Actions of Preston officer saw escaped convict returned to prison

Local historian Keith Johnson looks back at the case of a quick-thinking officer who ensured a fugitive was returned to jail.

By Henry Widdas, Communities Content Page Manager
Thursday, 3rd December 2020, 3:45 pm
Trams passed by Preston Gaol frequently
Trams passed by Preston Gaol frequently

On the second Friday of April 1919 Charles Stuart, aged 24, described as a mercantile marine, appeared before the Blackpool magistrates accused of theft.

The court heard that previously in January 1917 he had been convicted of stealing £17 and of being a deserter from the Royal Navy.

Whilst lying in dock at Devonport he, along with three other firemen, had broken into the ship’s strong room and stole £600, a crime for which he was sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment.

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Towards the end of his sentence in October 1917 he was removed to Davenport hospital to undergo an operation, but whilst there he disappeared and had not been seen or heard of since that time.

The magistrates after considering the evidence regarding the latest theft handed Stuart a six-month prison sentence. After a night in the cells at Blackpool he was on the following day escorted to Preston Prison by two constables.

The cab containing the prisoner arrived in town shortly before 4 o’clock in the afternoon and slackened at the prison gates.

As the gates were being opened by a warder the constable who was sat next to Stuart and handcuffed to the prisoner began unlocking the handcuffs.

Seeing an opportunity to abscond the prisoner struck the constable a severe blow and made a dash for liberty.

Initially, he headed for Church Street, knocking over a man who was in his path, but then had a change of mind and doubled back heading towards London Road along Stanley Street. A prison warder who was on his way for a prison shift and one of the Blackpool constables chased after him.

At the same time on that Saturday afternoon Warrant-Sergeant Wilson, of the Preston Borough police force, was on board a tram that was heading for Farringdon Park, along Stanley Street, and he heard the noise of lustily blown police whistles.

He immediately leapt from the tram and spotted the prisoner dashing towards him at a great pace with handcuffs trailing from one wrist.

He made a grab at the prisoner, but failed to secure a hold so he put out his right leg and succeeded in tripping him up and throwing himself upon him.

Thanks to Wilson’s promptitude and efficiency the fugitive was again secured and escorted to the prison.

Unfortunately, the sergeant had the misfortune to break the fibula of his right leg during the incident and he was taken within the prison walls, where the prison doctor attended him and bandaged his leg before arranging his transport home.

A couple of days later the Chief Constable of Blackpool, Mr. W.J. Pringle paid tribute before the Watch Committee to the bravery of Warrant-Sergeant Wilson and the committee awarded him a gratuity of five guineas.

During this period of time the Preston Gaol, opened in 1789, at the bottom of Church Street, was heavily populated. The annual Prison Commissioners report of 1913 revealed that there were 4,038 prisoners in Preston Gaol - 3,362 males and 676 females.