Sensational escape from Belfast prison

There is a lot of speculation going around at the moment about the future of the Crumlin Road Prison.

I for one strongly believe that the jail should be maintained and used as a dry storage facility for the Public Records Office.

One other thing I believe should be done is that people are allowed into visit the site and to be taken on guided tours.

Up until recently the Glenravel Project had been conducting sample tours of the complex and those attending were shocked and horrified at the buildings history.

Unfortunately these have now ceased as major restoration work is now being carried out but it is something that is being worked on as a permanent feature.

One sad feature of the Crumlin Road Prison's history is that people assume that it began in 1969 when the Troubles broke out. But the fact of the matter is that this jail gives a fascinating insight into Belfast's history going right back to the period known as the Famine.

Like many prisons the 'Crum' had its fair share of escapes and, once again, people automatically associate these with the Troubles.

This is certainly not the case and while recent escapes have been something else, one of the most spectacular occurred in 1927 when four men managed to get away after a considerable amount of planning.

The following is how it was reported in the Northern Whig on the 10th of May 1927...
“One of the most sensational gaol breaking episodes in the records of British prisons occurred at dawn yesterday, when three men under life sentences for murder, and a fourth serving a sentence of twelve years’ penal servitude, escaped from Belfast Gaol.”

The men were, Frank O’Boyle, of Beragh, County Tyrone; William Conlon, of Sixmilecross, County Tyrone; and Hugh Rodgers of Sixmilecross, County Tyrone, who were convicted at a court martial in July, 1921, for the murder of William McDowell, motor car proprietor, Gilford, on 3rd September, 1920.
The fourth man was Edward Thorton, of Belfast, who was serving a sentence of twelve years penal servitude for wounding a girl in a railway carriage between Holywood and Belfast in November, 1922.

A reward of £500 has been offered by the Government of Northern Ireland for information which will lead to the recapture of the men.

The escape was carried out at dawn. It had been carefully planned, and was carefully and systematically carried out.

The men must have had help from outside, and the affair was worked to a time-table, with the overpowering, gagging, and binding of two of the wardens.

The story of the occurrence reads more like a cinema reel or a chapter from some sensational novel than a story of real life.

That the men had been contemplating their escape for some time is quite clear, and that they had been able to secure outside assistance in the way of a powered motor car to carry them off once they have broken prison is just as evident.

The men had one great advantage in that their cells were situated close to each other. Long-sentence men, it seems, are kept in the penal side of the prison facing Crumlin Road.

There were only two wardens in charge at the time, one inside the building and one outside.

Conlon, Boyle, and Rodgers were lodged in cells beside each other, and investigations since the prisoners escaped have revealed how the escape was effected.

One of the prisoners, it does not matter which, obtained a small block of wood, which he inserted into the socket which caught the laten of his cell.
This prevented the latch when the door was closed, from going direct into the socket. It “caught” to the extent of about the sixteenth part of an inch.

Then he obtained a long nail or drill, with which he made a hole in the framework of the door behind the socket, and when the opportunity arrived he pushed either the nail or a piece of wire against the block of wood, which pushed back off the latch, and the door stood open.

Having thus opened the door of his own cell, this man proceeded to release his two comrades.

For this he must have obtained keys, but where he procured them is for the present a mystery.

He was able to liberate the other men, and when at 4am the night warder came along on his rounds he was suddenly pounced upon.

He was taken entirely by surprise, and was overpowered almost at once.
With odds of three to one his task would have been hopeless in any case, but the element of surprise deprived him of any chance.

He was unarmed, but his defenceless condition did not save him from violence, and he was badly maltreated before he was finally bound. This was done in a thoroughly unmanlike manner.

Once he was thoroughly quietened and trussed up the three men released Thornton. They took the warden’s keys, and, having to guard against the possibility of alarm, tied up the bell of the telephone, they proceeded to the door which led to the yard.

Here the other warden on duty was posted. He was armed with a revolver. The four convicts waited a favourable opportunity, and then made for him. He, too, was overpowered, but not without a great deal of resistance.

The night warders, it seems, carry some sort of a ‘clock’ convenience, with which they check in their rounds. This second warder, set upon so unexpectedly, had no time to draw his revolver, but he promptly attacked the man nearest him with this clock, and that he served out some punishment was evident from the blood which was to be seen later in the morning upon the ground.

