Newdigate Bearings and Bedworth Lead

by Robert ‘Bob’ Davison


I was watching an episode of Heir Hunters on T.V. one morning and the focus turned to a woman from Bedworth, Warwickshire, who had died intestate. The Heir Hunters were trying to find next of kin to this woman’s quite considerable estate, and had gone to the town to investigate her ‘family tree’. She came from a mining family and there was film of miners at work and of the local colliery; Newdigate Pit.

This took me back over 40 years to when I was a P.C., stationed at Coventry. A time before personal radios, computers and all the paraphernalia and ‘sophistication’ of modern day policing. The railway line from Coventry to Nuneaton was part of our ‘patch’ and Bedworth was almost halfway along that line. In the late 1960’s there was no longer a passenger service, as this had become a victim of the ‘Beeching axe’. All the stations, including Bedworth’s, had been demolished but it was still a thriving freight route; dealing mainly with coal traffic from the many collieries in the area that fed into the line. Although steam locomotives had been replaced by diesel to haul the coal trains, the wagons that were used were very little changed from those developed in the early days of railways. Small, four wheel, wooden wagons were the norm and whilst they were relatively mundane items of the vast railway empire, they had a value to the criminal element – and it wasn’t the coal they contained!

There probably isn’t an officer still serving on B.T.P. who would have dealt with the theft of wagon bearings, but for decades it was a major crime throughout the railway system. These phospher bronze wheel bearings were essential to keep the wheels of the wagon turning, but they were an extremely valuable item for the determined thief. When the bearings were stolen, and not detected before a train got on the move, the whole ‘she-bang’ was brought to a halt as the wheels ran ‘hot’ and seized up. So, not only was there theft (larceny as it was known then!) involved, but considerable time and expense incurred by the Carriage and Wagon (C & W.) staff in dealing with ‘crippled’ wagons, and railway operating staff having to re-schedule rail traffic to cope with cancelled and delayed services.

The base of operations for the small Police establishment based at Coventry were two small offices on the first floor of the B. R. Parcels Department building. Between the two Police offices were the staff toilets – thus preserving a time-honoured tradition of placing a Police office close to toilets, wherever the Police post was – even a modern one! C.I.D. had one of the offices and uniform staff the other. The sole D.C. (Detective Constable) was Roy Timms, who was one of the old-time ‘railway coppers’ and kept up the C.I.D. tradition of wearing an unbelted, long gabardine coat, winter and summer. He did break with tradition though because he didn’t have the ‘regulation’ trilby hat – probably because there wasn’t one made that was big enough for him! That is not said with any predjudice towards Roy’s character and demeanour, but merely reflecting his physical appearance. He had the largest head I had ever seen on anyone and that was with his hair constantly slicked back (remember Brylcreem?). Heaven knows what he would have looked like if he had had a thick head of hair! His clothing locker still contained his uniform, complete with a tunic with ‘stand-up’ collar and a helmet the size of a bucket, and still with it’s B.T.C. (affectionately referred to in some quarters as ‘bread, tea and cakes’) helmet plate. His wonderful 1950’s Police issue Melton overcoat could accommodate two scraggy young Constables of the 1960’s vintage.

I was on ‘early duty’ (06.30 to 14.30) one Monday morning and after the usual patrol of the Station and Goods Yard, and tea and toast with the Refreshment Room staff, had returned to the office to catch up with paperwork. The C.I.D. office door was open and I popped my head around the door to wish Roy a “good morning.” He asked me if I’d got anything on that morning and when I replied in the negative, he said that the C & W examiner from Newdigate sidings had been on the phone and there had been wagon bearings stolen over the weekend. This was good news as it meant a trip out, not only to accompany Roy, but to chauffer him. Despite all the efforts of the British Railways Driving School at Sutton Coldfield, Roy had failed to reach sufficient competence as a driver, so, to get around his ‘patch’, he had to rely on his colleagues. In those days, the issue motor car was a dual purpose vehicle; to serve the uniform and C.I.D., and Coventry had an apple green Ford Cortina (Ow!!). We duly set off for Bedworth and just south of the town, parked up by the bridge over the Newdigate Colliery line. The single line was B.R. property from its junction with the Coventry to Nuneaton line up to the Colliery gates. The rake of empty coal wagons could be seen stretching down the line towards the junction.

The fencing had long since disappeared, despite this being the main road between Coventry and Bedworth, so we easily made our way down into the shallow cutting. There was no sign of any B.R. staff, so we split up to cover both sides of the rake of wagons. We walked along the sleeper ends and noted the metal axle box doors hanging open, which was the usual sign of interference with the bearings. No doubt the C & W Examiner had all the details but just to be sure, we noted all the numbers of the wagons that had lost their bearings in our pocket books. Once we’d got to the end of the line, it was obvious that there had been a good haul and the thieves had probably already disposed of the bearings. The next step would have been to visit the local scrap metal dealers along with the ‘local law’ who would need to know about this theft anyway. Being the astute detective that he was, Roy decided to have a scout around the area just in case the thieves had left some traces of their handiwork lying about.

That’s how we came to be on the top of the cutting, near to the junction, when we literally stumbled on a stash of lead sheets that had been hidden in some bushes close to the wire fence dividing B.R. property from an adjacent field. We couldn’t see any wagon bearings amongst the lead sheets, but it was possible that the same person or persons were responsible for the two metal thefts. It was now a priority to let the local Warwickshire Police know, so we hurried back to the vehicle and drove into Bedworth. At the local Police Station, the Detective Sergeant and his Constable were in their office, and after the usual pleasantries were exchanged, Roy told them what we had been doing and what we had found. They had already received a complaint of theft of lead from a local church and were delighted that we’d possibly discovered the cache.

Back at the lead pile, we were checking to see how many sheets there were and debating how easy (or not!) it would be to ‘stake out’ this spot to await the return of the thief or thieves. Suddenly the D.C. ducked down and said in a loud whisper “Someone’s coming.” Being aware of our rather exposed position, we all ‘hit the deck’. I was thankful that I’d got a dark ‘civvy’ jacket over my police tunic and was not wearing full uniform, which might have made me stand out on the skyline. Unfortunately for me though, I went down so fast that I rolled over and lay on my back, under a bush with my feet pointing up the side of the cutting and my head pointing down towards the track. I looked up at a clear blue sky and realised that I couldn’t move as it would give away my position. I couldn’t see the other three and I couldn’t have seen the person who eventually came through the wire fence and approached the lead cache. However, I did hear the shouts when the local law attempted to detain our ‘visitor’ and by the time I’d got to my feet, I could see a lone figure ‘legging it’ across the field. The wire fence was still twanging from his hasty exit from the scene. Pete, the D.S. shouted after him “ We’ll pick you up later Jack” so I took it that they had recognised him as one of their locals. Jack had left behind a small axe so he had obviously been intent on chopping up the lead into easily transportable pieces.

Local C.I.D. were well chuffed by this result and although there was no reciprocal result on our stolen bearings, our little adventure made for good reading subsequently in the Occurrence Book! What tales Occurrence Books could tell, but they’re all long gone, like those ‘good old days’!