The Bullion Run

by Brian Gosden

After serving for 3 years as a Cadet I was appointed Police Constable stationed at Southampton Rail. The police station was at Southampton Central Station and formed part of the Southampton Division that then included Southampton Docks, Portsmouth, Bournemouth and Weymouth sections. Southampton Rail was a busy post that included a diverse range of duties including general patrol and enquiries, incident response and football policing. Football had emerged in the early 1970s as a major commitment for BTP and Southampton Division was responsible for policing football at Southampton, Portsmouth and Bournemouth and regularly escorting fans to destinations across the country. There were also a range of special duties that included escorting cash movements and an irregular escort of gold bullion.

Gold bullion imported to the UK from South Africa and destined for the vaults of the Bank of England was transported on the regular Union Castle Line ships from Cape Town to Southampton. The ship arrived early on a Monday morning and the bullion was sent forward from Southampton Docks to London Waterloo by special train. Escorting this train was the responsibility of officers from Southampton Rail. The train consisted of a locomotive, three specially armoured wagons and a carriage for police and the train guard. Two officers were rostered this duty on their middle turn week or as a rest day working. Signing on at 08:00 hrs the first task was to collect the special radio equipment and transport it to the train that was waiting in the Western Docks protected by Docks Officers. The radio was a multi channel mobile base set fixed into a large metal case it was powered by a car battery that was contained within an old military ammunition case. Arriving at the train the first task was to lift the radio equipment into the carriage. This was difficult because access to the carriage was from the trackside and when lifting the battery it was always difficult not to spill acid onto your uniform. Once on board the aerial was attached to an open window and the radio tested by calling Hampshire Police Control Room at Winchester.

The train departed the Western Docks and was scheduled to run non-stop to London Waterloo. During the journey it was our role to provide location and welfare updates to the Police Control Rooms along the route and protect the cargo should there be an attack. On the approach to the Surrey border Hampshire Police Control was informed we were leaving their area and switching channels we advised Surrey Police Control Room of our approach, we repeated this process as we left Surrey and entered the Metropolitan Police District.  The journeys I made on this duty were always without incident and the train ran at speed through to its final destination uninterrupted. The approach to Waterloo always gave rise to a sense of relief as we reported our imminent arrival to the waiting police resources both BTP and Metropolitan Police. The train always arrived on the platform that adjourned the old cab road amidst tight security, this platform allowed easy access for unloading into the Bank of England trucks and for the forward police escort to position itself. Unloading took a while and it was at this stage that we saw our cargo for the first time, gold bars wrapped in a black packaging. We were never told the value, but it must have been millions of pounds. Protected on its journey by two constables armed with nothing more than truncheons and rudimentary radio equipment.

After being relieved by our London colleagues we left the train and walked along the cab road and were almost immediately approached by a man in a pin-stripped suit and bowler hat, he was from the Bank of England.  Thanking us for our successful escort, he opened his briefcase and handed each of us an unmarked envelope, we knew what the contents were a single freshly minted 50 pence piece. I have never known where this tradition came from but it was always appreciated because our next destination was the staff canteen where the 50 pence was spent and within an hour we were returning to Southampton ‘on the cushions’.

The Union Castle Line discontinued the regular Cape Town to Southampton service in 1977 and with it the bullion train and its BTP escort faded into history. The armoured wagons were stored in a siding at Clapham Junction for many years, prior to scrapping.


Webmaster’s Note:
Brian Gosden retired as a Chief Inspector in 2016