The BTP in Northern Ireland

by Robert Davison

Some time into his new post as Chief Constable of BTP, Eric Haslam apparently expressed either surprise or alarm (perhaps both!) that there were BTP officers stationed in Belfast. Mr Haslam had replaced our only (so far) ‘home grown’ Chief Constable, W O. Gay, and perhaps he hadn’t quite grasped the historical connotations of the BTP presence in Ireland. No doubt he wondered “What are they doing there.” Of course, there are two interpretations of this and perhaps even to serving officers of that time it could mean what work were they doing there or why were they there at all? I can go some way to answering this as a result of my researches into ‘Railway Police in Ireland’. The broad all-Ireland subject is not the purpose of this article, hence the title, but I wish to concentrate on Mr Haslam’s apparent dilemma!

To understand why a BTP post existed in Belfast up until 1983 it is necessary to go back into the history of railways in Ireland and particularly their involvement with ‘cross-channel’ shipping services between England, Scotland and Wales. In this instance, I am dealing with those railways and ports within the geographic area known as the province of Ulster. Historically, the province of Ulster comprised the Counties of Antrim, Armagh, Cavan, Donegal, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone. Inexplicably, Co. Louth on the east coast of Ireland, and which borders Armagh, Cavan, Down and Monaghan was not included within Ulster. I will explain the significance later.

The first railway of any significance in Ulster was the appropriately named ‘Ulster Railway’ – Belfast to Lurgan, which opened 12th. August 1839. This was only 9 years after the opening of the Liverpool to Manchester Railway. The Ulster Railway became part of the Great Northern Railway (Ireland) in later years, and its territory was mainly the central and southwest of the province, but with a ‘main line’ up to Londonderry and the main line from Belfast to Dublin. A history of the GNR (I) shows that early signalling was in the hands of railway police; very much in the way that it was on the ‘mainland’.

The Belfast and Ballymena Railway was opened between those two towns in April 1848, and expanded throughout the north-east of Ulster until its various branches were amalgamated into the Belfast & Northern Counties Railway (B&NCR) in 1860. Its main line was from Belfast to Londonderry; however, a vital branch was from Belfast to the Port of Larne and this opened 1st. October 1862. This served the shipping service from Stranraer to Larne, known as the ‘short sea route’ but this closed down after 14 months. Shipping services resumed in 1872 and in 1890 a consortium of the B&NCR, Midland Railway (MR) and London & North Western Railway (L&NWR) purchased the shipping company. Larne Harbour Station was the B&NCR terminus; right on the quayside, but the harbour was owned and operated by the Larne Harbour Company. The B&NCR employed ‘Constables’ and there are records of these men in the Salaried Book – Names of Employees, within the files of the Ulster Transport Authority (UTA) in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI).

I have examined the Salaried Book covering the period 1899 to 1911 and there are the following noted:-

Belfast Passenger Department – 12 Constables
Belfast Goods Department – 4 Constables
Ballymena – 6 Constables
Coleraine – 1 Constable
Portrush – 4 Constables
Londonderry – 3 Constables

There were no entries for any supervisory grades of Sergeant, Inspector and above so it is likely that the Constables worked under the instruction of the senior railway official at their respective posts. As this record covered the period of the only surviving Irish census, in 1901 and 1911, the census records could now be searched for the individuals whose names I extracted. Unfortunately, the earlier Salaried Book covering the period 1869 to 1903 is not currently in PRONI and will have to be called in from ‘off-site’ storage. So, what is the relationship between these Constables on the B&NCR and the BTP? Well, in July 1903, the Midland Railway (MR) of England purchased the B&NCR and it inherited 200 miles of standard gauge track (5’ 3” in Ireland) and 49 miles of narrow gauge. It ran this Irish subsidiary through a Belfast based committee known as the Northern Counties Committee (NCC). This arrangement continued when the Midland Railway became part of the LMS in 1923.

