Escapes from Helston Prison

Over a period of twenty years at least eight men and one woman are known to have escaped from Helston Prison. Considering the gaol was only open for twenty-nine years in total that seems a pretty poor track record. In fact, while compiling this article I haven’t really come across many other instances of prison escapes in Cornwall, at least not so many from one place! So, this article explores the stories behind these various breaks for freedom. Who were these prisoners and what were their crimes? How exactly did they get out and how were they recaptured?

During the 19th century most prison sentences for petty crimes, especially those handed out in small towns like Helston, though undoubtedly uncomfortable, were relatively short. And add to this the fact that your gaoler probably knew you and your family and where you lived, and there seems little point in trying to escape. For most people it was just a case of staying put, sitting it out and waiting for the time to tick by. So what exactly was going on in Helston between 1840 and 1860?

helston prison

A short history of Helston Prison

Before Helston Prison was built any ‘wrong-doers’ were held in a small lock-up in the workhouse on Wendron Street. This lock-up was no more than a secure room watched over by the governor of the workhouse, so in the 1830s it was decided that a better facility should be constructed. Canon John Rogers of Penrose donated a piece of land at the top of Shute Hill and the new prison was built there in 1837. It was (and is) a two storey granite building with eight cells surrounded by a high wall, though today it has mostly been remodeled into flats.

One of the longest serving gaolers was James Fitzsimmons, the father of Cornwall’s famous boxing champion Bob Fitzsimmons. James was Irish by birth and had been a member of the Truro Police Force for a number of years before being elected the Helston Chief of Police in March 1853. He had a rather chequered career, certainly not without scandal (but that’s another story), and he did play a part in one of the most notorious cases of prisoners absconding from Helston.

Helston Prison eventually closed in 1866 when an act of Parliament shut small local gaols in favour of the larger county prisons. From then on most of Cornwall’s criminals found themselves heading straight for Bodmin Jail.

helston prison

FUN FACT: the Cornish Telegraph reported the following in July 1869.

Singular Occurrence at Helston: While the borough policeman P. C. Fitzsimmons was going down Meneage Street at about 11am on Friday morning a swarm of bees settled on his back and remained there for some time. A foot passenger bringing him a bough of a tree the bees soon removed to it and afterwards were secured in a butt. The policeman standing in the street with bees on his back caused a great deal of attraction and what an excellent opportunity for pickpockets.”

Early Escapees – 1840

The earliest account of prisoners (yes, more than one) escaping from Helston Prison was recorded just three years after the facility had opened. In April 1840 Henry Roberts alias ‘Plymouth Harry’, along with Edward ‘Ned’ Anderson and Ann Day, alias ‘Cockney Ann’, was accused of robbing Mr Henry Dobbs shop on Coinage Hall Street in Helston by cutting a hole in the window glass. Mr. Dobbs was a watchmaker and the Royal Cornwall Gazette reported that on the night of the 3rd February 1840 “a great number of new silver watches, a gold lever watch, a great variety of silver knives and articles of jewellery” were taken.

The three, along with an accomplice, Michael Garrighan, were fairly speedily apprehended by police in Truro. They had several of the stolen items in their possession and were all lodging in Helston Prison by early March. Roberts was described as 22 years old and originally from Worcester, he was 5’5″ tall with grey eyes and dark brown hair, no upper front teeth, several scars on his forehead and a flat nose. (I get the impression that ‘Plymouth Harry’ was a bit of a fighter.) He was only in gaol a matter of days before making a daring, and what must have been rather noisy, escape.

helston prison
Door of Helston Prison

Roberts had apparently been speaking to an elderly man living at the workhouse nearby through his cell window and managed to convince the old man to let him borrow a knife under the pretext of needing it to cut up his food. He then used the knife to lever up a plank and found (bizarrely) a 6″ metal spike underneath. Then that night Roberts used the knife and the spike to attack his cell door. He managed to kick out a section and let himself into the passageway. He then opened the cells of his friends, Anderson and Garrighan. Presumably Ann was being held somewhere separately from the men because she doesn’t seem to have been involved in the break out.

