Bag of gold.

I wrote a shorter version of this as part of an earlier blog piece in which I started out to write about my liking for railways but it turned into a sort of potted life story. Anyway, I thought I’d flesh out the part about my journeys to the Assay Office a bit, so here’s the story of a young lad on the mean streets of London with a bag of gold.

In my first job, in the late 70’s early 80’s, I was working for a small firm in Berkhamsted called Creative Engineering where we made watch cases and bracelets in gold plated base metal and also in gold. Eleven years I spent there; all in all it was quite fun, I gained a good understanding of mechanical engineering, learnt on the job, albeit with very small machine tools as you might imagine for watch cases and bracelets. I learnt how to set power presses and fly presses; I have a certificate somewhere, probably with my 25-yard swimming certificate. We started out working solely in base metal; brass and nickel, but progressed onto gold and silver. Weighing the gold out of stores, machining it, then collecting every scrap of swarf and weighing the finished product and swarf back into stores was a bit of a bind mind you.

As part of this job, I was often called upon to take gold to the London Assay Office in Goldsmith’s Hall, to be hallmarked and then go and collect it a few days later. This wasn’t finished product but rough blanks for the watch cases and discs for the watch backs. The pieces were supplied to us in an expanded polystyrene box with lots of internal compartments into which the case and back blanks slotted so that they weren’t jingling around against each other. The polystyrene box was just the right size to fit into a Waitrose carrier bag so that’s what I used to carry it around in.

I’d take an early train, during the rush hour; all those besuited people on the train reading The Times and Telegraph and me, jeans and t-shirt with £20,000 of gold in a Waitrose carrier bag. I loved having to do this; it meant I was getting paid to take a train ride, mind you, as this was during the morning rush-hour, I sometimes, more often than not, had to stand all the way into Euston, crammed in with all the other standees but I didn’t mind, I was on a train.

Arriving at Euston I was under instructions to get a cab to Goldsmiths Hall or failing that, go via the Tube – Northern Line then Central Line – to St. Paul’s Station, the closest station to Goldsmith’s Hall. But I always used to walk from Euston to Kings Cross St. Pancras and get on the Metropolitan Line to Farringdon and then walked through to Smithfield Market, past St Bartholomew’s Hospital and into Little Britain which was a fascinating place back then full of little nooks and crannies and I paid the occasional visit to the church of St Bartholomew the Great which seemed tucked away and out of sight but a delight to walk around.

I’d be walking through Smithfield Market after the early busy period, so it wasn’t crowded but there was still plenty of activity going on, people in white coats and hats with sides of animals over their shoulders.

Walking out of Smithfield Market I went into Little Britain and it immediately it seemed as if I’d fallen off of the London A-Z; there was hardly anyone about and the whole place had a run-down aspect about it. Leaving Little Britain, I then went up Aldersgate Street and left into Gresham Street then right into Gutter Lane where the entrance to the Assay Office is located, tacked onto the side of Goldsmiths Hall. Gutter lane is a one-way road, barely wide enough to accommodate the width of a vehicle and with very narrow pavements and this fact will become relevant very soon.

Once I’d got to the Assay office and handed over my precious cargo to be hallmarked I would be given a receipt; a small card ticket and woe betide me if I lost that ticket because that was the only way anyone was ever going to get that gold back. I did this journey many times and all without incident, after all, who’d have ever guessed what I really had inside my carrier bag?

Then one day, whilst I was walking along the narrow pavement on Gutter Lane on my way to the Assay office, something hit my shoulder. In a split second the whole scenario played out in my head. Someone had spotted my Waitrose carrier bag and knew what was inside it. I had been assaulted in broad daylight, the gold had been stolen and I’d have to return empty handed and in disgrace. My heart skipped a beat and I suddenly had a very odd feeling in my gut.

But no, after an initial “Oh my god!” moment, the bright red Post Office van whose off-side wing mirror had just clipped my shoulder, sailed serenely past. I breathed out…

On the way back, sometimes I would retrace my steps, Little Britain, Smithfield, Farringdon. Sometimes I would go “full circle” and get the Tube from St. Paul’s to Euston via Tottenham Court Road. The journey back to Berkhamsted was of course much quieter as at that time of the day most of the traffic was still going into London so when I got to Euston, the train back to Berkhamsted was almost empty and I could lounge about taking up all the seating space that I wanted and if I was feeling particularly anarchistic, I’d sneak into the 1st class section – I know, such a rebel.

And then, a few days later the journey would be repeated to collect the hallmarked goods. It was this journey that struck me as being potentially more dangerous, as any gold thief worth their salt would be watching the assay office and taking note of those who went in empty handed and then came out with something, maybe a Waitrose carrier bag, and then follow them into a secluded side-street, maybe somewhere like Little Britain and in some small way this make it exciting. Not that I wanted to be bumped on the head and the gold stolen, but it added a frisson of excitement to the proceedings.

Prior to writing this I had a look at my route from Farringdon to Goldsmiths Hall on Google Maps (other mapping sites are available) and some of the route through Little Britain is hardly recognisable to me now, and yes, it was a few years ago, but in “That London”, very little stands still it seems.

4 thoughts on “Bag of gold.

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