The odds against him, however, were too heavy, and, like the man inside, he too was overpowered and tied up securely.

The escaping convicts tore up all their sheets, quilts, and blankets to make ropes, which they used not only for binding up the warders, but also for scaling the walls.

It was now an hour since the men had commenced their great adventure. They had long waits before the favourable moments presented themselves for attacking their victims.

The second warder was relieved of his revolver and rendered harmless, but the escaping convicts had still to get out of the prison yard.

That, however, was child’s play to men who had already achieved so much. Working like furies, they tied all the available ropes of sheets, blankets etc together, and with a brick as a weight they threw the sling over the wall bordering St Malachy’s College grounds.

They knew the ground thoroughly. The wall there is lower than at any other section in the prison grounds. Fortunately for the escaping men, there is a gate here, and once the sling was over a hand was pushed through the rails, the end of the improvised rope was secured to the rails, and the men were over like monkeys.

The convicts, it is presumed, made their way from here to the Crumlin Road, beside the Mater Hospital, where, it is believed, the previously arranged outside help was in readiness in the way of a fast motor car.

From this point on everything is supposition. The men escaped, and no trace of them has since been found. But there is good ground for the belief that they did, in fact, disappear in a motor car.

In the early hours of the morning a policeman on duty in Donegall Street was startled by the roar of a car coming down from Crumlin Road at terrific speed. There were no lights up, and as the speed was in his opinion something in the vicinity of fifty or sixty miles an hour, he attempted to stop it.

His attempt was futile, however. The big car dashed on, and disappeared round Royal Avenue corner. That was the last that was seen of it.

It is one of the minor mysteries of the affair that no further trace of the car could be found. There is no doubt that the car raced down Donegall Street at break-neck speed, but the most diligent inquiries of the police have failed to discover where it went or to whom it belonged. Its number could not be seen.
All that is known of it is that it was painted red.

It has been suggested that the men made for the Free State, and this may be correct. But, if so, they will find themselves no safer there than in Northern Ireland.

No state would willingly harbour convicted murderers, and the Civil Guard in the Free State were put on high alert early in the day, and are keeping a sharp look-out for the fugitives.

Any assumption that they might be less anxious to capture the men in the South than in the North is based on an entire misapprehension.

The close accord with which the police of the two governments act has been frequently commented upon, and has formed the subject of commendation by judges North and South.

On the other hand there is no real evidence to show that the convicts have sought sanctuary in the South. It is at least as likely that they are still at no great distance from Belfast, and a very thorough search for them is being carried out. Motor cars and motor buses in all parts of the country were closely scrutinised from an early hour yesterday morning, the search being carried on all day.

No arrests have not yet been made, but the police are confident that the men will be laid by heels within a comparatively short time.

The Home Office announced this morning that a reward of £500 will be given to anyone who, within three months, gives information leading to their capture. The reward will be divided according to the value of the information.

The following is the official description of the wanted men. Frank O’Boyle, of Beragh, County Tyrone, age 28 years, motor garage owner, height 5ft 6in; ruddy complexion, hair brown, eyes grey; medium build, oval face, mole right cheek, third and fourth fingers on right hand deformed, birth mark right shoulder blade, scar on left hand.

William Conlon, age 38 years, no occupation, American citizen, height 5ft 3/4in, complexion fresh, hair dark, eyes hazel, medium build, oval face, mole right cheek, tattooed cross on back of right forearm and heart on left forearm, cross and dot on back of left hand, scar on tip of left thumb, scar on left forearm.

Hugh Rodgers, of Sixmilecross, County Tyrone, aged 32 years, motor driver, height 5ft. 5in, complexion fresh, eyes grey, hair brown turning grey, medium build, oval face, mole on right ear and left breast, two scars left thigh, eight scars on inside of left leg, scar on outside of left leg.

Edward Thornton, native of County Monaghan, last residing at 108 Spamount Street, Belfast, labourer, age 37 years, height, 5ft. 6in, complexion fresh, hair brown turning grey, eyes blue, stout build, oval face, scar right side of throat, scar on side of left eye, lump on back of neck.

Two recaptured

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