The Night Ferry – A Young Constable’s Nightmare

by David Hoare

Extract from the October 2011 edition of History Lines (No. 26)

I recently acquired a copy of ‘The Railway Policeman’ by J R Whitbread, strangely never having read it before; suspect the title put me off.  The sleeve photograph evoked memories of  my earliest days as a British Transport Police officer, for it shows a Sergeant standing alongside the Night Ferry Train service on platform 2 at London’s Victoria Station, the platform clock reads a couple of minutes to 9 pm.  I don’t recognize the Sergeant, a bit before my time maybe.

The Night Ferry service was a Customs and Immigration controlled service, departing each night destined for Paris via Dover Marine and Dunkirk.  All of the sleeping cars were loaded onto a train ferry along with the Customs sealed baggage cars. The service ran between 14th October 1936 and 31st October 1980, except during the war years. The train made its return journey to Victoria Station arriving at each day.

Much used by the rich and famous, for some unimaginable reason, since none of the carriages were air conditioned and in hot weather they must have been stifling. Added to the discomfort was the noise of them being chained to the ship, so how people slept heaven only knows?

The train was made up of two parts, one for walking passengers travelling in conventional rolling stock who went through Customs and Immigration at the port.  The other for sleeping passengers who went through controls at Victoria the two groups being isolated from each other.

Why the police involvement? Solely to enforce the Customs and Immigration controls and making sure people didn’t evade same. The mechanics of security were at best quite poor, with the barriers to the train being waist high, so it would have been quite easy, save for the vigilance of the Police Officer on duty for items to be passed to a person who had been through controls. The one person entitled to evade the controls and board the train direct was The Queen’s Messenger, who travelled to Paris daily with official documentation.

Two Police Officers were assigned to platform 2 for the arrival and departure, one located at the ‘London End’ (where the controls were) the other at what we called ‘The Dover End’ where the walking and sleeping portions were partitioned and barriered off (this coincidentally was also where the restaurant car was located). You had to be in position all the time the train was in the platform, usually for an hour, or until the train departed.

Personally I hated having anything to do with this service, in 1966 then a young Constable being made to stand about when he could have been patrolling and getting into all sorts of mischief, I along with other like minded young PC’s would do just about anything to get out of being on ‘Ferry Duties’ – a timely arrest would usually do the trick, but that was easier on late turn than on earlies.  Some of the more ‘seasoned’ Constable’s were only too happy to relieve you of the duties – bless em! The ‘London End’ was always a pain with people failing to understand why they couldn’t come onto the platform to see folk off, or even to touch them over the barriers – always a source of confrontation, I think I was probably called more names there than anywhere else.  The ‘Dover End’ by comparison was easy with the benefit of a free bacon or sausage sandwich and a cuppa from the restaurant car chef – that was the only good aspect of the duty.   That’s where I learnt what the helmet was really for, to hide the bacon or sausage butty as the Sergeant approached – that is until I realised he got his inside the restaurant car!


WebMasters Note:
The following month’s edition (No. 27) had this additional information:

In the last edition David Hoare stated that he didn’t recognise the Sergeant on the front cover of the book THE RAILWAY POLICEMAN. Ken Stenning who served at Victoria believes it was Charlie Wingate who had a brother Bill, who was also in the force.