MAKE YOUR OWN
1864: PRISONER ESCAPES THE OLD GAOL USING
ROPE MADE FROM BITS OF 'OAKUM'
On Saturday morning last, as a man was passing by the Borough Gaol, about seven o’clock, he observed a rope hanging from the top of the building.
He at once informed Mr Giles, the governor [from 1839 to 1866], who on going to search for his customer – for he had but one inmate – found he was non est.
The prisoner’s name was John Westley and he had been incarcerated for a month in consequence of absconding with the union [Buckingham Workhouse] clothing.
His time for being set at liberty was on the following day but it appears that the county police were waiting to receive him on account of some little affair at Hillesden.
He had whilst in gaol been set to cut and pick oakum*, and concealed sufficient of this with which to make a ladder and a long rope.
With the former he got from the roof to the top of the gaol, and with the latter he let himself down into the street. It appears that the cell door was unlocked [!]. He has got clean away, and no trace has been found of his whereabouts. He bore a very bad character in the town.
(From the Bucks Herald 16th January, 1864)
[Earlier, at his trial, Westley had been described as known to Buckingham folk as a cadger*.]
In Victorian society, cadger meant a serial scrounger, a local, importuning beggar who probably covered his tracks by assuming the guise of a hawker.
Perhaps we can catch a glimpse of John Westley in Mary Kendall’s poem “The Ballad of the Cadger” (1887):
Remember the old hawker
With Trumpery tin ware,
Brooches and pins, and medals
Containing the Lord’s Prayer?
For an ideal vagrant
He would not be one’s choice.
He had a leer rapacious
And a discordant voice.
‘Philanthropy, they call it
Is all the rage,’ said he,
‘But bless your ‘art, the gentry
‘Ud never look at me.’
‘They wants a blooming orphan,
Blue eyes and yaller curls,
Or they wants a wasted wider,
Or half-starved girls.’
And then the pallid curate,
Knowing a sign sufficed,
Said, ‘Raise your hand, my brother
If you believe in Christ.’
Then over the hawker’s features
A smile of cunning broke,
And his hands seemed groping after
The medals as he spoke:
‘The Bulwarks of Religion,
Penny complete, all there!
Together on a farthing,
The Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.’
[Hugh Brown had published an evangelical hymn called Bulwarks of Protestantism in 1868.]
Oakum was tarred fibre used in shipbuilding for packing the joints of timbers in wooden vessels, and later, the deck planking of iron and steel ships. Picking oakum was one of the most common forms of hard labour in Victorian prisons. Prisoners were given quantities of the gritty, tarred rope, which they had to untwist into corkscrew coils.
Cutting the oakum was done to create approximately 9inch lengths, in an attempt to inhibit prisoners from accumulating lengths of material that could easily be turned back into [escape] ropes.
They then had to take individual coils and unroll them, usually by rolling them on their knee using their hands until the mesh became loose. It was a dull, sticky, unpleasant task that left the prisoners’ hands sore, raw and open to infections.