Constable on the Track

David Paul Armstrong recalls his time on the beat with the British Transport Police

Historically work-wise I came from a railway family. My grandfather worked at Blaydon sheds as an engine cleaner and my father at Heaton carriage works as an upholsterer, all being employed by the London & North Eastern Railway. As a child I was fascinated by railways and at a very early age my father took me on conducted tours to see some giants of steam at the Blaydon and Heaton sheds in Newcastle upon Tyne. As a twelve-year-old my friend and I spent hours at Newcastle Central station or riding around the electric coastal route, often swapping trains with the one ticket, spotting steam engines. In 1963, with my father’s encouragement, I joined the British Transport Police at Newcastle Central. As a cadet I found myself working alongside another police cadet, Michael Admundsen, manning the main railway police switchboard in a divisional office tucked away in ‘The Cut’ in Forth Street, adjacent to the then well-known Forth Street Goods Yard. After successfully completing my training at the British Transport Commission Police Training School at Tadworth in Surrey, I joined the real world of the police in 1967, returning to Newcastle Central station as PC 30 serving under a Superintendent Appleby, a kindly Yorkshireman.

Pc David P Armstong, c.1967.

Pc David P Armstong, c.1967.

My experiences there can only be described as a kaleidoscope of events which a railway station of this status can offer. Many of the uniformed officers I worked with and the railway police detectives I encountered are remembered by me as real life versions of characters out of a book. Here are a few who came to mind. Inspector Douglas Watson always policed Newcastle Central incognito either extremely well dressed or disguised as a tramp and carrying a black string bag. ‘Dougie’, as he was known by colleagues, often expertly caught red-handed many a suitcase or mailbag thief, certainly a character of whom Sherlock Holmes would have been proud. There was also a very quiet, softly spoken detective Harry Huddlestone, wearing a large trilby and heavy greatcoat in winter. Harry presented as a real life American detective who had suddenly leapt out of the pages of a Micky Spillane novel. Harry was brilliant thief catcher who, despite his 6ft 3in size, always seemed to blend into the background and would always be there when trouble occurred. My favourite character, however, was Horace Johnston, a police sergeant portly and jovial by nature who loved to play a trombone at break time in the police office on Platform 14.

Most of my uniform duties at Newcastle Central revolved around the ‘Main Square’ and the adjacent waiting rooms which were easily accessible by the public. During a shift various spot checks were made by me in order to give a crime prevention police presence and, from the railway’s point of view, to check on bona fide potential travellers. These checks, which included a request by me for the passenger to produce a valid railway ticket, often trawled up characters from all backgrounds: from well-dressed card sharps or ‘missing from homes’ to the everyday drunk. When I was a young constable a particular ‘intending passenger’, regularly seen seated in the waiting room during the winter months, always intrigued me. He was an elderly male, well spoken, quiet but coherent. He was well dressed with black trilby and gloves. He always produced a valid and local railway ticket on any police request and overall he did not give rise to any suspicion. After a number of shifts it was very evident that this gentleman was becoming a permanent feature, being nearly always in the waiting room often in the same seat. On one particular waiting room check I decided to converse further with this man in order to establish more about him, bearing in mind he might have been suffering from possible loss of memory or a resident of some local care home. In a very courteous manner I asked the gentleman when and where he was travelling. He replied “Oh, I am not travelling anywhere, I love sitting here for hours, keeping warm in the winter and watching the world go by. Anyhow, I just live up the road and being here keeps my heating costs right down.” I concluded that a referral to local Social Services would perhaps be appropriate; however, in the meantime my gentleman friend could in this particular case continue to pay as many visits to the waiting room in the winter as he desired.

My railway ‘main square’ duties had their humorous moments. On arrival of the King’s Cross train one day, a tall extremely well dressed lady alighted from a first class carriage and on passing towards me on to the main concourse she exclaimed excitedly in a loud but broad American accent “Gee- golly, a real English Policeman, I must take a photograph”, whilst at the same time pointing to my helmet. Shortly afterwards the film star Diana Dors appeared, surrounded by what appeared to be minders, wearing a very warm-looking white fur-lined jacket. On one particular night shift the London sleeper arrived and would continue to Edinburgh after a very brief stop. In the meantime a middle-aged gentleman, wearing pyjamas and looking very dishevelled and distraught, ran towards me and complained that he had been robbed of his wallet containing £300 (a very large amount of money in those days). I returned with the aggrieved man to his sleeping quarters and established that no suspect had been seen and that he had checked all his personal belongings. He stated that he had. Should I quickly inform an older colleague, an experienced railway police CID officer? However, on this occasion my youthful police training and luck prevailed. With minutes to spare before the train moved off, I asked the gentleman whether he had checked underneath his bedding and began to assist him in this task. A few seconds later I spotted a wallet wedged underneath his mattress against the carriage wall. “Is this yours?” I asked, whereupon the man replied “Oh my goodness, Officer, please forgive me, I completely forgot I had hidden it there for safety.”