The three first tried to break through a section of wall but failed so turned their attention to the main door. Using the spike Roberts had found they wrenched out a panel and were able to hammer at the bolt on the outside of the door through the hole, eventually smashing it off. Once in the courtyard it was just a matter of climbing the eight foot surrounding wall and they were away!

The men’s freedom was short lived however, all three were spotted in Truro the next night, probably by the same police who had apprehended them in the first place. Anderson and Garrighan were recaptured but Roberts, or his alias ‘Plymouth Harry‘, ever the ringleader, refused to go quietly.

“Plymouth Harry slipped through the sleeves of his coat and out of the policeman’s hold and made off. He then made his way to the western road where he knocked a man down near Chapel Hill Gate and took from him 30 shillings and his coat with which he made off towards Bodmin where he was recognised by Mr Knight of Truro, butcher and being pointed out to the proper authorities was again retaken with the stolen coat on his back . . . It is well that the country is rid of this desperate fellow.”

Royal Cornwall Gazette, 17th April, 1840

The little gang were all convicted at the Easter Sessions in April 1840. Roberts receiving the harshest punishment – 20 years transportation, for his part in the burglary and prison break. Ann Day was given 7 years transportation, Anderson 10 years transportation and Michael Garrighan was given 2 years imprisonment for handling stolen goods and “prison breaking”.

It would be fourteen years before there was another escape.

Hard Labour – 1854

When Caesar Jackson, Peter Mackenzie and Elizabeth Stephens broke out of Helston Prison in August 1854 it was police officer James Fitzsimmons who set out in pursuit of them. The three had been arrested in a lodging house in Penryn a few days earlier on the 27th July in unusual circumstances.

Elizabeth Stephens (alias Susan Miller/alias Mary Mills) had tried to pawn thirteen yards of black satin at a pawnbrokers in Falmouth. The diligent shopkeeper had immediately informed the police of the transaction after he became suspicious that the cloth might be stolen. And he was right to be concerned, Elizabeth, who was 26 years old, pockmarked with dark hair and dark eyes, had already been to prison on four previous occasions. Remarkably, with the shopkeepers’ assistance, the police officers managed to secretly catch up with his dubious customer and followed her back to Penryn where she was staying with her accomplices Jackson and Mackenzie. The three were found to be sharing their room with a large number of other stolen items.

Penryn

Very quickly this trio became the prime suspects for a burglary in Helston where a large quantity of fabric and other items had been stolen from the shop and home of Mr Thomas Tucker. Those stolen items notably included thirteen yards of black satin . . . as well as lengths of black velvet, muslin, plaid, a cape and a shawl and a few other articles. Jackson, MacKenzie and Stephens were sent to Helston prison to languish in a cell awaiting the next quarterly sessions of the court. On the 4th August however, they escaped.

“It appeared that in the visit of the gaol keeper at dinner time there was nothing to excite any apprehensions as to the security of the prison but shortly after that time the prisoners managed to draw back a bolt with a part of an iron bedstead which they wrenched off for the purpose and having cut through another with a table knife, entered the courtyard, where they got on top of the privy and climbed the outer wall.”

West Briton, 4th August 1854

Caesar Jackson was injured during the break out, the Royal Cornwall Gazette reported that he was a “remarkably stout, powerful man” and that he had dislocated an arm and “done other damage” while “passing himself through the iron bars” and jumping over the prison wall.

helston prison
Cells at Helston Prison today.

It took several days to apprehend all three prisoners as it seems that they cleverly split up soon after their escape. However, Caesar Jackson was at a little bit of a disadvantage to the other two, he was a man of colour and would undoubtedly have stood out in rural 19th century Cornwall. He still very nearly made it over the Devon border though! Officer Fitzsimmons, who had been chasing all over Cornwall on his hunt for the fugitives, caught up with Caesar after a tip. He was found walking alone along the road between Liskeard and crossing at Torpoint and Fitzsimmons brought him back to Helston prison six days after his escape. How MacKenzie and Stephens were apprehended isn’t clear.

Despite one paper reporting that Jackson was “a man of colour, born in England” he was actually from South Carolina in America. Caesar had been born in 1825 in the city of Charleston (in South Carolina not Charlestown, Cornwall, perhaps where the confusion started . . .). He was the son of a woodcutter, also called Caesar, and his wife Phaelice Jackson and the couple had at least two other sons – Dick and David.

