On a foggy night in Leicester, a safe-blower made an escape from Leicester’s Welford Road prison. The 31-year-old man who was serving seven years after being caught blowing a safe in Birstall, scaled over a 36-foot wall in a bid for freedom.
Welford Road prison.
The prison’s official name is HMP Leicester. It was built in 1825 and opened a few years later in 1828. Leicester county surveyor William Parsons designed the prison to look like a castle. It cost £20,000 when first built and is. The prison is now “Grade II” listed.
The citizens of Leicester were criticised for being proud of their new gaol when it was first built. The critic, journalist William Cobbett, felt “that it would be more praiseworthy to have an absence of crime.”
HMP Leicester is said to have the highest walls of any prison in the country, with an average height of over 30 feet. This detail is worthy of note, as the only viable option of escape is to jump over the walls.
The prison is a currently a “Category B” prison and holds 408 inmates (as of 2013)
Famous former inmates of Leicester prison have included Charles Bronson (1987/1988), the Kray Twins (1970), Donald Neilson the “Black Panther” (the 1980s) and Ricky Tomlinson (1973), best known as Jim Royle in the TV sitcom, The Royle Family.
Who was Albert Hattersley?
Albert Hattersley grew up as a working-class lad in Sheffield and became a coal miner at the age of 15, working at the city’s Thorpe Colliery. He started work on the coal face, progressing to coal cutter then later a powder-man.
A powder-man was a dangerous job that involved small amounts of explosions to blast through coal. Or sometimes a large amount for blasting through rock. Hattersley would soon be the go-to man by organised criminals for his expertise in explosives.
Albert started by supplying explosives and detonators to crime gangs to blow safes.
Hattersley explains in a 2010 interview that “with getting explosives, it was no problem. It was so loose the security, Its a wonder the IRA didn’t get stacked out with it.”
“While getting explosives were no trouble, it was getting the detonators that were difficult”
“Anyway I would get what I wanted, I used to supply the Cockneys with blowing gear years ago.”
Albert gets away with it. Nobody at the colliery noticed the equipment go missing. Nobody put two and two together to realise there was a high number of blasted safes in the midlands area.
How did Albert get mixed up with organised crime?
A life of crime was never what Albert wanted. During the war, he was desperate to see service. Not to kill Germans, but to go an adventure. But as a working coal miner, he wasn’t allowed to leave the pit.
It was at this time he would start to drink at a dodgy pub, where the bitter was only 10p a pint. He socialised with other men who the government couldn’t force into the Army. The men who never worked owned luxury cars. And this was pre-war, where nobody could afford to buy cars. They were all into villainy and Albert would start running jobs for them.
Hattersley was an expert at his job, even expected to become manager one day at the colliery. Albert was so proficient in the art of making things go bang that he even lectured young miners for the national coal board at college.
Albert bought old safes from Sheffield bomb sites for £50, took them up Greno woods and practised opening them.
According to Albert himself, “there has never been a safe he couldn’t blow.” He blows safes at Co-operatives, post offices, foundries and finance places. However, he never robbed people’s house or cars.
He was caught a few times and did time. However, ended up in Leicester Prison due to robbing a post office in Birstall in May 1953. He had stolen £250 in cash, 2,103 postage stamps and 841 National Insurance stamps. This would have over a combined value of £15,000 in today’s money. Albert was sentenced to seven years.
A way out.
That December, Albert had made himself at home in Leicester Prison.
Albert volunteered most of his time sewing sandbags in the prison workshop as flooding on the East Coast was high that year. However, it wasn’t, as it turns out, a benevolent gesture.
These workshop toilets had a window. In front of these windows, there were three bars to stop any escape attempt by an inmate. However one of the three bars was loose.
Albert had made the bar and the surrounding concrete even looser with help from a ball hammer he was smuggling into the toilets. A little white washing powder applied with an old shaving brush was used to mask the damaged concrete.
He disposed of this concrete in the prison yard, in a style similar to the Great Escape, down his trouser leg and walked into the ground.
On the evening of 18th of December 1953, Albert was ready to escape.
Why did Albert want to escape with only a seven-year sentence?
Albert wanted to break out for one simple reason. Money.
“I was going to do a £2,000 job in Manchester, to blow a peter [safe] at Cheetham Hill.” This amount would have been close to £55,000 in today’s money.
“I would have done it and surrendered to the nick. I would have knocked on the gates of the prison and surrendered.”
Albert organised for a car to be parked next to the Leicester Royal Infirmary which is opposite the prison. The keys would be in the ignition and some money left under the mat.
In the prison workshop toilets, along with the now loose window bar, there was also a 30ft iron pipe that ran from the laundry.
Albert explains “On exercise, I used to count bricks. I worked it out this pipe was about 30ft. At the bottom, it ran for about 5ft and then disappeared into the laundry for the boiler. I broke it off the wall.” He would use this pipe as a ladder.
Another inmate kept the guards busy in the workshop whilst Albert and a local thief named Tommy made their getaway.
First, they wriggled through the skylight, then Albert used the pipe to lower themselves into the courtyard. Tommy followed. The pair now had the arduous task of scaling the prison walls. As mentioned earlier the walls were the tallest of any prison in Europe.
They used the pipe and also some webbing that the pair had stolen from the workshops to scale this large wall. It was a difficult climb. The bricks were slippy from a recent rain shower. Tommy at this point gave up. He was an asthmatic and was struggling with his breathing from the climb. Tommy called up to Albert with a friendly goodbye, “All the best, Alb!”. If at any point any of the guards had looked up they would have caught Albert climbing the wall.
About a dozen guards ran across the yard to the big gate. It was raining. If they’d looked up, the prisoners would have been spotted.
