'Non est' - meaning 'not present' (Latin)
Early in 1868, John Wade, a tramp, was caught breaking into Buckingham Railway Station. He stole a gold watch in a waist-coat and some money. Our town’s Magistrates sentenced him to eighteen months in their Borough Gaol.
Buckingham Gaol was proudly independent – it wasn’t a “County” Gaol but a “Borough” one. However, prison reform was in the air and local gaols were under scrutiny for offering sub-standard accommodation and punishment that didn’t fit the crime. That's why John Wade was put on a transfer list to be moved to more acceptable conditions in Aylesbury’s “County” Gaol.
All that Superintendent Howe (Head of Buckingham’s Police and Town Gaoler) needed was a signature indicating Aylesbury’s readiness to accept Wade, and the thief would be off his books.
But then one Friday morning Howe unlocked Wade’s cell double doors only to find no prisoner inside. In the lingo of the time: 'NON EST!'
The Gaoler quickly surmised that the prisoner had tampered with the doors’ locks during an exercise session and later had turned his clothes into a rough rope.
During the night, Wade had put his hand through the peep hole and turned the handle on the outer door. There was evidence of his rope on the inside of the exercise yard’s wall but nothing dangled over the exterior. Howe knew that the first morning train was soon to leave Buckingham Station. He briefed his men to fan out across town whilst he, the Head Honcho hot-footed it to the station where he was confident he’d catch the rascal on the trail ... NON EST!
Later, the police team reassembled at the Old Gaol and all admitted that there had neither been sight nor sound of the felon. Their Super sent messages to nearby police forces stating his prisoner was on the loose and that he might be crossing one of their areas. On Saturday morning, as the Superintendent was doing his regular round of inspection during the prisoners’ breakfast of gruel and dry bread, he heard a frightened, hollow-sounding whimper.
Everywhere was searched ... NON EST!
One of the Gaoler's policemen suggested, cheekily, there's a Ghost in the coal-hole, Sir. When Howe reluctantly searched that coal-hole, he found, we’re told “to his great surprise and disgust” prisoner Wade, lying on top of the heap of coal.
Wade admitted that he’d lost his grip whilst ascending the perimeter wall and had plunged 20 feet into the coal-hole. He felt in terrible shape, and feared that he’d broken his back. Wade was hauled up somewhat peremptorily by a red-faced Howe and his rather more merry men. Surprisingly, John Wade had avoided serious injury. He was only battered and bruised, so he soon recovered sufficiently to be transferred, no doubt thankfully, to the County Gaol.
In the end, it was Superintendent Howe’s reputation that suffered the more permanent damage, as the Chief Constable & Gaoler who raised a hue and cry across the Southern Midlands over a prisoner who, far from escaping, had precipitated himself into Buckingham Gaol’s ‘black as coal’ coal-hole.