Today (October 15) in London History – the most spectacular prison escape

The most spectacular prison escape in London history took place on October 15, 1724. This Today in London History tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Let’s get the show on the road with a commonplace followed by a truism.

It’s a commonplace that the sense of place is very strong in many English writers. Wordsworth and the Lake District, for example. Or Thomas Hardy and the West Country. Closer to home, Dickens and London of course.

And the truism is: the more you know about the subject the more interesting it becomes.

And I suppose what that leads into is that’s why you go with a guide. The guide sees so much more. Seeing it with his or her eyes you see so much more, you get much more out of it.

Marble Arch is a case in point. Joe Bloggs – tourist or, I’m afraid, in many cases, my fellow Londoners – Joe Bloggs goes to Marble Arch and what does he see? He sees the end of Oxford Street. He sees the Marble Arch itself. He might know a little bit of the history of the Arch, that it was originally intended to be the grand ceremonial entrance to the enlarged, vastly improved Buckingham Palace. And it did serve that function for a few years. There’s an urban legend that it wasn’t big enough for ceremonial coaches to drive through and in consequence was moved to its present site. That is an urban legend. It was the formal gateway to Buckingham Palace for 17 years but finally was deemed not right, out of place there. So it was disassembled and moved to its present, Cumberland Gate location. In those days its location wasn’t cut off from the park, it was in the Park and the Marble Arch was given its new home there so it could form a grand entrance to the Park for the Great Exhibition in 1851. Which it was. 

And Joe Bloggs certainly sees the Hard Rock Cafe Hotel at Marble Arch. That’s its new incarnation. It’s been tarted up, smartened up – it was originally a fairly low-end, nothing special, dowdy hotel called the Cumberland Hotel. And Joe Bloggs Londoner might just about know that Tyburn, as it was known, the execution site was somewhere there. And finally that Speaker’s Corner is just there, in the park. And that’s about the extent of  it. 

You go down there with a guide, though, you get the full story, it’s a much richer experience. You get the full story of the arch itself. Fascinating to hear that it was originally in the park. And then Park Lane in its present incarnation came along in the 1960s and that effectively isolated Marble Arch, cut it off from the park. Park Lane originally had been a simple country lane on the boundary of Hyde Park. They lopped off over 20 acres of the park, turned Park Lane into a three-lane dual-carriageway. 

That’s about five per cent of Hyde Park sacrificed on the altar of the automobile.

It was one of the worst acts of civic vandalism visited upon London in the 20th century. If only it were a visit. For the last 60 years it’s been permanent. I’m longing for the day when we get those 20 acres back. When that three-lane dual carriageway is sent down to Hades, is a tunnel underneath the park.

And if I’m longing for that, you can imagine how the owners of those magnificent houses on Park Lane would feel about that consummation devoutly to be desired. What a nightmare come true that must have been back in the 1960s. You live in one of the finest houses in London. It looks out over Hyde Park. And then one day it’s looking out over a motorway. So knowing about all of that increases your understanding and appreciation of that bit of London. And to that – and you’ll only get this from a guide – you can add those four chilling words on John Roque’s 18th-century map of London. Roque’s map shows Tyburn tree, as it was known, the execution site. And hard by it, about where Speaker’s Corner is today, the legend, those four words: “where soldiers are shot.”

How many – none, I should think – of the speakers and hecklers, let alone the tourists – at Speaker’s Corner know that where all that kerfuffle takes place today, where they’re standing, bemused, in 2022, soldiers who’d fallen afoul of this or that regulation or committed some malfeasance, soldiers 300 years ago, were tied up there and gunned down by a firing squad. I guess the point being that the gallows at Tyburn wasn’t the only death show in that corner of London. 

And the guide will dig down still deeper. Talk about Edgware Road and its transformation over the last 50 years. And Bayswater, that’s arguably the most interesting place name in London, but that’s another story.

I’ve said it here before but it’s a point that bears repeating. It’s the men and women – the stories – that light up London from within, as it were. So, placenames, language, hugely important. Placenames are very often an x-ray of London’s past. You can often get at the DNA of a neighbourhood by paying attention to placenames.

Case in point here, the expression, “going west – or gone west.” A very different – completely different – cup of tea from essentially the same formulation of words on the other side of the Atlantic. The American newspaper editor Horace Greely is credited with originating that famous saying. Go West, young man, go west and grow up with the country,” Said to American ears, heard by American ears, it’s upbeat and positive. Same words over here, different story. Gone west effectively meant dead, hanged, executed. 

And that brings us to this day – October 15th – and to the horrifying statistic that Joe Bloggs doesn’t know.

Fifty thousand people were executed at Tyburn. To this day I cannot bring up that statistic without its triggering a physical and mental response. The mental response is: that figure – that number of people put to death on that spot – that number of hangings – that’s almost inconceivable. It’s hard for me to get my head around it.

As for the physical response, well, it’s my jaw hanging open.

Anyway, let’s pick out a face in that stadium-full crowd. 

A 22-year-old named Jack Sheppard. A Cockney kid, a London kid.

