“A remarkable experiment in penal reform”: The beginnings of Leyhill Open Prison,1946.

In July 1946, Gloucestershire newspapers reported that “a prison without walls or locks” was to be opened in the grounds of Tortworth Court, near Falfield, in south Gloucestershire. During the Second World War, Tortworth Court had been requisitioned for military use, with the house being used first as a naval training base, then as a home for American servicemen, while a military hospital was set up in the grounds. After the war, the government decided to use the vacated hospital huts as an experimental prison, which would prepare carefully-selected inmates for their release back into society.

The concept of a “prison without bars” was not entirely new in the British Isles. In January 1912, a prison of this type opened at Camp Hill, on the Isle of Wight, and Wakefield Prison in Yorkshire opened a “prison camp” in its grounds in late 1935. The open system also had been experimented with at Gloucester Prison in 1944, with some inmates living in huts and being supervised by one of their own number, rather than prison officers. There had been no attempts to escape from this “camp” and it was decided to continue the experiment at Tortworth. By September 1946, “Tortworth Prison”, described in the Western Daily Press as “a remarkable experiment in penal reform”,  was in operation, although it only held about 50 “good conduct” convicts at first. It was expected that it would eventually hold up to 400.

Leyhill Open Prison. (Copyright Roger Cornfoot, licensed for re-use under a Creative Commons Licence.)

Leyhill Open Prison. (Copyright Roger Cornfoot, licensed for re-use under a Creative Commons Licence.)

The first escapes

When the Prison Commission published its first report on Tortworth Prison, it stated that in the early days, “some half dozen men” had absconded, but after the first few weeks, such incidents “virtually ceased”. This was a little bit economical with the truth. The first escape took place on Monday, 28 October 1946, when two men were missed at roll call that morning. It was thought that they had climbed out of a dormitory window in the early hours. Alfred Fareham had been sentenced to 15 years imprisonment by court-martial in August 1940, for murder, and Leonard Edward Cross was serving 5 years for wounding a police sergeant with intent to cause grievous bodily harm. The Gloucestershire Echo announced the news with the headline, “Murderer Escapes from Glo’shire Gaol”. The pair were recaptured the next day.

Five days after these first escapes, on Saturday, 2 November, two men walked out of the prison grounds in the night-time. They were closely followed by two more, early the next morning. All four were quickly recaptured, and a prison officer was posted on guard at the entrance on the night of November 4th, but the following morning, another two inmates absconded. This made eight men who had escaped within ten days, and a few days later, Thornbury Rural Council unanimously passed a resolution urging the authorities to take proper steps to prevent a recurrence, stating that people living near Tortworth Court were afraid to leave their houses at night. On 10 November, two more prisoners absconded, and were quickly recaptured.

In late November, Thornbury’s M.P. asked the Home Secretary in the House of Commons if, in view of concerns expressed after recent escapes from Tortworth, he would see that the necessary steps were taken to prevent a recurrence. The Home Secretary, Chuter Ede, replied that he could understand the anxiety of local residents, but escapes were inevitable where prisoners lived or worked in open conditions.  Steps were being take to review security, however, and he hoped that when the prison had settled into a regular routine, escapes would be infrequent. He added that taking the risk that prisoners might escape was justifiable, “in view of the great value of these methods in training and rehabilitating prisoners”.

In February 1947, the name of Tortworth Prison was changed to HM Prison, Leyhill. At that time, there had been no reported escapes for three months, but in April 1947, The Citizen wrote that two convicts had been found hiding in a haystack on 15 April, eight hours after absconding from Leyhill. Then, in the middle of May 1947, it was announced that Richard Timmins, described as “a former IRA terrorist”,  had escaped from the prison six weeks earlier and was still at large. Timmins managed to get to Dublin, and was not brought back to England. This was followed by further escapes in June, August and November.

In April 1948, Thornbury Rural Council unanimously resolved to urge the prison’s abolition, after receiving a letter of complaint from Falfield Parish Council concerning the escapes. However, when Leyhill’s Prison Visiting Committee reported to Gloucestershire Quarter Sessions in June, it said that there had been “only 29” escapes from the prison since it began, and all but one of the escapees had been recaptured. There had been only a few thefts as a result of the escapes, and no locals had been assaulted or annoyed.

