Horsham prisoner makes an escape during refurbishment works – mirroring the history of the County Gaol

A well-known Horsham prisoner has made his escape during work to refurbish the town’s museum and art gallery.

Thursday, 3rd June 2021, 2:09 pm

The model, a 1970s shop dummy that sat in its cell for decades and would surprise visitors by moving without warning, has gone ‘on the run’.

Jeremy Knight curator at Horsham Museum & Art Gallery, takes up the story: “After serving 20 years of an indeterminate life sentence for a crime – no one can remember what he committed – the Horsham prisoner has escaped.

“For over 20 years, he has sat in a cell in solitary confinement, sleeping on a wooden bed, thin mattress with yellow and green prison uniform.

A prisoner model used to sit in the cell at Horsham Museum but it has made its escape during refurbishment works

“So, it is no surprise that the only pleasure he had in life was frightening children and some adults, who let out a scream as he lurched left or right. Many did not want to face this hardened criminal, hardened by being coated in plastic, a glamorous 1970s shop dummy that through the ingenuity of a volunteer moved and drank, without warning.

“We should not have been surprised that he/she escaped after all this time. As part of the current museum refresh, the museum deliberately created an open door and left it open for weeks.”

Mr Knight’s excuse was that they were working on the space to allow children to be photographed behind the 1780s metal cell door, with its latticework iron frame, a rare survival from the state-of-the-art Georgian prison built in Horsham in the 1770s but pulled down 80 years later.

He said: “We did not expect it to happen. After searching high and low, we think the prisoner escaped in the giant skip and joined the dustbin of history.”

This, though, is not the only prisoner escape recorded in the annals of Horsham history. Horsham County Gaol was, in fact, noted as a place you could escape from.

In 1288, the town was held responsible for the escape of a Kentish horse thief caught at Bramber. That was from the town’s small lock up. Some 300 years later, probably through bribing the jailer, six men escaped from the county gaol in Horsham in 1598, and this was one of eight jail breaks for which the jailer was prosecuted.

Then there was the jailer Richard Luckins, a ‘notorious drunkard, quarreller and blasphemer, who kept a thoroughly disorderly house at the George Inn near the gaol’. He was accused in 1645, among other things, of extorting unjust fees, of ‘allowing prisoners to escape and of dabbling in black magic’.

And in 1739, the jailer was prosecuted for allowing 11 prisoners to escape as he was serving them ale. Normally, the ale was served in a small jug through the hatchway in the door but this time the pitcher was too large and the men ran at him, knocking him over and escaping - with only one ever recaptured.

In 1774, John Howard, the leading reformer, actually stopped a jail break while surveying the for his forthcoming report. He wrote: “When I went unto the Horsham Gaol with the keeper, we saw a heap of stones and rubbish. The felons had been two or three days undermining the foundations of the room and a general escape was intended that night. We were but just in time to prevent it, for it was almost night when we went in.”

When Mr Howard put forward his suggestions for a new type of jail, which Sussex followed when the County Gaol was rebuilt in the town, he proposed a single cell: “I wish to have so many small rooms or cabins that each criminal may sleep alone... If it be difficult to prevent their being together in the daytime, they should by all means be separated at night.”

He went on to argue that separation at night would stop plans for escape being hatched, among other things.

Mr Knight said: “That is why Horsham’s prisoner had a cell to himself. The metal-framed door and window on display in Horsham Museum came from that new prison, which was a tourist attraction when it opened in 1770s.”

The new arrangements for visiting the museum, including the prison, will be announced soon.

Mr Knight explained: “There is an expectation that visiting rights for tourists will be in place when the prison re-opens in late-September, though gawping at a prisoner will no longer feature in the entertainment but making a fool of yourself to entertain your friends on social media will be allowed.”

For more information on the museum’s refurbishment, visit www.horshammuseum.org