Jack Sheppard was a thief and robber, born in London in 1707. During the year 1724, he was gaoled five times and escaped on four occasions, but was finally hanged at Tyburn on 16 November 1724. His prison-breaks made him into a national folk hero whose execution was witnessed by an immense crowd of admirers. The character of Macheath in Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera was based on him, and a fictional account of his life by WH Ainsworth was published in serial form between 1839 and 1840, then published as a novel, entitled Jack Sheppard.
Illustration by George Cruickshank, 1854, from “Jack Sheppard” by WH Ainsworth. (British Library Commons)
Charles Buckingham was born in the Cheltenham area in 1781-82. By 1808, he had become a footpad – someone who committed highway robbery on foot. Like Sheppard, he proved to be proficient at escaping from prison custody, but Buckingham did not meet the same fate as the popular anti-hero. His final escape attempt was successful and as far as is known, he was never recaptured.
On the evening of 27 August 1808, a gentleman and his wife were robbed by two footpads on the public highway, as they travelled on horse-back from Gloucester to Painswick. Charles Buckingham and Richard Sims were identified as the chief suspects, and they were captured in Bristol, after a desperate struggle. Both men were brought to Gloucester gaol to await trial at the next Gloucestershire Assizes, which would not take place until the following April.
During the night between 12 and 13 December 1808, Charles Buckingham managed to escape from his cell and get out of the gaol. A “Wanted” notice appeared in the next edition of the Gloucester Journal, offering a twenty guinea reward his recapture. Buckingham was described as being a native of Cheltenham or its neighbourhood and was aged 27. He was 5 feet 11 inches in height, with brown hair and hazel eyes, and had a large, long nose and “large whiskers”. He had been a sergeant in the North Gloucester Militia.
By the time of the Lent Assizes in April 1809, Charles Buckingham had not been recaptured, and Richard Sims stood trial alone. Despite the victim of the crime being convinced that Sims was one of the men who robbed him and his wife, he had a very strong alibi and was acquitted. He was then tried on another count of highway robbery, for an offence against a Mr Harris on 17 September 1808, in company with another man, supposed to be Charles Buckingham. Sims was acquitted due to a lack of evidence against him.
On 6 June 1809, Charles Buckingham finally was arrested by two Bow Street Officers in London. He was placed in the New Prison in Clerkenwell until he could be escorted back to Gloucester. Jack Sheppard had escaped from this prison in 1724, and Buckingham nearly managed to do the same, getting off his irons with a file, then using a crow-bar to make a hole in the outside wall. He was discovered by the gaoler just as he was about to leave, accompanied by twenty of his fellow prisoners. He was held in a more secure cell until someone arrived to take him back to Gloucester Gaol, to await trial at the next assizes.
Back in Gloucester Gaol, the governor and the chaplain questioned Buckingham about his escape the previous December. They had suspected that he must have had inside help and the night guard, John Brown, had been tried at the April assizes for aiding an escape, but was acquitted. Buckingham said that he had first used a knife, then later a large nail, to ease out a bar of his cell window. This had taken him a month, but then he had managed to get hold of a spoon, which he was able to use to open his cell door. (Jack Sheppard had also made use of spoons to open prison doors.) He had left his cell at 6 o’clock in the evening, when it was dark, and lowered himself down into the debtors’ yard using cut-up blankets he had tied together. He then tied two or three mops to his sheets and threw them over the boundary wall, then climbed over and ran away.
Buckingham finally stood trial for highway robbery in August 1809, nearly a year after the crime had been committed. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. However, this sentence was commuted to one of transportation for life. On 26 September 1809, Buckingham and three other prisoners (Nilus Cowper, John Thompson and James Payne) were put in a coach to be taken to the hulks at Woolwich, where they would be held until they set sail for Australia. The four men were all in leg-irons and handcuffs and were chained together. Two guards were in the coach with them, while another officer, well-armed, sat outside.
