Early in its history, escapes from Brixton were sporadic and occasionally dramatic. Many were precipitated by an oversight in the building’s design, namely the height of the prison wall which proved inadequate for its purpose, and too tempting for many.
Among the first to abscond were a group of five brought in to help finish building the prison. On the day in question they ‘seemed very attentive to their employment, and reserved towards each other.’ Their opportunity came when the paid workmen took the traditional break: the prisoners seized the builders’ ladder, scaled the wall, jumped safely down and made their escape across the outlying fields and by a circuitous route into the supposed safety of the city.
A search party quickly recaptured two of them: 16 year old Henry Hone and 17 year old John Falkner. Another youth, 19 year old John William Haswell, had good reason to escape, having been sentenced to death for highway robbery. He was eventually found hidden in a pub in Bermondsey, disguised in a countryman’s smock frock.
Fifteen months later, in March 1822, one George Marshall made his escape after one of the turnkeys, Joseph Bennett, forgot to lock his cell. Marshall was soon apprehended and Bennett dismissed. In the following July, Henry Osborn had to shin up the water spout in front of the chapel to reach the boundary wall which he apparently scaled with ease – though again, was almost immediately recaptured.
Another prisoner, Robert Hayles, who broke out around the same time, proved rather more elusive, and it took all the cunning and persistence of two of the constables of Clapham, Thomas King and Thomas Reed to recapture him. Though Hayles had changed his name and altered his appearance, he was known to have a habit of attending boxing matches. The constables tried a number of fights across Surrey including Banstead, Epsom and Wimbledon and went twice to the races in the hope of spotting him. They eventually found their man at a fight near Bromley and with ‘much difficulty’ arrested him.
Eventually the height of Brixton’s perimeter wall was increased; the three foot row of bricks is still clearly defined by its contrasting shade. Escapes, however, would become an unwelcome motif of the prison.