Whilst on duty during a further night shift that same week, I was paired up and working Newcastle Central again, this time with a much older and very experienced officer commonly known as ‘No Nonsense Dudgeon’ who by general attitude and more so vocally could easily compete with any army sergeant major. PC Matt Dudgeon had a particular approach when dealing with ‘transgressing’ members of the public which in general was an educational process to benefit any budding police officer. Matt’s particularly robust approach on this occasion, however, unfortunately did rebound whilst sharing a further night shift duty with him. During a hectic week, railway staff complained that a man in his thirties refused point-blank to leave the railway canteen at closing time, until he had drunk his coffee. Matt quickly intervened which culminated in the very irate and angry man being ejected by him from the waiting room. The man became more aggressive and suddenly drew a knife on us, whilst Matt reacted by drawing his truncheon. The situation was quickly deteriorating and at this point I suggested to Matt that he step back a little, which he did. I was still able to converse and reason with the man, at the same time keeping a safe distance. Luckily he calmed down and placed the knife on the concourse floor in front of me. It later transpired that the man suffered from acute mental illness. On reflection, Matt’s ‘iron fist in the velvet glove approach’ was generally impressive and certainly he should go down in police history as one of the first pioneers of ‘zero tolerance’. Today’s ‘zero tolerance’ is in its infancy compared with Matt’s policing of Newcastle Central but on reflection he could always be described as a very professional and competent police officer.

Policing the station square brought up further interesting and somewhat humorous incidents. Whilst I was again on uniform duty a young clergyman wearing full white collar and clerical attire complained that his attaché case, initialled and distinctive, containing a Bible, had been stolen from the station concourse whilst he had been browsing at a nearby news stand. I asked the clergyman to accompany me to the waiting room and main toilets situated around the station concourse in an effort to trace the suitcase and hopefully the thief; this we quickly did with a negative result. As a last resort I suggested we check the smaller toilet block near the electric train platforms at the east end of the station. One of the six cubicles was found closed, marked up ‘engaged’. The clergyman and I quietly tiptoed into the toilet block and we both knelt and peered under the door, our observations revealing a pair of large boots and dirty turned-up trousers, while standing dead centre to the boots was the small case. Shortly afterwards a scruffy Henry Cooper look-alike appeared, broken nose and all. On being met by the full force of the law and a member of the cloth, the suspected thief blurted out his full confession: “Sorry, guv, I pinched it, it’s a fair cop, please forgive me, I was only looking for sandwiches.”

The author's present day successors on duty at Newcastle Central, with a member of station staff, in 2009.

The author’s present day successors on duty at Newcastle Central, with a member of station staff, in 2009.

The unexpected can happen anytime, anywhere, not least in a railway station, even very early on a Sunday morning. The scene of events was again the railway waiting room. As I patrolled and neared the main concourse I heard a loud bang coming from the direction of the waiting room and seconds later a youth ran from the waiting room towards me, shouting “A man has fired a gun into my friend’s face and hurt his eyes.” I approached the waiting room with the utmost caution and sighted an elderly gentleman remonstrating with some fellow travellers. This man was standing in a corner of the waiting room with his back to a wall, with his right hand then hidden from view behind his back. I quickly approached the suspected assailant and propelled him around. Clenched in his hand was a gun which I took from him without any resistance on his part. It later transpired that the gun was in fact a starting pistol which a few seconds earlier had emitted a dangerous blast into the eyes of a passenger, causing some partial loss of sight and great distress. The assailant was then quickly arrested by me and later sectioned under the Mental Health Act. A number of weeks later I received a British Transport Police commendation for ‘Good Work’ from the North East Region Chief of Police based at York.

My latter days in the summer of 1967 (pending my own request for transfer to Newcastle City Police) involved certain Travelling Post Office escort duties between Newcastle upon Tyne, Bristol and London. During this journey the staff showed me the working of the net apparatus for catching mail whilst the train was in motion. On arrival at our destination my regular police colleague (exemplary character and very trusted) would carry a heavily laden holdall off the train and onwards towards his digs. Finally on one such journey curiosity got the better of me. “Why is your holdall so heavy?” I asked. ‘Well, my lad” he replied “I always take an ample supply of Newcastle Brown with me; after all, railway travel can be very thirsty work.”

 

This article was originally published in BackTrack magazine (March 2010 edition)

Text and photographs re-produced with permission of the author.