Escaping Broadmoor

I’ve previously blogged about patients whose desire to stay in Broadmoor, or gain a transfer to the (comparatively lenient and luxurious) asylum from prison was so strong they feigned insanity. This post briefly outlines the cases of some patients who didn’t want to stay in the asylum and so they planned, sometimes successfully, their escape.


Insane convicts (patients who were transferred to Broadmoor from prison) were reportedly dirty, violent and cunning, with their crafty nature allegedly being the cause of many escapes from the asylum. In 1873, three convicts escaped. One of these men was W.B. who had been permitted to go for a walk in the asylum grounds, chaperoned by an attendant. W.B. encouraged the attendant to examine a rabbit hole and, as he did so, reportedly ‘suddenly struck him on the head with a large stone and after endeavouring to strangle him, left him on the ground nearly insensible.’ The Lunacy Commissioners subsequently condemned the ‘management of want of proper precaution in trusting to the sole care of one attendant such a man as [W.B.] who had committed murder previous to his admission, and had exhibited dangerous tendencies in the asylum.’ An announcement was made to the press and to police stations around England and Wales, and a description of W.B. was circulated: he had black, thick curly hair worn parted down the middle; black whiskers, moustache and beard; dark, blood shot eyes; and a sallow complexion. He was dressed in blue clothing marked Broadmoor. Not long after the escape an announcement, ‘Insane Person Found’, was forwarded to Broadmoor. The name on this announcement was not that of the missing Broadmoor patient – this wouldn’t have been considered unusual since many convicts had aliases. Despite the physical resemblance the person found appears to have had to W.B., however, the two men weren’t one and the same. The records suggest that W. B. was never found.


F.M. escaped in the late 1880s. According to his medical notes this patient was particularly troublesome: he was reportedly violent, easily agitated, and engaged in acts of a sexual nature with his fellow patients. His escape was reported to the Home Office:

[F.M] was employed with a party of inmates and with the care of an attendant at a temporary job of levelling some ground at the back of no 2 Block within the asylum walls. About 2. 30 soon after work was commenced, […] [F.M.] left his work and ran to the scaffolding which had been raised in connection with the new works for joining blocks 1 & 2 (upon which a number of paid labourers were engaged). Mounting the scaffolding he sprang a distance of about 6 feet across and managed to balance himself by clinging with his knees, upon the top of the disconnected end of a high partition wall along which he speedily scrambled to the boundary wall, and then dropping onto the ground, he escaped into the woods which closely adjoin.

F.M.’s escape was short-lived – he was apprehended the same evening about 8 miles from Broadmoor by the asylum’s assistant gatekeeper and a temporary clerk, both of whom were awarded £1. 10. The escape of any patient was an embarrassment and a cause for concern, but Broadmoor’s governing body, the Council of Supervision, and the Superintendent, tried to downplay the incident by insisting that F.M. was only able to escape because he was ‘formerly a sailor’ and an ‘active youth’ (he was 24 years old). The Superintendent reported that F.M.’s escape was ‘effected by means of a dangerous but successful leap made from some scaffolding on to the temporarily broken end of a partition wall’ – a leap most of Broadmoor’s other patients wouldn’t have been able to perform, not least because (according to the Council) they would struggle to climb up the scaffolding and successfully make their way into the woods. On this occasion the attendant was not blamed or accused of neglecting his duties – instead, building work (the presence of scaffolding) and F.M.’s strength and speed were held accountable.


T.G. was reportedly a particularly troublesome patient. Following a visit to Broadmoor one journalist, in a highly exaggerated account of the asylum, wrote ‘The Terrors of Broadmoor’. He declared T.G. to be the most dangerous patient in the asylum – he was ‘not so much mad as irrevocably bad – a kind of modern Frankenstein, born apparently without a moral nature […] He alone possesses powers of combination and can gain over his dangerous associates to do his will.’ Whilst a sensationalist account of Broadmoor and its patients, records indicate that T.G. had a group of friends at the asylum who were willing to assist him with his schemes. In 1864, T.G. was singled out as the ringleader in a ‘very serious’ attempt to escape with three of his fellow patients. They diverted an attendant by asking him to fetch a piece of pie, before running down the corridor, shutting the doors and putting stones in the keyholes to stop other attendants reaching them. They then tied their handkerchiefs and neckerchiefs together to construct a rope in order to climb out of the window. The plot was foiled at the last minute after the Broadmoor’s chaplain ‘saw the men descending outside one of the windows of the room where he was reading prayers’ and raised the alarm. T.G. and his friends made it to a wall in the airing court of Block 1 before they were apprehended.