Charleston was a bustling port and one of the largest cities in the US in the early 19th century. It had a huge population of enslaved people, and although I haven’t been able to established whether Caesar Jackson came from a family of freed slaves it seems very likely. How he came to be in Cornwall is a mystery but his inmate record for Bodmin Jail notes his occupation as “seaman” so it’s possible that he was employed on a ship that docked at Plymouth or Falmouth and that he had gone AWOL. The prison record also tells us that Caesar was 5’8″ tall, 179lbs, could read and write, had lost the sight in his right eye and had two blue dots tattooed on his chin.

Charlestown, South Carolina, 1849

The little gang were a real mixed bunch, there was Jackson from America, MacKenzie, who was reputedly an Australian, and Elizabeth Stephens, who was the only Cornish and originally from Penzance. There was also the suggestion that she and Jackson had been living “as man and wife” for some time before their arrest, though they don’t appear to have been legally married.

They were all brought before Judge Charles Bevan on 21st August 1854. Several witnesses gave evidence against them and in the end Elizabeth was given three months hard labour for receiving stolen goods, while both MacKenzie and Jackson were sentenced to four months hard labour for the burglary with an extra two months on the treadmill for their part in the prison break. All three were then transported to Bodmin Jail, from which they did not escape!

The police officer – James Fitzsimmons – was praised by Judge Bevan for his work in their recapture and was awarded two sovereigns as a reward .

The Lunatic – 1858

Four years later comes the saddest of our tales perhaps, and unfortunately also the one I have been able to discover least about. In March 1858 the local newspapers reported the escape of “a man of unsound mind” from Helston Prison. Under the headline ‘Escape of a Lunatic’ the Royal Cornwall Gazette reported that the man had been locked up by the police after being found “at large”. Details are few, so unfortunately we only know his surname – Johns – and that he was from Marazion. In an era when the treatment for those with mental health issues involved being put into an asylum almost indefinitely it is little wonder that Johns fought to get himself free.

“Having broken up a wooden bedstead, he used one of the sides in such a manner that he speedily removed some of the stones from under the window and got into the open courtyard. He then ripped off a heavy metal iron grating and escaped through a conduit . . .”

Royal Cornwall Gazette, 19th March 1858
Helston Prison today.

Johns was recaptured soon after and sadly transferred to the County Asylum at Bodmin. I am unable to trace him any further. However, his prison break does seem to illustrate that Helston gaol must have been in a poor state of repair by this stage, if he was so easily able to remove enough masonry from round his cell window to enable him to get out! And I also can’t help but wonder about the gaoler’s hearing . . .

The Notorious Donkey Thief – 1859

Call me childish but I find the story of this particular escapee fairly amusing.

Solomon Martin was born in Stithians in 1833, the son of a tin miner called Augustus, he had hazel eyes and dark sandy whiskers and he also had a bit of a thing for donkeys – he couldn’t stop stealing them!

In March 1861 the Western Morning News reported that “Solomon Martin, the notorious donkey stealer” had been arrested in Boscastle. This was two years after he had escaped from Helston prison. In 1859 Solomon had been serving a sentence for stealing a donkey in Redruth when he broke out of Helston prison, and that was not his first offence. He had already been punished with six months on the treadmill in 1857 for, you guessed it, stealing a donkey, on that occasion from John Richards of Wendron.

When the police eventually caught up with him in Boscastle with another stolen donkey in his possession Solomon Martin tried to claim that his name was William Sheppard. But apparently one of the officers, P. C. King, recognised him from Helston, so, after months on the run, the game was up. At trial Martin pleaded guilty to all the charges against him – and he had certainly been getting about, making off with a further five donkeys since his escape, from villages all around Cornwall including Anthony, St Germans and Poundstock.

Royal Cornwall Gazette, April 1861

After this Solomon Martin may have learnt his lesson as his name disappears for a while from the newspapers. He died in Liskeard nine years later in 1870. The death notice recorded that he was 39 years old and a native of Stithians and that at the time of his death he was using the alias ‘Major Smith’. I haven’t been able to discover how he met his end so prematurely . . . lets hope it was nothing to do with a donkey.

