Rex Needle: Daring Folkingham prison escape foiled

House of Correction at Folkingham EMN-140906-093417001
House of Correction at Folkingham EMN-140906-093417001
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One of the most audacious attempts to break out of the gaol at Folkingham, near Bourne, during the early 19th century was planned not by a hardened criminal but by a gentleman farmer who came from a society family of the landed gentry and was for a brief time tenant of the Red Hall.

Peter Nicol was born at Belton Hall, Rutland, in 1811 but decided to go into business on his own and after a failed attempt in Derbyshire, leased agricultural land in Bourne, first at the Red Hall and then at the Abbey House, both grand mansions once occupied by distinguished local families and at that time let to anyone who could afford to take on the lease.

Nicol liked the high life and as his expenditure usually exceeded his income, he was frequently short of money and eventually turned to forgery to obtain some.

He owed a considerable sum to his bank, the Stamford and Spalding Joint Stock Banking Company, and in the summer of 1843, their agent in Bourne pressed him to provide further security for his increasing debt and so he agreed to give them a joint promissory note in the sum of £200 [£22,000 at today’s values] which he himself would sign together with his mother-in-law, Mrs Martha Neal, then living at the Abbey House. He put his own signature on the document and took it away to obtain Mrs Neal’s signature, returning with the name Martha Neal added and witnessed by a drover named Smith.

But when the note was presented to Mrs Neal for payment, she denied having signed it and condemned the document as being “counterfeited” and as a result, Nicol was arrested and brought before the magistrates in August 1843. Unable to find the £400 bail, he was remanded in custody to Folkingham Gaol to await a further hearing and produce his witness Smith.

Prison did not suit Nicol and he was soon plotting his escape, assisted by two hardened criminals, James Shotbolt, aged 22, an army deserter, and John Richardson, aged 28, a repeat offender who was confined for not paying a fine imposed for assault and for robbing other prisoners, offering both men £50 upon his release as a reward for their help.

They discovered that it was customary for the governor, Matthew Maile, to leave the gaol on Mondays to attend the magistrates court at Sleaford and in his absence they planned to seize the turnkey and steal his keys. As a result, at noon on Monday, August 28, 1843, they saw the governor appear in his boots and greatcoat as though about to leave for Sleaford and then put their plan into action. They waited until the turnkey brought their dinners and once he had entered their cell they set upon him and stole his keys, gagged and bound him, put a towel over his eyes and locked him in a privy.

The escape trio passed through the two prison yards and opened both gates with the stolen keys. Only the main lodge entrance then stood between them and freedom and they were about to open that when the plan went awry in the shape of Edward Maile, the sheriff’s officer from Cambridge, who had arrived unexpectedly to visit his brother, the governor, who had therefore delayed his departure to Sleaford.

The two men confronted the escaping prisoners and a violent struggle ensued in which all three received a desperate beating and were forced back into their cell and the turnkey released. They then put Nicol into the black hole reserved for persistent wrongdoers and placed his accomplices in irons before confining them to separate cells.

“Too much praise cannot be given to Mr Maile, the governor, and his brother from Cambridge, for the manly and intrepid way in which they met the prisoners”, reported one newspaper. “It is most certain that had they both gone to Sleaford before the attempt was made that they would have released the whole of the prisoners, 53 in number, and some of them the most desperate characters in that part of the country.”

The three culprits subsequently appeared at the Kesteven Sessions held at the Town Hall in Bourne on Monday, October 16 when they pleaded guilty to attempting an escape and assaulting the turnkey, William Hill.

But the court decided that Nicol, then aged 35, was the ringleader and, having moved in better society than either of the other two prisoners, it was his duty to have set them a different example. He was therefore sentenced to three months’ imprisonment and the others were given two months’ each.

Even after his release, Nicol still had the charge of forgery hanging over him and the case was heard at Lincoln Assizes on Saturday, March 9, 1844. But by then, his mother-in-law, Mrs Neal, had been having second thoughts and decided not to pursue the case because the court was told that no evidence was being offered by the bank relating to the alleged offence after discovering that Mrs Neal had given her daughter, Nicol’s wife, leave to sign her name. The case was therefore dropped and he was discharged.

But Nicol’s problems were still not over and the following May he was declared insolvent and protracted bankruptcy proceedings continued for several years with creditors coming forward to claim money owed, notably William Ann Pochin, then Lord of the Manor of Bourne Abbots, who filed an action to recover arrears of £92 in rent for land and premises which he had occupied, no doubt the Abbey House which was still in the family ownership and which Nicol had once leased.

Peter Nicol spent the rest of his life being pursued by creditors and was never fully solvent. He obtained work as a commercial traveller in wines and spirits, a venture in which he had tried his hand before, albeit unsuccessfully, but died in London on December 16, 1864, aged 57. His abortive escape bid from Folkingham Gaol, however, did achieve him some notoriety among prisoners until the gaol closed in 1878 although it is doubtful whether his accomplices ever did get their promised £50 for trying to help him.

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