Albert finally made it to the roof, just as the pipe was giving in. From here he made his way to the parapets towards the main gate. He crossed the stores, then over the guards quarters and then over the main gate towards the Govnours office. He chooses this spot as there was a garden below the 36-foot drop. Hoping for a soft landing.
He looked down. “I didn’t jump through – that would kill you.”
A leap of faith.
Albert took a few seconds to compose himself and then hung over the edge, dangling by his fingertips. He had two choices. Pull himself back up or risk his life and drop over 30 feet, hopefully landing on softened mud due to the rain. He let go.
Albert landed badly. He explains “I got a terrible pain in my back, right up to my head.” “you’ve broken your back” he kept saying to himself. Albert sat there for a few minutes and then looked down. He realised that his tibia bone (shin bone) sticking through his skin. He had broken his ankle in three places. “It was bloody agony!” – “Pains only relative, isn’t it? It’s ephemeral.”
He used some garden canes from the garden and made a splint and hobbled onto Welford Road.
Albert’s escape reported in the media.
Local and national newspapers reported Albert’s escape. Some examples can be seen below.
Where to go?
As soon as he started hobbling down Welford Road, Albert realised that he couldn’t drive with the condition of his leg. He immediately turned right on to Tower Street, Along the outside perimeter of the prison.
He must have been a strange sight. Albert remembers three attractive girls having a smoke under an archway next to the prison. He hopped past in his prison scrubs soaking wet from the rain. Immediately the girls burst into laughter.
Albert turned off Tower Street and jumped behind a hedge into someone’s front garden. He needed a break, he was in pain and tired from all the climbing and hopping. He also needed to plan what to do next.
Albert remembers “I was behind a privet hedge. In this front room were three older people, with a Christmas tree in the front window, and I thought how nice it looked. I couldn’t have picked a worse garden – everyone that walking past was looking at the tree. I moved gradually until I was at the bottom of the road.” He had to move on or he would be noticed.
He hops down the street into another garden. But whilst getting comfortable behind the wall, the owner and his pet dog come through the front gate. However, with a stroke of luck, Albert knew this man from a long time ago from another prison. The man just smiled and went into his house without saying a word. Albert hears the sounds of a nearby train and decides to escape using Leicester’s vast rail network.
The strange thing was that there was still no one looking around the area for him. Albert explains “A car must have driven away at the time [of Albert’s escape] and they [must of] thought I’d been picked up.”
Catching a train.
Albert has been crouching in front gardens all night, right next to the prison. He was freezing cold and it was still dark. It was coming up to 5 AM. Albert hops over a recreational ground (now Nelson Mandela Park) and over some allotments (which are now car sales garages next to Freemans Common).
During this trip, he had to scale tall fences with just one leg. He finally reached the railway tracks opposite Welford Road Cemetery, jumping the fence and pin rolling down the railway embankment.
He wanted to travel north. Albert didn’t know the city at all and used the stars (which were now fading) to figure out which direction he needed to travel. He wanted to head North.
A train pulled in nearby waiting for a signal with empty coal wagons. This was his chance. Whilst he climbed into the wagon his makeshift leg splint broke. He tried not to scream as the pain overcome his body.
Albert explains his situation: “I’ll never forget it, the guardsman was whistling Sweet Rosie O’Grady. I got into one of the wagons, a wooden wagon. I can see two coppers on the ticket barrier, and I’m travelling in an empty coal wagon. Passing the signal box, the signaller was looking the other way.”
Fifty miles later, the wagons start going uphill as it reaches Sandiacre and then starts going downhill as the bumping and shunting starts.
“There was a sea of wagons, thousands, all for the pits of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire.”
It was now morning. Full morning sunlight pierced the clouds. Albert remembers looking out of the wagon and seeing lots of rabbits running around.
He climbs out of the wagon but immediately hears voices. Albert rolls under another wagon to take shelter and spies the source of the conversation.
“I see two blokes, lighting cigarettes, Turf cigarettes, I’ll never forget. One went and he dropped his empty cigarette packet. I picked it up and put it in my pocket.” He can’t explain why he picked up an empty cigarette packet.
“I’d got that [cigarette packet] on me when I was arrested.”
On the other side of the wagon, he sees five workmen’s cabins with stoves pipes. Albert’s freezing, in pain with his broken leg and tired. He needs shelter. He tries the first four cabins. All locked. He remembers the fifth cabin clearly. It had a sign reading “Turner Brothers, Wheelwrights” above the door. Albert opened the door and is greeted by a railway worker keeping warm by the stove.
“Oi, What are you doing here? It’s private property!” After a few seconds, the mans faced turned to shock. “You’re the man who escaped from Leicester prison, aren’t you?” Albert rolls his eyes in disbelief and replies “Don’t be ridiculous.” Albert was standing there, soaking wet, in prison clothes and a bloody leg.
The workman holds up a copy of the Leicester Mercury with Albert’s face on the front page. Albert questions the man “What are you going to do?” The railway worker replied, “I’m going to ring the police, it’s no good running away.”
“Go on then, you b*stard.” was Albert’s reply.
Returning to prison.
Eventually, five policemen arrived. Albert explains that “the superintendent was a gentleman.” He questioned Albert, “Are you going to give us any trouble?”
Albert replied, “I’ll have a job, I’ve got a broken leg and ankle.”
Albert sent him a Christmas card every year until he finished his sentence. “Compared to Sheffield, the coppers in Leicester were decent people.”
Albert was transferred to high-security Dartmoor soon after returning to HMP Leicester.
“Better class of prisoner at a high-security prison” explains Albert with a smile.
If you are interested in Albert’ story, including his escape from HMP Leicester, then we recommend the following kindle book (Click on the images or links below)
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