Menu Close
A scene from the Buster Keaton film Convict 13 (1920).

10 of the most daring Hull prison escapes

Harry Ogle cut his throat while breaking out of a Humber Street jail but ran as far as river bank before he died.

From that day, according to an old legend, the prison – part of the town walls – was known as Harry Ogle’s Tower.

It is hardly surprising he would want to escape: For centuries, Hull’s jails were notorious places, helping to inspire the famous line, From Hell, Hull and Halifax, May God Preserve Us.

The main town gaol has occupied several sites since the 18th century, in Fetter Lane (now the site of the magistrates’ court), Castle Street (1785), Kingston Street (1829) and, finally, in Hedon Road (1870). Not one has been escape proof.

Some prisoners had little to lose. In December 1789, four men made a break for it while awaiting transportation. They included mariner William Gill, about 22 years old; a “good-looking fellow” called William Muschamp, about 26; Joseph Kershaw, commonly called York Joe, and William Townes, about 35, who had a scar on his right cheek. In the days before an organised police force, a bounty of 10 guineas per man was offered for their return.

As security and the professionalism of prison guards improved, escapes became harder to pull off, but this only led to inmates becoming more ingenious, whether fashioning homemade keys, ropes and ladders, planning elaborate distractions, or wearing convincing disguises.

The rules of Hull Gaol in 1786.
The rules of Hull Gaol in 1786. (Picture: Hull History Centre)

Even well into the 20th century, inmates were able to scale the high walls of the Hedon Road prison, or slip away from working parties. In 1962, the authorities were embarrassed by a mass escape over the wall into the Eastern Cemetery. One man bust his leg and was found behind a gravestone but seven others ran off. All were rounded up within two hours.

A review in 1969 led to major improvements in security, when HMP Hull became one of Britain’s first maximum security dispersal prisons.

Nevertheless, escape attempts are still occasionally reported today. In February this year, the Hull Daily Mail told how a prisoner was chased through Hull Royal Infirmary after slipping away from guards when he went to use the toilet. He managed to reach a hospital entrance before being overpowered.

Here are 10 of the most daring prison breaks over the past couple of centuries.

1) Sawed through the bars

Security left a lot to be desired in the early years of the 19th century. In January 1817, four men escaped from Hull Gaol at night by using saws to cut through iron fastenings on the doors of their cells. They then created a hole in the wall by tearing away the stonework beneath a window, and dropped down into the prison yard. They scaled the perimeter wall using blankets, tied together, and were not missed until daylight.

2) A mass escape during prayers

Prisoners in an old-fashioned arrow-style uniform. (Picture: Wellcome Images / CC BY 4.0)
Prisoners in an old-fashioned arrow-style uniform. (Picture: Wellcome Images / CC BY 4.0)

Successful escapes were often a result of good planning and a fair dollop of luck. In June 1842, seven men broke out on a Sunday afternoon, when most of the prison was at prayers, and were fortunate to find an inner gate had been left open by an absent-minded “turnkey”. They knocked him down, seized his keys and unlocked the outer gate.

The men ran through the streets of Hull into open countryside, where two were found that night sleeping in a field. Two others were captured at South Cave but the rest made good their escape.

3) Cooly walked out in disguise

One of the coolest of all escapes happened in May 1852, when a young female inmate called Zephirah Hoodless walked out of the Kingston Street prison in disguise.

At the time the gaol catered for men and women and she was serving a 15-month sentence for stealing handkerchiefs.

“SHE SWAPPED HER CONVICT’S OUTFIT FOR A BLACK SATIN DRESS, BONNET AND A LONG VEIL”

On the day in question, Hoodless managed to slip into the room of the prison matron and stole her clothes, swapping a convict’s outfit for a black satin dress, bonnet and a long veil. She then walked undetected to the porter’s lodge, at the main gate, where she pretended to be a member of the public who had been visiting the governor. The porter, taken in by her respectable clothes, was caught off guard and let her out into the street. By the time he realised his mistake, Hoodless was well away.