And no, today’s not the anniversary of his execution at Tyburn. That took place on November 16, 1724. For the record, he was hanged before one of the largest crowds ever seen in London. He was buried the same day in the churchyard of St Martin in the Fields. And speaking of sense of place – the way the stories, the way a bit of knowledge is a candle – with a guide it’s one of many candles – that lights a location up from within, enriches it, makes it that much more fascinating… well, knowing that Jack Sheppard is buried somewhere there at St Martin in the Fields has precisely that effect. As does the knowledge that the irons – keep that word in mind – carried off by Jack Sheppard on October 15th, 1724 were subsequently recovered at a lodging belonging to Catherine Cook, one of Sheppard’s mistresses. She lived in Cranbourne Alley, Leicester Fields. And what do you know, Cranbourne Alley is still there. It’s been described as the underbelly of the glitzy lights of the West End.

But this whole thing about the more you know about something the more interesting it is, well, I walk past or along Cranbourne Alley I’m invariably going to think about those irons and Catherine Cook. I relish knowing that. That’s what gives that bit of the London stew its flavour. 

Ok, who was Jack Sheppard. Let’s do a photofit first. The notice for his arrest described him as about 22 years old, about five feet four inches high, very slender, of a pale complexion, has an impediment or hesitation in his speech.

He was born in White Row, Spitalfields – yes, the stomping grounds – or maybe I should say slashing grounds – of an even more famous London criminal who befouled London nearly two centuries later – yes, Jack the Ripper. Jack Sheppard’s father was a carpenter. Jack began his working life as a servant. And then he went bad. Became a thief. Big time. It’s almost predictable – it was the company Jack Sheppard fell in with that led him astray. It was at the Black Lion alehouse – a pub, a boozer – that the lad was “introduced to a train of vices” that previously he’d been altogether a stranger to. 

And, yes, a fallen woman pushed him over the line. One Elizabeth Lyon, a prostitute. He fell for her, she became his mistress. She induced him to steal.

And he was off to the races.

He was a housebreaker. A burgler. He was arrested many times. He always escaped. No prison could hold him.

Well, he didn’t escape the last time.

His penultimate escape took place on August 31st, 1724, four days before his scheduled execution. 

He was locked up in Newgate, London’s Alcatraz. Nobody got out of Newgate. Well, the death cart got them out. Took them to the Tyburn Gallows. But other than that, you were locked up in Newgate you were a goner. Gone wester. 

Unless you were Jack Sheppard.

That penultimate escape he sawed through one of the iron spikes above the door of the condemned hold. They say a mouse can get through an opening the diameter of a pencil. Jack Sheppard did a mouse number. He squeezed through the tiny gap in the remaining spikes. That got him out of the condemned hold. He made his way to the Lodge, the prison’s reception area. From there, disguised in a nightgown and assisted by Elizabeth Lyon and another woman, he passed through the Lodge and out the main door. 

Scot free. Until September 10th. 

A posse of Newgate turnkeys apprehended him on Finchley Common. Back to the condemned hold he went. Nothing daunted, Jack Sheppard began another breakout. Best laid plans… It was foiled. He’d concealed a set of tools in the rushes of his chair. The toolset was discovered. The authorities said, “enough is enough – do whatever it takes – but make sure this little creep doesn’t get out of here again. They moved Jack Sheppard to a formidable fourth-storey apartment called The Castle. And so the stage was set for Jack Sheppard’s most spectacular escape of all. That’s why we’re here today – to watch him do the impossible on this day, October 15th, 1724. 

In The Castle, Sheppard was isolated from other prisoners. Visitors were carefully watched. He was fettered. And handcuffed. There was an iron staple in the floor. A huge horse padlock secured his fetters to that iron staple in the floor. Jack Sheppard wasn’t going anywhere. 

Except he was. And did,

He freed himself from his handcuffs. He broke the chain of his fetters. He removed an iron bar from the chimney. Climbed up the chimney. Broke into the Red Room, the room directly above The Castle. From the Red Room – in a hugely impressive demonstration of ingenuity, strength and determination – he made his way to the upper leads on the roof. To get there he had to master the locks, bolts and bars of six strong doors. He’s now at the summit of Newgate Prison. The highest point. More than 60 feet above Newgate Street.

How does he get down? Incredibly, he goes back down to his cell and gets his blanket. And once again it’s up the chimney, through the strong doors, up to the leads. There’s a house next door to Newgate Prison. It belongs to one William Bird, a turner. Jack Sheppard uses the blanket to lower himself down to a garret window into Bird’s house. Through that garret window he goes. He’s in Bird’s house. He sneaks down the stairs and goes out the street door. A free man once again. He carries with him some of the irons he used in his getaway. Those are the irons that are discovered in his mistress Catherine Cook’s lodging in Cranbourne Alley. Two weeks later Jack Sheppard commits his last crime. He burgles a pawnbroker’s shop in Drury Lane. A day later, Halloween, he’s arrested, very drunk but handsomely attired in some of his plundered finery, in a brandy shop in Drury Lane.

He’s the talk of the town. And he’s a very good earner for the Newgate Turnkeys. They coin in – earn more than £200 charging fees to visitors to see him. He’s brought before the court of king’s bench Westminster on November 10th. The court condemns him to hang by the neck until dead. On November 16th.

And this time, the only escape is to that bourn from which no traveller returns. He’s watched day and night until execution day. When he’s watched by tens of thousands. 

And a Today in London recommendation. The most stunning room in London reopens today, October 15th. Leighton House in Kensington. Reopens after an eight-million-pound renovation. Another consummation devoutly to be desired. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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