Uttering Base Coin – 1860

The last of our escapes involved John McCarthy who had already been in trouble with the law before the events of 1860. In 1852 he had been arrested for illegal betting and sent to Bodmin Prison for one month, as well as getting in trouble with the law for other petty crimes. John was a small man, just 5’1″ tall, with blue eyes, brown hair and a face full of freckles and pockmarks. The charges against him in the summer of 1860 were fairly minor again – the ‘Uttering of Base Coin’, which basically means that he was using coin that he knew to be forgeries (no implication that he had forged it himself).

But perhaps his past was catching up with him because for this he was sentenced to a hefty three years imprisonment with hard labour. John clearly did not relish the idea of so much time locked up and, while being held in Helston prison, he hatched a plan to escape.

Latch on door at Helston Prison

Now, how exactly he got out isn’t clear but I get the impression that the circumstances were the cause of some embarrassment to the authorities. All the newspapers said as the time was:

“The prison keeper appears to be much to blame in the matter, he was cautioned to take great care of the prisoner a few days ago.”

Royal Cornwall Gazette, 3rd August 1860

Whatever the exact details were ultimately doesn’t matter, on Sunday 29th July 1860 John McCarthy broke out of prison and went on the run. But like the majority of our escaped Cornish convicts he didn’t get very far. Thirteen days later he was found in a cheap doss-house in Falmouth [sleeping?] “in bed with a navvy” – a male labourer. At first John tried to make out that he wasn’t the man that the police were looking for but was arrested anyway and finally admitted that he had come to Falmouth a few days before.

“When he entered the town, at the back part of it, he was disguised and carried a huge pitchfork which he told the superintendent he would have used freely had he been stopped in the road.”

Falmouth Packet, 11th August 1860
View of Falmouth

The mind boggles as to what disguise he might have been wearing . . . and its remains unclear how he was found out. Did someone in the town recognise him, had he boasted about his escape? . . . That same week he was returned to Helston prison by the Superintendent, Mr Julyan and PC Prater to face the rest of his sentence.

Final Thoughts

“The least desirable station in life is the police station – keep out of it!”

West Briton, July 1874

Stories of crime and punishment in the 19th century are generally fairly grim. Life was cheap, penalties for being on the wrong side of the law could be harsh. But these few tales of escape from Helston Prison are, I feel, a little more light-hearted, a break from the norm (pardon the pun), from the everyday grind of ‘grist to the mill’. Somehow they add some sense of adventure, of determination and resourcefulness, as well as giving us another window through which we can get a glimpse into the extraordinary/ordinary lives of the past.

If there is one thing I think I will take away however it is how common it was to take on an alias, how easy it must have been, without today’s modern methods of tracking you from birth to death, to escape an old name, an old life and just take on a new one . . . should the need arise. It didn’t always work though, in Cornwall’s small communities – someone always knows who you really are.

Further Reading

The Parson Ghost Layers – Cornwall’s Exorcists

The Mystery of Loe pool & the Bar, Helston

Captain John Parsons & the Prisoner of War Pass – a hidden story in Falmouth’s National Maritime Museum.

Walking Opportunity

Circular walk Helston and River Cober

I provide all the content on this blog completely FREE, there's no subscription fee. If however you enjoy my work and would like to contribute something towards helping me keep researching Cornwall's amazing history and then sharing it with you then you can DONATE BELOW. Thank you!

11 thoughts on “Escapes from Helston Prison

    1. As a boy i used to play in the Gaol. Also used to ptetend to break out by setting off firework bangers and jumping jacks!
      I had no idea of the history so thank you so much.
      David Lewis

      1. Thanks David, glad you enjoyed it! I used to know someone who lived in one of the flats, the cells below were used as storage, very cool building!

  1. I really enjoyed reading this. Such interesting hidden history from this area of Cornwall! It provides a great basis for any undergraduate students considering a dissertation topic.

  2. Very interesting reading, thank you for taking the time to research it and happy hunting for more gems.

Leave a Reply