Sadly for Hoodless, she was betrayed by acquaintances and captured at a house in High Street. According to a report in The Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette, the authorities were determined to watch her with “greater vigilance” in future.

4) Going over the walls

It took nearly 30 years for a prisoner to successfully scale the 26ft-high walls of the Kingston Street gaol, an achievement described in the Hull Advertiser as “hardly ever known equalled” in “design and daring”.

Josh Hampshaw, a thief serving a 12-year term, spent his miserable days picking oakum (untangling the fibres of old ropes for recycling) but was secretly using the materials to weave a 25ft-long rope. To this, he attached a homemade grappling iron, made out of strong nails and weighed down with a pair of gravel-filled stockings.

Early one morning, while on his way to his place of work, Hampshaw slipped away and hid in a WC. When the coast seemed clear, he threw the grappling iron over the outer wall and, as a former sailor, scaled it with ease.

A report on the prison escape in the Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette, November 1858.
A report on Josh Hampshaw’s prison escape in the Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette, November 1858.

It was still dark and, having discarded his prison uniform, Hampshaw made off down Wellington Street towards the Old Town dressed only in a shirt and underpants. A crowd tried to stop him in Queen Street, believing he was mad, but he shook them off and reached his former lodgings in High Street, where he stopped briefly to catch his breath and change clothes.

By now the alarm had been raised and police began a thorough search of the neighbourhood. At 1pm, a search party entered Cook’s Buildings, Bowlalley Lane, and found their way into a dusty loft. In a corner was what looked like nothing more than a bundle of rags, until an eagle-eyed officer spotted a toe. It was Hampshaw.

5) The barefoot convict whose luck ran out

Two years later, another “notorious felon”, Thomas Foster, plaited a 51ft-long rope out of cocoa mat fibres and, after cutting through the window bars with a knife, lowered himself three storeys to the ground. He then crossed the prison yard, scrambled up a coal heap, handily piled against one of the outer walls, and used the homemade rope to climb the rest of the way.

After visiting his wife, he left town, spending the next few nights in sheds. He dressed up as a labourer and stole provisions from a larder near North Cave. By now, his bare feet were blistered and sore but he pressed on to the Loftsome toll bridge, over the River Derwent, where his luck ran finally ran out.

Unfortunately for the exhausted Foster, the bridge-keeper was a former PC who had heard about the escape and recognised him at once. The police were called and Foster was soon back in his cell.

A few months later, three more prisoners copied Foster by cutting away the bars of their cells and going over the wall with handmade ropes. One was immediately captured but two more managed to evade their pursuers.

6) Flogged after an ‘amazing escape’

In 1868, a man was flogged for his part in one of the “most remarkable escapes on record”.

Bernard Hopkinson was one of three men who made their own ingenious key out of metal and wood and used it to unlock their cell door, which was quite an achievement because the lock was on the outside. He was helped by a “well-known character” called Simpson who had boasted that “no known prison could hold him”.

Over the course of several nights, they let themselves in and out of the cell while constructing a rope ladder, which they stashed in a storeroom. When all was ready, they planned to use it to climb to freedom over the roof of the porter’s lodge.

A contemporary depiction of a prison flogging. (Picture: Wikimedia Commons)
A contemporary depiction of a prison flogging. (Picture: Wikimedia Commons)

During the escape, Simpson was injured and the third man lost his nerve, but Hopkinson, a former sailor, made it to freedom, at least for a while. He was caught two days later at a house in Blanket Row and sentenced to 20 lashes with a cat-o’-nine-tails.

A reporter from the Hull and Eastern Counties Herald witnessed the agonising punishment and described it in bloodthirsty detail, noting how, at the end, Hopkinson “walked composedly away” with “the appearance of stolid indifference”.

The flogging was carried out in front of fellow prisoners but failed to have the desired effect. A short time later, another inmate escaped his cell using a similar key, placing a dummy in his bed to fool guards. Unfortunately for this man, he was spotted on the prison roof and quickly recaptured.