A serious incident occurred one evening in September 1864 when G.H. escaped. At the time of his escape G.H. was under the care of Samuel Wills, ‘an experienced officer’ who was subsequently summoned before the Council and reprimanded. What was unusual about this case was that John Sydney Philport, a second-class attendant at Broadmoor, encouraged and assisted G.H.’s escape. Philport had instructed the patient to hide under a bed in one of the dormitories and adjusted a rug so he could conceal him; he then let him out of the building. G. H. made his way to Derbyshire and, as Philport recommended, obtained work in a coal pit. He was recaptured in November when the Chief Constable of Sheffield found him; he received a £5 reward. Philport was committed for trial at Reading assizes and charged with aiding and abetting G.H. in escaping. He was found guilty and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment with hard labour.


Broadmoor’s attendants were instructed to be particularly vigilant and mindful of the whereabouts of patients and their activities. A lapse in judgement occurred one evening in July 1869 when female patient A.K. escaped from airing court No. 2. At the time, there were twenty-five patients under the care of four attendants, and music was playing in airing court No. 1. Accounts of the incident suggest that rather than watching the patients the attendants were dancing with them, and A.K. saw an opportunity to flee. The image below, taken from the Illustrated London News (1867), shows female patients dancing in the airing court.

Patients Dancing

With the assistance of a fellow patient, A.K. had no difficulty reaching the top of the north wall of the asylum and escaping into the countryside. The attendants were ‘reprimanded and cautioned to be more careful in the future.’ A.K. wasn’t found. As a result of this escape, proposals were made to increase the height of Broadmoor’s boundary walls.


The carelessness of attendants – leaving patients unsupervised to fetch pie, dancing with them instead of watching them – was the cause of a number of escapes. M.M. attempted to escape from Broadmoor via the door that connected the dormitory she slept in with the chapel after it was left unlocked by an attendant. M.M. got through the chapel and onto the airing court before she escaped over the boundary wall. She was apprehended the following day and taken back to Broadmoor by a policeman from Reading. The attendants in charge ‘admit their neglect and express deep regret at the occurrence’; they were reprimanded and fined for their discretion, and the policemen was awarded £2 as a reward. As a result of this escape, the Council approved the Superintendent’s suggestion that bars should be placed in the windows of the chapel for extra security.

This is by no means a comprehensive account of all of the escapes that occurred. A number of other patients managed to flee whilst working in the fields or out on walks with attendants, others through the use of fabricated keys or deception. In 1888, Broadmoor’s Superintendent reflected quite positively on the situation:

It is not surprising that the idea of escape is much in the minds of a population situated as the inmates of Broadmoor are. Many of them, although fully convalescent and practically recovered, are yet quite unfit to be released from asylum supervision and permitted to go at large, in consequence of the risk that would be incurred. In order to make the daily life of the inmates as little irksome as possible, it is necessary to extend at least a reasonable amount of privilege and freedom to them within the walls; and it is only in the nature of things that these privileges should from time to time be taken advantage of and abused. Since the opening of the asylum in 1863, embracing a period of over 25 years, only 28 inmates out of an average yearly population of 473, have contrived to make their escape, and of these all have been recaptured with the exception of four. Up to last year no inmate had succeeded in making good his escape and avoiding recapture since 1873. Under all the circumstances, and bearing in mind the fact that no offensive or defensive weapon is permitted to the attendants, this is, for my predecessors in office, a very satisfactory record of immunity from escape, and it has reference not only to the general management and asylum distribution of the inmates, but also to the vigilance and reliability of the staff generally.

In the early 1890s a slightly more pessimistic view was expressed, and very few male inmates were allowed to work outside because it was feared they would try to escape. As a result, a new garden boundary wall (16 feet high) was built so that more patients could be trusted with working on the land.

Many (if not most) of Broadmoor’s patients hoped that they would one day leave the asylum – preferably because they had been (legally) discharged and not because they’d successfully managed to escape and live out the remainder of their days incognito. Whether out of hope or simply because they wished to keep themselves entertained (perhaps both), patients in early-twentieth century Broadmoor adapted H. G. Pellissier’s comedy song ‘Back to the Land’:

There’s a many slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip,

But now and again someone does ‘get the tip’;

To get out of Broadmoor’s a hard thing to do,

But don’t be downhearted – there’s still hope for you

To go back back back to the land;

It may be feet foremost with flowers in your hand;

But, if favoured by fate, you’ll escape “No. VIII’

And get back, back, back to the land.

No VIII was the title bestowed upon the mortuary.

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