In February 1949, Home Secretary Chuter Ede, speaking in the House of Commons, said the number of escapes from Leyhill had steadily declined, with only eight attempts having been made in the previous year. It did seem that that everything had settled down, but in September 1949, an ex-RAF prisoner named Jack Hobbs, who was serving a 7-year sentence, escaped and attacked a family (father, mother and daughter) in their home at Kingswood, near Wotton-under-Edge. Hobbs was recaptured and in December 1949, he was sentenced to a further ten years imprisonment for the attacks. Hobbs had a previous record for violent crimes, and the judge commented that it was “rather startling” that he had been considered a suitable person to be sent to Leyhill.

Can I have my house back?

Tortworth Court (Wikimedia Commons)

Tortworth Court, now a hotel (via Wikimedia Commons).

Tortworth Court was the ancestral home of the Earls of Ducie. The 5th Earl of Ducie (1924-52) was born in Australia (in 1875), and divided his time between Tortworth Court and his farm in Queensland. He had gone to Australia with his wife in 1938, and stayed there throughout the Second World War. He did not return to Tortworth after the hostilities had ceased, and in October 1946, it was reported in the Gloucestershire Echo that until recently, the Earl had been unaware that an experimental prison had been set up on his land. The Home Office stated that they had dealt with the Earl’s legal team in England, and said, “The prison is a hutted encampment in the grounds of Tortworth Court and the mansion itself is not affected”.

In May 1947, the Earl returned to Gloucestershire, and on finding that not only were there convicts living in his grounds, but also a number of them residing in his house, he resorted to staying in a six-room cottage on the estate, while he negotiated with the Home Office for the return of his home. The Citizen reported that Falfield Council had been told by the Minister of Town and Country Planning that Tortworth Court would stay requisitioned as a “temporary” prison for another nine years. Gloucestershire County Council became embroiled in the argument and protested to the Ministry of Town and Planning that it had not been properly consulted on the use of Tortworth Court as a prison. The Ministry denied that there had been an absence of consultation, but the council commented that they had only been consulted after the premises had been occupied by the prison.

The negotiations continued for over a year, and in August 1948, Thornbury Rural Council authorised their clerk to confer with Gloucestershire County Council and Lord Ducie, to see what steps could be taken to have Leyhill Prison moved off the Tortworth Estate. This came to nothing, however, and in October it was announced that the Earl of Ducie had sold Tortworth Court to the government. The contents of the house were sold by auction in May and June 1949. At the opening of the auction, it was explained to potential buyers that the sale had been brought about by the purchase of the mansion by the Ministry of Works, and not through the wish of the Earl of Ducie, “who now had no alternative but to sell the Court’s contents.”

When the 5th Earl of Ducie died in 1952, he was succeeded by his nephew, who came to live at Tortworth Court and run the estate.  Leyhill Prison remained in its original position, in the park, south-east of the house. Extensions and rebuilding took place in the 1970s and early 1980s, and in 1986 new living accommodation was built for the prisoners, with more accommodation units being added in 2002. In 1987, the Home Office sold the mansion house and some of the grounds. The house was converted into a hotel in 2001.




The Citizen, 16 Apr, 16 May, 19 May, 16 June, 4 Aug, 22 Aug 1947, 24 Apr 1948

Gloucester Journal, 29 Oct, 17 Dec 1949

Western Daily Press, 12 July, 24 Sept 1946, 4 Nov, 5 Nov, 7 Nov, 9 Nov, 14 Nov, 29 Nov 1946, 28 Feb, 12 May, 17 July 1947, 14 Aug 1948, 18 Feb, 21 March, 18 May 1949

Gloucestershire Echo, 24 March 1944, 28 Oct, 31 Oct 1946, 12 Nov, 31 Dec 1947, 23 June, 16 Oct 1948

Manchester Courier, 13 Jan 1912

Yorkshire Post, 10 Dec 1945


Wikipedia: HM Prison Leyhill and Tortworth Court pages

Ministry of Justice/Leyhill

Tortworth Court Hotel

Tortworth Estate/Brief History

English Heritage/ Leyhill

www.thepeerage.com/ Ducie

Link for photo of Leyhill Prison by Roger Cornfoot is http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/343694





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