Escapes from Oxford Castle

by Peter Nelson, March 2014

Oxford Castle

Early view of Oxford Castle

From the Oxford Journal, 18th October 1777 :

OXFORD, October 18.

On Saturday last Richard Latham and Robert Thacker were committed to our Castle, by William Smith, Mayor, and [three Burgesses of Henley-upon-Thames] ; charged upon the Oaths of Richard Taylor, Bett Cox, Anne Cox, Stephen Bacon, William Munday, Robert Arundell, John Cox, and Thomas Harper, with having stopped them, last Friday Night, near the Six-Miles Stone at the End of Maidenhead Thicket, in the Road leading from Maidenhead to Henley, and robbed the said Richard Taylor of a Silver Watch, and the said Bett Cox of Half a Guinea and a Nutmeg-Grater.

The Watch and Nutmeg-Grater were found upon them.

It appears, from divers Accounts, that they are notorious Offenders, and have committed many Robberies in the Neighbourhood of London for three Months past ; as well as in divers other Parts of the Kingdom.

From the Oxford Journal, 13th December 1777 :

OXFORD, December 13.

Thacker and Latham, two desperate Villains, under Confinement in our Castle for Highway Robberies, were this Week discovered to have projected an Escape, by the Assistance of some of their Confederates ; for which Purpose Implements were provided in London and sent down by the Wife of one of the Prisoners, and lodged at the House of a Person in this City, from whence they were to be conveyed through a Grate over the Mill adjoining to the Tower, in which they were secured ; but an Accomplice not appearing according to Appointment, the Implements, consisting of four Spring Saws, and an Iron Crow of very peculiar Construction, had been sent to an Inn to be Yesterday conveyed back to London ; but were there seized, and proper Application being made to the Magistrates, the Woman was secured, and Measures are pursued for detecting some of the Parties.

By this Discovery, which was obtained through the Vigilance and uncommon Assiduity of Sir John Fielding, two most attrocious Offenders are still secured, and probably many dreadful Consequences avoided.

From the Oxford Journal, 7th February 1778 :

OXFORD, February 7.

Early on Monday Morning last Robert Thacker, committed with Latham, (two notorious Offenders) for a Highway Robbery near Maidenhead Thicket, with Jones the Highwayman (whose real Name is Jefferson) condemned at our Assize for robbing one of the Birmingham Coaches in Tetsworth Lane, and Elizabeth Boswell, a Gypsey, condemned also at a former Assize for a Burglary, and whose Accomplice in the Fact was executed here, found Means to effect a most artful and long-premeditated Escape from our Castle.

Thacker and Jones were confined, with four others, in the Condemned-room, which is secured with two Doors, the outer of which had a strong Lock and two Bolts, the inner two Bolts.

Boswell was confined alone in the Sick Appartment, fastened by a Lock only, the Staple of which having been nearly sawed through by Thacker, and artfully cemented over to prevent Discovery ; as was the Box Staple of the Condemned-room, he having for some Time feigned himself ill, and remained up Stairs in order to accomplish his Design.

Soon after the Hour of being locked up, Boswell forced her own Door, which enabled her to unbolt the Doors of the Condemned-room ; Thacker and Jones thus far enlarged, immediately fastened the Bolts, to prevent Interruption from the other Prisoners while they were cutting off their Fetters.

After this they forced their Way through the Side of the Tower, upon a Level with the high Wall on the West Side of the Felons Yard ; from thence by the Help of the Sheets from their Beds, they let themselves down, over the Iron Spikes, into a Garden adjoining to the Castle Ditch, and got clear off.

From the Oxford Journal, 7th, 14th, 21st, and 28th February 1778 :


WHEREAS on Sunday Night last, the 1st of February, 1778, the three following Prisoners found Means to make their Escape, by breaking through theWall of the Tower, viz.

ROBERT THACKER commited for a Highway Robbery, done near Maidenhead Thicket.  He is about twenty-four Years of Age, 5 Feet 7 Inches high, by Trade a Taylor, was formerly a Bridewell-Boy at Black-Friars, with strait brown Hair ; had, when he went away, a false Tail, which might be tied on occasionally ; hazle Eyes, hooked Nose, thick Lips, high Cheek Bones, smooth Face, strait made, and has a sore Leg.

JOHN JONES, alias JEFFERSON, condemned March 5th, 1777, but reprieved.  He is about twenty-four Years of Age, 5 Feet 2 or 3 Inches high ; large grey Eyes, hooked Nose, swarthy Complexion, long Visage, is strait made, speaks thick and short, with dark Hair, tied.

