Four condemned prisoners escape from Gloucester Gaol, 1765


Gloucester Castle keep: the old county gaol. Based on an 1819 work, from W. Andrew, ‘Old English Towns’, published 1909. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The county Assizes, held at Gloucester in March 1765, were said to have had one of the fullest calendars ever known in the city. At the end of all the trials, nine prisoners had received sentence of death, but five of them were reprieved, leaving four unlucky men to be executed.

John Conroy, who had been a grenadier in the English Fusiliers, was condemned for committing highway robbery, having attacked a man named Morgan Thomas on the highway near Shirehampton, robbing him of his money and then stabbing him in the head several times with a clasp knife. Thomas survived the attack and was able to give a description of his assailant as being very tall and having an Irish accent. John Conroy was quickly identified as being the culprit.

Two more of the condemned men were from Ireland. William O’Brien, alias Howard, and James Wall, also known as Bryan Birchagra, were found guilty of stealing money and a pair of silver and stone buckles from the Ostrich Tavern at Durdham Down, on the outskirts of Bristol. They had been committed to Gloucester Gaol for this offence in November 1764, and also were examined by Sir John Fielding, the Middlesex magistrate, concerning two burglaries in that county. There was a fourth charge against them of stealing money and other items from a dwelling house in Bath, Somerset.

The last condemned prisoner was Richard Holmes, who had been brought into Gloucester Gaol in September 1764, on suspicion of housebreaking and stealing sundry items, including clothes, a silver stock buckle and a pair of silver knee buckles from several properties in the Mitcheldean area. At his trial, Holmes was found guilty on three indictments.

The executions of the four men were scheduled to take place on Friday, 12 April 1765. In the meantime, the prisoners were held in chains in the condemned cell at Gloucester Castle, which at that time served as the county gaol. On the Sunday evening before they were due to be hanged, the men started to work on freeing themselves from their chains, using a spring saw which somehow they had got hold of. In order to mask the noise, three of them loudly sang psalms while the other one sawed at the irons. Conroy and Holmes freed themselves first, then separated O’Brien and Wall, who had been chained together. However, before they could get the latter pair’s leg irons off, the saw broke.

Undeterred from carrying on with their plan, they called out to the person who was guarding the door to their cell, saying that one of them needed to be let out to relieve himself. When the guard opened the door, they jumped on him and knocked him down. Making their way to the gate, they beat and knocked down the turnkey there, taking his key and locking the gate behind them.

Perhaps because two of them were still wearing leg irons, the prisoners only got to Llanthony Causeway, about a quarter of a mile away from the gaol, before they were recaptured.  It was said that the four had made a pact that they would all share the same fate, and so Conroy and Holmes had declined to leave their companions behind. Their bid for freedom came to an end when a gentleman who was out shooting in the area pointed his gun at them and ordered them to surrender.

Back at the Castle, the four men behaved in a disorderly manner at first, but as the day of their executions fast approached, they became more serious. On Friday, 12 April, they were conveyed to Over to be hanged. O’Brien and Wall dressed well for the occasion and prayed with great fervour, but put off giving the signal that they were ready to die until the last possible moment.


Gloucestershire Archives, County Quarter Sessions, Gloucester County Gaol Calendars, (Q/SG1, Epiphany 1765)


Gloucester Journal, 25 March, 8 April 1765

Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 28 March,  18 April 1765 (accessed 15/05/2019 on



Escape from Gloucester’s City Gaol: Mary Steward, 1799

On 6 May 1799, the Gloucester Journal reported that ‘two genteely-dressed women’ had been committed to the city gaol, after stealing a quantity of lace from a milliner’s shop in Gloucester. The pair had been pursued and apprehended in Cheltenham, where some of the stolen lace was found among their possessions. The newspaper commented that it was supposed that the women were members of a large gang of shoplifters, who had been operating for some time in the country.

The two women, Mary Steward and Jane Bowers, were held in the city gaol in Southgate Street until July, when the Assizes were held. When the time came for their trials, it was revealed that Bowers had ‘turned evidence’ against her colleague, and was acquitted as a result. Mary Steward was found guilty of stealing lace from the shop of Mrs Bright, milliner. She was sentenced to be transported to Australia for seven years. She was taken back to the city gaol, to wait there until she was transferred to the next available convict ship.

On 5 August 1799, it was announced in the Gloucester Journal that Mary Steward had escaped from the gaol. The city prison had only opened in 1782, but Steward had been able to make a hole under her cell window, big enough to climb through, then she had lowered herself down into the street, using sheets which she had torn into strips and sewn together to make a rope.

In the same paper, an advertisement appeared, submitted by William Dunn, Gaoler, offering a reward of five pounds to anyone who detained Steward or gave information leading to her recapture. The notice stated that Mary Steward was twenty-eight years old, and from ‘Harwin’, in Ayrshire, Scotland. She had dark brown hair, hazel eyes, was round-featured with a fresh complexion, had a scar between her eyebrows, a mark from a sore on her left arm, near the wrist, and was five feet one and a quarter inches in height. She had previously lived in Nottingham, Sheffield and Birmingham. At the time of her escape, she was wearing ‘a pair of black Stockings, a flannel under Pettycoat and a black Skirt over it, a Night Cap and a black Bonnet, but no Gown, Stays, nor Shoes’.



Detail from a sketch by G Cruickshank, in ‘Jack Sheppard. A Romance’ by WH Ainsworth, 1839.*


A week later, the Gloucester Journal reported that Mary Steward was ‘still yet at large’, but it was hoped that she would soon be retaken. The advertisement for her recapture was repeated on the same page, with the reward being offered now increased to ten guineas.

Unfortunately, no record has been found of where or when Mary Steward was recaptured, but she certainly was, because she was listed as one of the convicts who were transported to Australia on board the Earl Cornwallis, which set sail on 18 November 1800, arriving in New South Wales on 12 June 1801. Her initial sentence of seven years had been increased to transportation for life.



Gloucester Journal, 6 May, 15 July, 5 Aug, 12 Aug 1799

Transportees from Gloucestershire to Australia, 1783-1842, Irene Wyatt, ed. (Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, Gloucestershire Record Series, Vol. 1, 1988)

Australian Convict Transportation Registers, Other Fleets & Ships, 1791-1868, via

*The full sketch is ‘Jack Sheppard and Edgeworth Bess escape from Clerkenwell Prison’, by George Cruickshank, in Volume II of Jack Sheppard. A Romance, by WH Ainsworth (accessed via I removed Jack Sheppard from the sketch on this occasion, because this sister was doing it for herself!

© Jill Evans 2017




Gloucestershire’s Jack Sheppard: The Prison Escapes of Charles Buckingham

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)

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

Dorchester Prison Admission and Discharge Registers, 1782-1808 (accessed via

© Jill Evans 2016




“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 Ducie

Link for photo of Leyhill Prison by Roger Cornfoot is