7) Jumped through a train window

Some took desperate measures to escape before even reaching the prison. In December 1878, a tramping clock cleaner, convicted in Bridlington of stealing, was being taken to Hull Gaol by train when he dived head first at a carriage window, smashing the glass and getting through as far as his waist. The Hull Packet reported how “so severe had been the force with which he struck the glass with his head that not a particle of it remained in the frame, and part of the woodwork was also carried away.”

8) We’re going to need a higher wall

By the middle of the 19th century, Hull Gaol was notoriously overcrowded, leading the Hull Advertiser to quote one member of the council as stating: “No matter whether they were the scum of the earth or not, the prisoners ought to have more room.”

Plans were put forward to expand it on the same site at a cost to the Hull taxpayer of £3,000 (it would be another 20 years before the 1877 Prison Act brought all British prisons under the control of the government) but these were eventually rejected in favour of an alternative site in Hedon Road.

HMP Hull - the original Victoria layout is clearly visible but the high walls did not prevent escapes.
HMP Hull – the original Victoria layout is clearly visible but the high walls did not prevent escapes. (Picture: Google Maps)

The new prison – which is still in operation today as HMP Hull – opened 1870. But if the authorities had hoped higher walls and improved security might prevent escapes, they were sorely mistaken.

In December 1879, a man named Thompson, alias Adams, took advantage of building work on a new wing to scale the outer wall.

The following year, three men, who had been sawing wood in the yard, saw an opportunity to go over the wall while still wearing their distinctive uniform, complete with telltale arrow design. One of the men, 18-year-old John Oliver, reached Keyingham Marsh, where he broke into a house and stole a change of clothes. He was seen by some labourers, who raised the alarm, and the police found him hiding in a haystack.

9) A taste of Porridge

Some escapes read less like plots from a Hollywood movie, than an episode of Ronnie Barker’s Porridge.

In April 1922, Herbert Henry Green slipped away from a party of “good conduct” prisoners working on allotments outside the prison walls. Two days later, he was discovered brazenly drinking in a pub. Green ran off but a PC jumped on a bicycle and overtook him.

How the Hull Daily Mail reported the escape from Hull Prison in 1933.
How the Hull Daily Mail reported the escape from Hull Prison in 1933.

In December 1933, Harry Johnson and Richard Stanton used a ladder to scale the wall between the prison and the Eastern Cemetery. They then cooly jogged off down Hedon Road, wearing gym kit and running shorts. Passers-by believed they were taking part in a cross-country run held by the Hull Harriers Athletics Club and even pointed them in the direction of the race.

They ran all the way to Sutton before doubling back towards the docks and then, believing the authorities would not expect it, headed for the city centre. Unfortunately for the men, the police were one step ahead of them and they were soon discovered sleeping in a lodging house in Lister Street.

10) The man who escaped twice

Perhaps the most persistent escapee of the 20th century was 22-year-old Clifford Cleminshaw.

He was being taken to Hull Gaol by train, while handcuffed to a constable, when he managed to give his escort the slip as they left Paragon Station.

Cleminshaw ran through heavy traffic outside the bus station before spotting a bicycle and riding away along Ferensway. The constable gave chase in a taxi.

He cycled through side streets to Wincolmlee, where he jumped into a car and sped off at high speed. He crashed in Paull and legged it over fields before his pursuers finally caught up.

The dramatic escape of Clifford Cleminshaw was reported by the Hull Daily Mail.
The dramatic escape of Clifford Cleminshaw was reported by the Hull Daily Mail.

It was not the end of his adventures. Less than a year later, in February 1939, Cleminshaw – described as “a hardened and dangerous criminal” who was serving an 18-month sentence for housebreaking – made another dramatic escape, this time from the Hedon Road gaol.

He timed his attempt for dusk and managed to slip away from prison officers before heading off in the direction of Stoneferry. An “exciting chase” ensued across muddy fields and a sports ground.

The police believed Cleminshaw, a former soldier, was hiding out in a sports pavilion but, in a bid to give his pursuers the slip, he had doubled back and was eventually caught in Dalton Street. He offered no resistance.

Thanks for reading! To reuse this content, please email lovehullhistory@gmail.com

Main picture shows Buster Keaton in Convict 13 (1920).

Share this post