railway enigma. In the volume from 1886 there is the case of 47-year-old Moritz Fischer, who was found ‘with a fractured skull’ in an empty 1st class compartment of a Metropolitan Railway train. A case for Agatha Christie perhaps? This is the next railway-related death that the St George’s Archives detective team will be looking into. We’ll share our findings on our blog and social media at the end of March so make sure to follow us.


Twitter: @CollectionsSGUL

Instagram: @sgulmuseumarchives

Facebook: @SgulMuseumArchives

To check out the catalogue for our post mortem collection and see the digitised cases go to


Alexandra Foulds

Alexandra Foulds is a Project Archivist at St George’s University of London working on the Wellcome-funded ‘Opening up the Body’ project to conserve the Post Mortem Examinations and Casebooks of St George’s Hospital, 1841-1946.


1 Comment

  1. Pingback:‘Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!’ - Railway Work, Life & Death

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