UK’s scandalous prison escapes – from a Soviet spy to a thief who had £40,000 plastic surgery

Brits can sleep easy in their beds knowing that the country’s most dangerous criminals are locked up in high-security prisons.

But while actual Shawshank Redemption stories are extremely rare, they did happen on our shores.

It was only last week that a manhunt for notorious double killer Darren Pilkington was launched after his release from prison.

The 39-year-old was on the run from HMP Kirkham in Lancashire – before being captured in Horwich, Bolton, over the weekend.

Pilkington was caged in 2006 for the murder of his then-girlfriend Carly Fairhurst, and he was also jailed five years earlier for beating Paul Akister to death outside a pub.

Below, we take a look at other inmates who have escaped from UK prisons – stragglers who have hidden in gymnasiums, forged makeshift ropes and even walked through doors in search of freedom.

HMP Wandsworth, 1965

Defiant to the end, Ronnie attended the funeral of Great Train Robbery mastermind Bruce Reynolds in 2013

In 1963, London-born villain Ronnie Biggs was convicted for his role in what became known as The Great Train Robbery.

Biggs and 14 other accomplices got away with £2.6million after robbing a Royal Mail train on August 8, 1963.

He was then sentenced to 30 years in prison – but only served 15 months after he scaled the walls of HMP Wandsworth in south London with a rope and ladder.

The criminal left in a removal van before fleeing for 36 years in Australia and Brazil after spending £40,000 on plastic surgery to disguise his appearance.

Aged 72, he returned to the UK in 2001 where he was sent to prison to serve out the rest of his sentence.

He died aged 84 in 2013, four years after being released from prison on humanitarian grounds.

HMP Wormwood Scrubs, 1966

George Blake
He died at 98

Just a year after Biggs’ escape, a British traitor has managed to escape from HMP Wormwood Scrubs in West London.

George Blake was sentenced in 1961 to 42 years in prison for leaking M16 secrets to the Soviet Union – sending dozens of Western operatives to their deaths.

But shortly after England lifted the 1966 World Cup, Blake scaled the prison walls and then drove through East Berlin where his Soviet spymasters picked him up.

He started a new life in Moscow before his death in December 2020 at the age of 98.

At the time, Sergey Ivanov, spokesman for the foreign intelligence agency SVR, formerly the KGB, said: “Bitter news has arrived – the legendary George Blake is gone. He died of old age, his heart stopped.

Maze HMP, 1983

Labyrinth Prison
IRA members escaped from Maze Prison after taking over the prison by force

This is the 40th largest prison break in UK history where an officer has been killed.

The shocking escape happened in September 1983 at HMP Maze in County Down, which closed at the turn of the century.

Thirty-eight IRA retards fled after a prison food truck was hijacked.

And, during the unrest, four prison officers were stabbed while six others were shot after being overpowered. Officer James Ferris was stabbed before suffering a fatal heart attack.

Authorities eventually tracked down most of the Republicans, and 15 were recaptured within hours.

Then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called it the “seriousest [prison escape] in our current history.

HMP Brixton, 1991

Pearse McCauley who escaped from Brixton Prison with fellow suspect Nessan Quinlivan in 1991
Pearse McCauley who escaped from Brixton Prison with fellow suspect Nessan Quinlivan in 1991

Last year marked 30 years since IRA members Nessan Quinlivan and Pearse McAuley forced their way out of HMP Brixton – and got away with it.

The pair were awaiting trial after being charged with conspiring to murder brewery boss Sir Charles Tidbury.

They made their daring escape after McAuley used a gun from his shoe to threaten the guards.

He fired shots before the dangerous duo fled through the perimeter wall.

An officer was shot in the leg during the terrifying ordeal before his car was stolen by the escapees.

They then traveled to Ireland and in 2009 the Crown Prosecution Service concluded there would be no chance of a conviction for attempted murder and conspiracy to cause explosions.

At that time, McAuley had been convicted of manslaughter for his role in the murder of Garda Detective Jerry McCabe.

And in December 2014, McAuley got into further trouble after he assaulted his ex-wife – stabbing her 13 times.

She managed to survive the horrific ordeal and McAuley was sentenced to 12 years behind bars, including four years suspended.

HMP Pentonville, 2012

John Massy
John Massey was allowed to walk free in 2018 – six years after escaping

In June, it will be 10 years since one of Britain’s oldest stragglers, John Massey, escaped from HMP Pentonville in north London.

The then 64-year-old was serving a life sentence for shooting bouncer Charlie Higgins to death at a Hackney bar in 1975.

But in 2012 he used a makeshift rope to scale the roof of a prison and scale the wall after hiding in a gymnasium – only to be arrested in Kent 48 hours later.

He was denied parole in 2016 and speaking from Rochester prison in Kent, he fumed: “I’m sitting here not going anywhere.”

Massey, who has spent more than four decades inside, added: “Apparently I’m more dangerous now than I was 20 years ago. It’s twisted logic.

However, he was released two years later.

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