04 January 2016
Malcolm Fife explores the history of escapes from Edinburgh’s Calton Jail, a feared prison which housed murderers, fraudsters and terrorists, as well as petty criminals such as pickpockets. ...
Up until the 19th century, most prisons in Scotland were housed in the tolbooth of the local town and escapes from them were all too frequent. This type of building almost invited its prisoners to escape, being located in the main street, often with no perimeter wall to deter those intending to make a break for freedom. Often only a few iron bars or a single cell door separated the offender from freedom, where his friends were in a position to offer assistance, being able to approach the outside of the building from a public street.
All this was about to change as purpose built prisons began to replace the traditional places of confinement towards the end of the Georgian era. From now on, those deprived of their liberty would be confined in solidly constructed buildings, located well away from the everyday bustle of life. Many resembled medieval fortresses with high perimeter walls and turrets, with the interior accessed through a gatehouse.
One such example was to be found in Edinburgh. It was opened in 1817 and replaced traditional jail in the Tolbooth, located next to St. Giles Cathedral in the High Street. The new prison was perched on a cliff top on Calton Hill.
The formidable Calton Jail
With its large turrets and high walls, this impressive building was sometimes mistaken for Edinburgh Castle by visitors to Scotland. While the Tolbooth was notorious for the escape of several of its high profile prisoners, it would have been presumed that breakouts from the new austere prison on Calton Hill would almost be impossible. Despite being confined behind its formidable walls many of its prisoners still plotted their freedom. In its first years of operation, escapes were not an unusual occurrence, largely because of the fact that the advances in prison architecture were not initially accompanied by similar improvements in prison practices.
When, however the traditional turnkeys were replaced by a professional warder service in 1837, escapes became almost unknown. On 18 March 1823, a daring escape was made in broad daylight by three prisoners. James Curley who had been sentenced to transportation for life for circulating forged Bank of Scotland notes, along with Matthew Adie and a man named Hughes, were instructed by a turnkey to carry coals to the lodge near the main gate.
Here, they climbed up a staircase that led to the top of the turrets on either side of the jail’s main gate. They then descended onto the roof to the top of the wall and then dropped down into the enclosed ground next to the main street and ran off. For Matthew Adie and Hughes their freedom was short-lived as they were apprehended in Newcastle on a week later.
Escape attempts often took place when construction or renovation work was being undertaken on the jail’s buildings. Thomas Hamilton, who was confined in Calton Jail for the crime of pickpocketing, succeeded in escaping in early 1824. Whilst three painters were engaged in renovating his cell, he covered himself in paint and walked out of the prison carrying a pot of paint, accompanying two of the painters, who appear to have been in on the deception.
A daring escape
One of the most dramatic escape attempts in the history of Calton Jail took place towards the end of 1825, when no less than eight prisoners managed to get clean away. All of them had been confined to a group of cells which faced onto the exercise ground.
John Murray who had been sentenced to transportation for life, was imprisoned with the intending escapees. He informed Captain Young, the governor of the jail, that a plot had been hatched to escape later the same day. This information was communicated to the turnkeys, who were given strict instructions not to open the gate to the exercise yard unless two of them were present. At around half past three in the afternoon, when one of the turnkeys happened to be absent, a prisoner called to the remaining member of staff on duty to remove a bundle of clothes from his cell which he wanted to be washed. Disregarding his orders, the turnkey opened the gate alone. The trap was set and he was instantly knocked down.
Eight prisoners then rushed out along the centre passage which had an iron gate at each end. Conveniently one was standing wide open. It was later discovered that this escape took place with the connivance of one of the turnkeys. When the prisoners reached the perimeter wall they struck the turnkey on duty at the entrance door with a broom staff. Using his keys they opened the last barrier to their freedom and spilled out onto the street. They ran off and disappeared into the narrow streets of Edinburgh. One later gave himself up and a further two were later recaptured near Penicuik.
Mass breakout attempt
A further mass breakout was planned during February 1835. The prisoners put their plan into action at about half past three on a Sunday afternoon when the governor was at church. Numbering no less than 32, of whom around half were described as felons of ‘a desperate character’, the prisoners contrived to prevent the spring bolt of their dayroom from locking properly at the usual time of shutting up.
When the turnkey went to serve them supper, they rushed through this door and succeeded in getting as far as the main gate. Due to the quick thinking of the gatekeeper who immediately went out of the prison and locked the door behind him, the escape attempt was foiled. He then raised the alarm and within a few minutes Captain Stuart, the jail governor, arrived with the police along with a number of public spirited citizens. Meanwhile, inside the building the turnkeys assisted by some of the prisoners succeeded in driving the would-be escapees back into the yard. Order was soon restored and all the prisoners returned to their cells. For the remainder of the 19th century there were few, if any, successful escapes from Calton Jail .
On 16 May, 1900, however, there was an incident which some of the old prison staff declared to be the most daring dash for liberty they had experienced. William Wilson, who was exercising with other prisoners, managed to break away from the group undetected and made for the west wall, some 18 feet in height. It is believed he managed to scale it with the assistance of a piece of wood. He then dropped over the wall into Waterloo Place. His freedom did not last long, however, as he was detained by the police at Newhaven waiting to catch a ferry to Burntisland, Fife, later the same day.
Calton Jail, or Prison, as it was by then generally called, eventually closed in 1925, being replaced by Saughton Prison, on the outskirts of Edinburgh. It was demolished a few years later and St Andrews House now stands on its site, housing government offices.
Malcolm Fife is the author of The Story of Calton Jail, published by The History Press. In this, the first history of the prison, Malcolm Fife tells the story of Calton Jail, the staff and prisoners, the escapes and executions, and the crimes and punishments. Richly illustrated, it offers an absorbing insight into the Scottish criminal justice system of yesteryear.