One of the benefits of MR ownership was the inauguration of the shipping service from Heysham Harbour to Belfast (Donegall Quay) in 1904. This was a new service carrying passengers, mail, parcels and other merchandise, and livestock. Unfortunately there was no direct rail connection between the NCC and Donegall Quay, although there were running powers over the lines of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners. Presumably the MR had a leasing arrangement with the Harbour Commissioners for their part of Donegall Quay, and eventually an office block was built for the MR staff a few yards from the quayside. Thanks to Kevin Gordon (article in 2011 Year Book), we know of the temporary posting to Belfast from England of Sgt. John William Freeman of the MR Police in 1907. This was in connection with the Dock strike and Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) ‘mutiny’ in that year.

The Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway had a shipping service from Fleetwood to Belfast (Donegall Quay) but in 1928 the LMS decided to withdraw this service and concentrate on the Heysham route. The Belfast Harbour Police were responsible for the policing of the Dock estate, containing Donegall Quay, and have been in existence from 1847 to the present day. The passenger ferries from England and Scotland all berthed at Donegall Quay and I can remember passing through the huge, dimly lit, gray painted ‘transit shed’ which must have run along the quay for over a mile. Huge signs were placed on the roof announcing the destination port, so you had such exotic names as ARDROSSAN, GLASGOW, HEYSHAM, and LIVERPOOL to guide you to the correct boat for your journey!

The third railway company of significance in Ulster was the Belfast & County Down Railway (B&CDR), and they too had a port connection. The line from Belfast to Donaghdee on the east coast of Co. Down was opened in June 1861. There had been a ‘packet boat’ service between Portpatrick (Wigtownshire) and Donaghadee for centuries, and until the introduction of the Stranraer to Larne service, it was the main sea crossing from the ‘mainland’ (England and Scotland) to Ireland. Its ‘glory days’ were in the early and middle part of the 19th. Century when steam vessels were introduced. It was unfortunate that the B&CDR were either unable or unwilling to exploit this sea route, but events on the Scottish side, including the virtual destruction of Portpatrick harbour through storm damage, conspired against its viability.

In Co. Louth, the London & North Western Railway (LNWR) were heavily involved in promoting and running the Dundalk, Newry & Greenore Railway (DN&GR), with a view to it serving the new port that was built by the railway company at Greenore, Co. Louth. The railway line was opened from Dundalk to Newry (Co. Down), via Greenore, in August 1876 and served the shipping services between Holyhead and Greenore until 1926, when passenger services ceased. I have examined all the Acts of Parliament relating to this railway and there was nothing in them relating to the appointment of Constables, despite a large port facility being constructed. By the middle of the 19th. Century mechanical signalling had come in and there was no longer a need for the ‘Constable on the track’, so that may account for it. I did check the Irish 1901 Census for that part of Co. Louth to see if there were any ‘railway police/constables’ but this was negative.

Amongst the documents I recently discovered in the UTA files was an HMSO publication of 1922 which was a Return showing the number of persons employed by the several Railway Companies of the United Kingdom during the week ended 19th. March 1921. The document is split into three sections; England & Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The Ireland section contains the following information on Police staff:-
Prog. No.52 Belfast & County Down. 2 Constables
Prog. No.56 Great Northern (Ireland). 15 Constables
Prog. No.60 Midland Northern Counties Committee. 10 Constables

It’s possible that this document was produced in connection with the forthcoming geographic and political Partition of Ireland in 1922. As none of the railway grades in this Return are higher than Station Master it would appear that this was just for Wages Grades. For the England, Wales and Scotland returns no Police rank higher than Inspector is shown, which seems strange considering the number of Sergeants that there must have been employed by the various Companies. Copies of this document have been passed to Viv Head and Ed Thompson for them to extrapolate whatever is relevant to their various projects for the HG. It provides a ‘snapshot’ of the extent of railway police deployment throughout the UK in the run-up not only to Partition in Ireland, but the Grouping of the railways in 1923.At the time of Partition and the creation of Northern Ireland, whilst the NCC and B&CDR were unaffected, the GNR (I) and the DN&GR were now both ‘cross-border’ railways. The DN&GR passed into LMS hands in 1923 and after the demise of the passenger traffic on the shipping services, freight and livestock traffic continued out of Greenore but at an increasing loss to the Company finances. In 1933 the LMS passed over the DN&GR to the GNR (I), in whose hands it remained until closure of the line in 1951. However, the port continued in business but in private hands, as it is today.