When the party reached Uxbridge early the following morning, there was a halt to change horses. One of the guards got out of the coach to get some water and Buckingham, Cowper and Thompson, who had managed to get their irons off during the night, jumped out of the coach and ran away, while Payne, who had failed to get his irons off, held the remaining guard down. The outside guard gave chase, but the three got away. Once again, a twenty guinea reward was offered for the recapture of Charles Buckingham, and the same amount was offered for the other two prisoners.
Nilus Cowper was recaptured in Warwickshire in October after committing a robbery, and John Thompson was arrested near Cardiff in November. John Thompson (alias Grimes, alias Smith) was hanged at Cardiff in April 1810. Nilus Cowper (alias Launcelot Cooper, alias John Jones, alias William Davies) was hanged at Warwick Gaol in May 1810. Buckingham, as far as is known, was never recaptured.
Charles Buckingham had made only one escape from prison, plus an escape from custody, and he had made an unsuccessful attempt to get out of Clerkenwell New Prison, so the Cheltenham man could not be classed in the same league as Jack Sheppard when it came to gaol breaks. However, after Buckingham’s capture in London in June 1809, some newspaper reports revealed that his time in the North Gloucester Militia (during the turbulent years of the Napoleonic Wars) had not been without incident.
The reports stated that about two years previously, when Charles Buckingham had been a sergeant in the North Gloucester Militia, he had been suspected of helping a prominent French prisoner-of-war escape from Stapleton Prison, near Bristol. He had deserted from his duty there and after being captured he was tried by court martial and sentenced to transportation (which must mean he was ordered to serve with the army abroad). He was sent to the Isle of Wight to be taken overseas, but escaped.
Looking into this story in more detail, it transpired that the North Gloucester Militia were guarding the French prisoners at Stapleton in December 1806, when one Monsieur Dare, described as “a Frenchman of some distinction”, escaped. It was believed that he must have been helped by some of his guards, and a number of privates were arrested, while a sergeant had deserted. In February 1807, it was reported that, “the sergeant who connived at the escape of M. Dare, the French prisoner, from Stapleton, has been taken.”
Buckingham was not named as being this sergeant and nothing was found in the newspapers on a court martial, sentence, or escape from the Isle of Wight army depot. However, on 18 July 1807, a Charles Buckingham was admitted to Dorchester Prison, having been picked up “On the Road”. He was described as a deserter from the North Gloucester Militia, born in Cheltenham and aged about 24. He was discharged three days later, being “taken by the party who brought him”. If he had indeed been captured in February, then he must have been picked up on the road after escaping from the Isle of Wight. If the information on the capture in February was incorrect, this may have been the time at which he faced a court martial and was sent to the Isle of Wight army depot. Either way, no more information concerning him was found, until his arrest for highway robbery in the autumn of 1808.
Between the years 1806 and 1809, Charles Buckingham had deserted from his militia unit at least once – possibly twice – and had absconded from the Isle of Wight army depot, thus avoiding being sent to fight in the Napoleonic Wars. He had broken out of Gloucester Gaol once, nearly managed to get out of prison in Clerkenwell, and finally escaped from a coach – while chained to three other prisoners – taking him to serve his sentence of transportation to Australia. Charles Buckingham did not become notorious like Jack Sheppard, but he did succeed in carrying off the greatest escape of all – he avoided the gallows.
JRS Whiting, Prison Reform in Gloucestershire, 1776-1820 (1978)
Bath Chronicle, 4 Dec 1806, 12 Feb 1807; Gloucester Journal, 29 Aug 1808, 19 Dec 1808, 20 March 1809, 2 Oct 1809, 2 April 1810, 23 April 1810; Oxford Journal, 5 May 1810, Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, 12 June 1809; Bristol Mirror, 5 Aug 1809, 4 Oct 1809. (All accessed via http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)
Dorchester Prison Admission and Discharge Registers, 1782-1808 (accessed via http://www.ancestry.co.uk)