THE stranger glanced at his pocket watch - it was time to go. Emptying his beer glass on the counter, he left the bar and purposefully strode up the hill to the station to catch a train. But not just any train.

The man was waiting for an evening service that was carrying a special load - gold dust shipped into England on the historic Great Western ship that had once been the largest passenger ship in the world.

However, the owners had run into such financial trouble they were forced to sell the wooden-hulled, paddlewheel steamship, which had plied its trade across the Atlantic, to the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, and in 1850 it was used to transport the rare cargo which docked at Southampton on May 7.

The dust, owned by the South Western Railway Company and the Royal West India Mail Company, was contained in 46 boxes, each bearing a unique number and description. The details recorded, they were placed in a protected shed before being transferred to a tarpaulin covered wagon which was shunted on to the main London line and hooked up to the night mail train.

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To heighten security, four police officers were assigned to travel in a first-class carriage directly behind the bullion.

With such stringent precautions, surely it would have been impossible for any of them to go missing.

But three - one marked with the initials NMR (Rothchilds), a second CM and a third Dunbar & Sons - did and it was not until the train had chugged into Nine Elms Station, Battersea, which was solely used for goods traffic, that the audacious robbery was discovered shortly after 3am.

In a joint operation, detectives from London and Hampshire soon eliminated crewmen and railway staff as none had the opportunity to steal. Inquiries then revealed the service had been subjected to delays at Winchester and Basingstoke but on each occasion the police had left their compartment and walked alongside the wagon until the guard signalled the driver to leave.

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But someone, somewhere, had tipped off a gang who had seemingly carried out the perfect crime.

Days passed before detectives eventually recovered one of the boxes that had almost been covered by bushes alongside the track near Winchester where the train had stopped at about 10pm. Word then reached them that a stranger to the cathedral town had been spotted near the scene, carrying a bag and a package wrapped in a dark cloth.

In time, they discovered the man had called at the station to specifically inquire about the train. Purchasing a second-class ticket, he was then directed to the Eagle Tavern where he purchased food and a glass of beer. Significantly he also bought some gin which he put into a bottle.

The man then returned to the station just as the mail train pulled in. Not surprisingly, given the hour, he was the sole passenger to board the train. A fact which did not go unnoticed.

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After the special wagon had been detached, it resumed its journey to Waterloo. The man then hailed a cab to go to a coffee shop in Shoreditch where he got out with the two packages and invited the coachman to have breakfast and gin with him.

He could then have disappeared into the smoke to lay low.

Instead, he made a grave mistake by returning to Winchester the very same day.

After a drink at the Jolly Farmer, he went to the nearby railway bridge where he was observed peering at the bushes from where the box had been retrieved.

Perhaps there were too many people about for he made no attempt to climb down the bank and went to the White Swan Inn. But his suspicious behaviour had alerted a passer-by and when he returned to the bridge, the police pounced. Despite strenuously denying any sinister motive, he was charged with theft of the three boxes and contents which were valued at £1,000.

At the July Assizes, he again re-iterated he was an innocent man, with his barrister contending the evidence against him was best circumstantial and suspicion was insufficient to warrant conviction., despite the testimony of the coachman and the official who had sold him the ticket.

Thomas Butt also contested the level of security had not been as tight as the prosecution had claimed and the police officers in the adjacent carriage had been more interested in looking after themselves rather than the gold dust, imploring the jury: "The circumstances of the prisoner being in Winchester are not sufficient to induce you to come to the conclusion he is guilty."

In his summing up, Mr Justice Coleridge said much skill and ingenuity had been exercised to commit the theft and it was important the perpetrators were caught and punished but the evidence was not strong enough to justify the allegation of theft and directed jurors to concentrate on the alternative charge of theft.

That brought an instant denial from Plimpton: "All I can say is that I never had them in my possession and am as innocent as a child."

But jurors rejected his plea and convicted of receiving, he was ordered to be transported overseas for 10 years.