Back on the NCC, we can only speculate that the appearance of LMS Constables in uniform would reflect that of the officer shown in the photograph provided by Dan Tanner for December 2012 History Lines. Unfortunately, there is at present no evidence, either documentary or photographic to show what the NCC Constables wore. Whatever duties they performed in connection with railway matters, they would have been subservient to the newly formed Royal Ulster Constabulary. When it came to duties in connection with the shipping traffic in Belfast, they would have been working within the jurisdiction of the Belfast Harbour Board Police. 1922 – 1923 was not a good time for the new Northern Ireland as militant Irish Republicans were hell bent on murder and mayhem. I have noted documents in the UTA files that refer to members of the NCC/LMS staff being sworn in as Special Constables, and armed, to defend the railway. Also, tunnels and Depots were guarded by the Royal Ulster Constabulary as ‘fixed posts’. This is a whole story in itself, but for another time!

After World War II, the Nationalisation of the UK railways and other related transport systems also had an effect on Northern Ireland. On 1st. January 1948, the NCC (LMS) became part of the British Transport Commission ‘family’. The Belfast Government purchased the NCC from the BTC for £2,668,000 and incorporated it into the newly formed Ulster Transport Authority on 1st. April 1949. The Transport Act (N.I.) 1948 lead to the amalgamation of the B&CDR, NCC and Northern Ireland Road Transport Board and they too became part of the UTA on 1st. October 1948. I came across a copy of the 1948 Act in a miscellaneous bunch of UTA papers in PRONI and was delighted to note that Section 66 allowed for the appointment of ‘Transport Constables’. Sub-section (1) stated that the Authority or any other railway undertaking could nominate any person employed by them for appointment as a Transport Constable under this Section of the Act. Sub-section (2) said that after appointment, the Constables would have within the lands and premises, the same powers and privileges as the RUC, and Sub-section (3) said that Constables were to be under the control of the Undertakings.

My understanding is that any Constables still serving with their respective railway companies in Northern Ireland on 1st. October 1948 would have become UTA Constables, although Constables such as Alex Manning (see below) may have had the option of remaining with the BTC. The UTA Constabulary is specifically named in the qualification for receipt of the Police Long Service and Good Conduct Medal which was instituted by Royal Warrant in June 1951. This brings us neatly to Samuel Alexander (Alex or Alec) Manning who joined the LMS Police on 5th. March 1945. Alex is unique (so far as I know) in that he served in Belfast from LMS days through to his retirement from BTP on 21st. January 1983. My thanks to Martin McKay who found these dates on an old staff record card. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to locate his retirement in the General Orders now stored in the archives. Alex was 22 years of age when he joined the LMS Railway Police and was a native of Co. Cavan, where his father was a Farmer. Alex married Patricia Moreland in July 1948 in Belfast, and his occupation was shown on the Marriage Register entry as ‘Detective Constable’. However, his name first appears in the Belfast Street Directory of 1952 where he is shown as a ‘Railway Detective’ and living at No.118, Ulsterville Avenue, Belfast. They had two children Garth and Linda, and unfortunately, Patricia died in 1967 at only 41yrs. Of age. On the Death Register entry, Alex is shown as Detective Sergeant, British Transport Police. Tragically, Alex died of drowning in 1989 after just 6 years in retirement. It was in the February of 1989 that BTP were withdrawn from providing services to Sealink and the Belfast Office closed. Kevin Gordon who was then posted at Force H.Q. went over to Belfast to retrieve Force radio equipment although who actually ‘closed down’ the office is not yet known.

