In the second part of a series of articles on the history of Northallerton Prison, Hannah Chapman looks back at a spate of daring escapes from within its walls

THE stories of escapes from Northallerton Prison in the archives of The Northern Echo and Darlington & Stockton Times make for a captivating read.

On April 11, 1964, the Echo reported how a 21-year-old ‘trusty’ prisoner – those not under direct supervision by warders and allowed out during the day to do civilian jobs – had fled from the roof of the jail.

“He is believed to have waited in the office block in the prison courtyard until all was clear, and then removed slates from the roof of the block and shinned to freedom down a drain-pipe,” the paper reported.

It transpired that three boys retrieving a lost football had spotted a man in a blue shirt having a wash inside the shoe repairers’ Dennis and Parry, on nearby Zetland Street.

A coat and a pair of shoes had been taken. David Parry from the shop said that out of the hundreds of pairs of shoes inside, the ones stolen had been waiting to be collected for more than 12 months.

The prisoner was recaptured about two weeks later in his home town of Bridlington.

On April 27 the same year, the Echo told of a much more dramatic escape.

A 20-year-old prisoner from South Shields “bolted to freedom” on the way to play football at the prison sportsground. He ran half a mile to the High Street, stole a car parked outside a hair salon and “drove off at top speed”.

His escapade almost came to a sticky end five miles away at Scruton Lane Ends when he crashed the stolen blue and white Wolseley into another car, seriously injuring a woman travelling with her husband.

The prisoner was unhurt and stopped a passing car, claiming he had to get help for his injured sister. He hitched a lift to the Great North Road, but was later found in his home city of Birmingham and returned to jail.

1964 was a bad year for escapes. On May 6, the Echo told how six prisoners made a short-lived dash for freedom after tying up an instructor as they returned for tea from an outside working party.

They were only free for half an hour, but they packed a lot in. A farmer’s car was stolen and wrecked in a ditch; a former champion runner made a gallant chase across fields and gardens to catch one of the men; and several others joined the chase despite not knowing who was being chased, or why.

The paper said: “Four of the prisoners made their way across fields to Mr Lewis Bramley’s Prospect House Farm, where they took his car.

“They roared down the farm lane in second gear – in which the car was jammed awaiting repair – and as a prison warden’s car swept up the lane towards them, they swerved and went broadside across the gravel, turning on its side into a ditch half-filled with water.”

As it careered into the ditch it narrowly missed a farmworker’s wife and their three young children.

Charles Haw, a Northallerton swimming baths attendant, who had just gone home to Valley Road for tea, wondered what was going on and got out his binoculars. He saw three of the prisoners being detained, and as the driver ran away across fields the 49-year-old thought: “That’s my man.”

The former Darlington harrier and one-time Army 5,000 metres champion set off in pursuit, shouting at the prisoner: “You might as well pack in now.” As he got close, Mr Haw caught the escapee and handed him over to a prison officer. “He gave no trouble,” reported the hero of the hour.

The two others were rounded up, one of them having hidden for a time in a farm building on Lascelles Lane.

This incident, the third in a month, raised concerns about security and in its editorial that day, the Echo called for better information about escapes to be given to people in the town.

“The point is that a general alarm, given promptly, would put the people of the district on guard,” said the paper.

It seems that the warnings were not heeded. Two weeks after this episode, two prisoners escaped in a van from a working party at Newby Wiske.

The van was found abandoned on the A1 and after a chase across fields, the pair were recaptured.

Three days later, prison security and whether or not to protest to the Home Office was the subject of a heated discussion at Northallerton Urban Council. Cllr Pamela Bramley – the daughter of the farmer whose car was stolen on May 6, 1964 – asked: “Are we going to wait until someone is hurt?”

However fellow councillor W Wake did not share her view, saying there were breakouts at prisons all over the country, and he would rather Northallerton had only this problem and not that of the Mods and Rockers which seemed to be afflicting other towns.

The council was split, and Cllr Harold Walkland – in his first meeting as chairman – had the casting vote. He decided against a protest.

The escapes continued. In March 1965 a prison officer was struck over the head with a billiard ball in a sock in a bid to flee by two inmates. One was caught on top of the outside wall and the other gave himself up when spotted on Lascelles Lane.

That November, three prisoners climbed onto the roof amid pouring rain, but came down after being reported by mechanics working at the nearby fire station.

In January 1968, prisoner officers were mystified how two youths crossed a five-yard gap from the roof to the prison wall, which was floodlit and topped with barbed wire, to escape. No tracks were even left in thick snow.

By September 1982, The Northern Echo was reporting how one in 26 of the average population of Northallerton Prison escaped or absconded over the previous year.

But there no real concern in the town. Mayor, Cllr John Bacon said the main fear was the harm prisoners would do to themselves in terms of “betraying the trust of the prison authority and losing remission”. A remarkably benevolent attitude, and indicative of how relaxed Northallerton was to have the prison at its heart.

Next week: The Glasshouse Riots