Attempt To Rescue Prisoners

We tend to take it for granted that, once the Victorian police had made an arrest, and the culprit had been taken into custody and then processed through the court system, then that was that. Job done!

However, in reality, getting a perpetrator into court was only half the battle, as far as the authorities were concerned. The prisoner still had to be tried, sentenced and then removed to prison. And, at any time during the various processes of the Victorian justice system, there was the ever-present danger that the offender’s friends and family – or even just gangs of roughs who saw baiting the authorities as their decreed vocation in life – would make a determined attempt to liberate the criminal from the clutches of the justice system.

One such case was reported extensively in the newspapers in October, 1867, the following account being taken from The Morning Post of Wednesday, 9th October 1867:-


“A most desperate and determined attempt to rescue prisoners from custody during their transit from the Sessions-house to the prison van was made last night by a mob of “roughs” at Clerkenwell-green.

It appears that about half an hour after the court had adjourned for the day the police made a circle round the door where the prisoners come out, and the van was driven up and backed close to it.

A mob of between 200 and 300 persons had collected, and their demeanour was most threatening.


The female prisoners who had been convicted during the day were then commenced to be removed, and, notwithstanding the strong body of police, who were under the direction of an able superior, several of the “roughs,” who were of the worst description, broke through the line, and, before they could be prevented, nearly succeeded in rescuing a woman who, it was understood, had been sentenced to a long term of confinement.

The police, however, behaved courageously, and succeeded in forcing them back.

The police attempt to fight off the mob.
From The Illustrated Police News. Saturday, 19th October, 1867.


No sooner had the line been re-formed than a second and more desperate attempt was made. Five “roughs” succeeded in seizing hold of one of the prisoners, named Alice Turner, who had been convicted of attempting to steal from the person, and sentenced to nine months imprisonment. The police immediately closed with them, and a struggle ensued. One of the offenders, who says he is the husband of the woman, struck Warder Crawley in the face, and struggled with him for the release of the prisoner. She was with some difficulty got into the van, and the door was locked.

The roughs, finding their efforts fruitless, made their escape.


The police, however, succeeded in detaining one of their body, who was with some difficulty conveyed to the police station, where he was charged with assaulting the warder, and attempting to rescue a prisoner.

He was locked up, and will be brought before the magistrate this morning (Wednesday).


It is not long since that the learned assistant-judge, Sir Wiliiam Henry Bodkin, drew the attention publicly of the authorities to the inadequacy of accommodation for the proper discharge of the duties.

Only a few months ago a band of roughs made a set upon the prison van containing a notorious ruffian named “Badger,” who was sentenced to 10 years’ penal servitude. The officer at that time was struck with brickbats and other missiles, and had the presence of mind to lock the door and give the key to the officer on duty inside.

The scenes daily occurring when the sessions are on seriously demand the attention cf the proper authorities.


The Coventry Standard reported on measures that had been taken to prevent a recurrence of such an event in its edition of Friday, 15th November 1867:-

“In consequence of the recent attempt of a man named Turner to rescue a woman from custody at Clerkenwell Sessions House, measures have been taken to prevent a recurrence of such an event.

Two folding gates or doors have been made, and upon the prison van being backed against the prisoner’s entrance, these doors are closed and the prisoners excluded from the public view during their transit from the Sessions House to the prison van.”