In his last years of service, Alex was working with P.C. Brian Palmer and it’s known that Brian was posted to Lincoln from Belfast, although the exact circumstances of the posting are not yet clear. Bill Rogerson believes that Brian went first to Stranraer, then to Lincoln. It is rumoured that he was made redundant, along with Alex, but having searched the old General Orders from 1978 to 1990, I was unable to find a record in them of either Alex’s retirement or the transfer of Brian Palmer. Further delving in G.O.’s is required! Although little is known of the work of the Belfast officers, and indeed, who they were (apart from Alex and Brian) the occasional ‘nugget’ of information turns up unexpectedly. Thanks to Tony Haig, we now know about the short career in BTP of James Boyd, who was recruited at Belfast in July 1973. Jim Boyd had the distinction (so far as is known) of being the only BTP officer to attend a Recruit Course at the RUC Training Centre, Enniskillen. This was from August to November 1973 and was as a result of the change in policy on recruit training by the BTP. We are fortunate to have a copy of the photograph of the Passing out Parade of “F Class” at Enniskillen, thanks to the RUC GC Museum, but the quality is poor and would not reproduce well. This shows Jim Boyd very distinctly, as the only officer wearing a helmet! RUC officers all wore ‘flat caps’ of course, and still do. For those of us old enough to remember, Tadworth was closed from 1967 to 1971 and from 1968, recruit training was carried out at Home Office District Police Training centres.

As ‘the troubles’ were hotting up in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s, I recall a request for the Belfast BTP to be armed. This became an issue between the BTP Federation and management and popped up in Green Minutes. I don’t know if it was ever resolved. There was also the promotion of Alex Manning to Detective Inspector; a post that was never advertised. It was done to enable Alex to liaise more effectively with the RUC. I was reminded of this by Walt Girdley (ex Heysham) whose fascinating reminiscences of policing the Belfast to Heysham boats in the 1970’s was recently featured in Retired Lines. I had mistakenly believed that the Belfast officers had been involved in these ‘escort duties’ but that was not the case. Bill Rogerson was posted to Heysham in the 1970’s and remembers the closure of the passenger ferry service between Heysham and Belfast in 1974 and which obviously impacted on the work of the Belfast BTP. However, there was still a ‘roll on/roll off’ ferry between the two Ports and the Sealink passenger ferry between Stranraer and Larne. For administrative purposes, Belfast came under the Sub-Divisional Inspector at Heysham up until 1973 when they reported directly to the Divisional H.Q. at Manchester. With the demise of Dublin in 1966, this must have been the only police post within BTP where a supervisory visit had to be made by ferry!

In the past 6 months I have made appeals for information on the railway police in the north of Ireland to the RUC GC Historical Society and the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland. (RPSI). Although responses were received from both organisations, the information was limited. A retired Belfast Harbour Police Sergeant, who I met at an RUC GC Historical Society meeting, told me that he had known and worked with Alex Manning on cases that involved mutual aid or involvement. Dennis Grimshaw, RPSI member and former General Manager (Operations) with Northern Ireland Railways, remembers a ‘Constable’ employed at the old Great Northern Railway station in Belfast, Great Victoria Street, in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He was there for general security duties until the station closed in 1976. Another RPSI member recalls an elderly man wearing a flat cap with the word ‘Constable’ on the headband, working at York Road Railway Station back in the 1950’s. York Road was the Belfast terminus and H.Q. of the N.C.C. and my grandparents lived nearby. They always referred to the railway there as the ‘L.M.S.’ even in the 1960’s and 70’s. But then in Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland, the Police are still called ‘Peelers’!

My enquiries continue, especially amongst the UTA papers in PRONI, and I am in touch with relatives of Alex Manning and who I hope will be able to shed some light on his work. It’s just a pity that there are none of the Belfast officers still around to tell their tale.



This article first appeared in three parts in History Lines, between June and August 2013 (No.’s 46, 47 & 48)


See also: Railway Police in Ireland