ELIZABETH BOSWELL, alias MASON, aged about twenty-three Years, a tall and stout-made Woman, born at Sutton, near Abingdon, Berks ; fresh Complexion, light brown Hair parted before, hazle Eyes, a strolling Gypsey, under Sentence of Transportation.

FIVE GUINEAS Reward for each of the Men, and TWO GUINEAS for the Woman, will be paid on their being delivered to the said Goal, by me,


From the Oxford Journal, 28th February 1778 :

OXFORD, February 28.

Latham the Highwayman, Thacker’s Accomplice, (not yet retaken) was this Week removed from hence to Reading, by Habeas, in order to take his Trial at the Assizes there.

On Thursday Evening Elizabeth Boswell, who escaped from our Castle on the first of this Instant (in company with Jones and Thacker, the two Highwaymen) was brought back by a young Gentleman who had that Day apprehended her at Wantage, and who brought her from thence in a Post-chaise and Four without any other Guard.

According to the Account given by this Woman, Thacker and Jones slept on Wednesday Night last under a Stack of Hawm, in a Field near Wantage ; that they were at a Publick-house in Farringdon on Tuesday ; and that they have with them a long-tailed black Colt, rather of the Cart Kind, with a ragged Coat, and a Star in his Forehead ; that they had changed their Dress in some Measure ; that Thacker had tied his Hair with a false Tail, and Jones had pinned up his Hair in Curls.

From the Reading Mercury, 9th March 1778 :

READING, March 7.

At our assizes, which began on Tuesday last, David Harman, for a burglary at Bradfield, and Richard Latham for a highway robbery, were capitally convicted ; the former was reprieved before the judge left the town, and Latham remains for execution.

From the Reading Mercury, 23rd March 1778 :

READING, March 21.

This day, about five o’clock, Richard Latham. for a highway robbery, near Maidenhead, was executed pursuant to his sentence.

He prayed and sung Psalms incessantly to the place of execution, to which he was attended by the Under Sheriff, and a great concourse of spectators ; at the place of execution he behaved with a decency becoming his unhappy situation, and died truly penitent.

From the Oxford Journal, 18th July 1778 :

OXFORD, July 18.

Last Monday Evening Thacker the Highwayman, who effected his Escape from our Castle the 1st of February last, with Jones and Boswell, was brought back to his old Apartments by two of Sir John Fielding’s People, having been apprehended in London.

He will be removed to take his Trial in Berkshire, for robbing the Landlord of the Bear Inn at Henley-upon-Thames, on Maidenhead Thicket, in Company with Richard Latham, who was executed at Reading at the last Lent Assizes, for the said Robbery.

What is somewhat remarkable, and was considered as an ominous Circumstance by Thacker, the Post Chaise in which he was removed broke down directly opposite the House of the Prosecutor, in his passage thro’ Henley, by the Perch breaking short asunder ; but neither Thacker nor his Attendants received the least Injury.

From the Oxford Journal, 1st August 1778 :

OXFORD, August 1.

On Monday last the Commission for holding the Assizes for the County of Berks was opened at Abingdon, before Lord Chief Baron Skynner and Mr. Justice Nares, when Richard Watkins, for a Burglary in the Dwelling-House of Elizabeth Sawyer, at Coleshill ; Robert Thacker, for a Highway Robbery on Maidenhead Thicket ; Stephen Dicker, for a Robbery in a Dwelling-House at Old Windsor ; Richard Weson, for robbing Mr. Halifax on the Highway at Earley ; and Joseph Stubbs, for Sheep-stealing ; were capitally convicted, and received Sentence of Death ; But the two last were reprieved.

From the Stamford Mercury, 27th August 1778 :


Reading, August 15.  Tuesday a respite, during his Majesty’s pleasure, arrived at our gaol for Thacker the highwayman, capitally convicted at our assizes.  And this afternoon Stephen Dicker, for robbing a dwelling-house at Windsor, and Richard Watkins, for house-breaking at Coleshill, were executed pursuant to their sentence.

A Few Words of Explanation :

The early view of Oxford Castle shows it in the middle ages.  After the Civil War, much of it was demolished, and by 1751 little was left but the great tower, which was used as the prison, and some of the curtain wall.  The Castle was substantially rebuilt in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, so that it looks very different now.

Sir John Fielding, with his brother, the novellist Henry Fielding, set up the original Bow Street Runners in London in 1749, establishing a much more effective police force there.

The Bridewell Hospital and Prison at Blackfriars housed homeless children and was also a house of correction for Londoners.

‘Hawm’ is just straw.

One meaning of ‘perch’ is a pole joining the front and rear axles of a carriage.

One meaning of ‘respite’ is a temporary stay of execution, or reprieve.

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