In a semi-detached on the outskirts of Sheffield, Albert Hattersley glances at the Leicester Mercury headline of Saturday, December 19, 1953, 30FT JUMP TO FREEDOM IN PRISON ESCAPE
“It was 36ft,” says the pensioner, jabbing a peevish finger at the front page. “I should know.”
It’s been 57 years since the boys in blue came clattering after Albert, a safe-blower who pulled a disappearing trick that had every force in the Midlands on alert.
Now aged 88 and with two false knees, the south Yorkshireman is not giving anyone the runaround.
It’s not how many readers of the Mercury will remember the Albert Hattersley who, with slicked back hair, stared dispassionately from the front page almost 60 years ago.
Today, though, we’re not here sitting in judgment, we’re here to hear Albert reminisce about the past, sat as he is in the small conservatory of his home, drinking tea from a mug adorned by Laurel and Hardy.
And does crime pay? The answer is no, not on the face of it. Albert lives with wife Kath and son Carl in a semi on a Sheffield estate. Directly across the road is a block of graffiti-covered flats.
Sat in the 10ft by 10ft conservatory, draped with vertical blinds, Albert holds court in what resembles a cage.
But boy can he talk. From 10.30am to 3.10pm, it all comes rushing out.
“I’ve had experiences…,” he continues, slowly, “looking back I’ve no regrets. No regrets for myself. Regrets for my first marriage. She divorced me. And, I regret any unhappiness I brought to my parents.”
But that’s it, that’s your lot from Albert. ..
Not that we were expecting any lengthy apology, mind.
“It’s nice to look back,” he smiles, “once I get going…”
Albert first used explosives to blast through coal and rock at Sheffield’s Thorpe Colliery.
He started work at the age of 15 on the coal face, progressed to coal cutter and then became ‘powder man’.
He would use a little explosive for `blowing’ the coal out, or a lot for blasting through rock.
“With getting explosives [to blow safes], it was no problem. It was so loose the security, it’s a wonder the IRA didn’t get stacked out with it.
“While getting explosives were no trouble, it was getting the detonaters that were difficult.
“Anyway, I could get what I wanted, I used to supply the Cockneys with blowing gear years ago.”
Nobody noticed if some went missing, nor the correlating number of blasted safes across the north and Midlands.
To go any further, Albert has to explain a few things.
“Explosives,” says Albert, “are called ‘soup’ when you’re using nitroglycerin, detonators are ‘dets’ and ‘peters’ are safes.
“And I,” says Albert proudly, “was the best peterman in the business.”
A life of crime hadn’t been the plan. During the war, Albert was a man desperate to see service. But working as a miner, he wasn’t allowed to leave the pit. It didn’t stop him from trying `though.
“I tried the Fleet Air Arm, Royal Air Force, Navy, I didn’t want to kill any Germans,” he explains, “I just craved excitement – I always have.
“I really tried, I even tried to sign up in Liverpool.”
It wasn’t to be and he returned to Sheffield where he was fined five shillings for being absent from work.
It was at this time he started to drink at a dodgy pub. It was 10p a pint of bitter, he recalls.
“I got mixed up with people who they couldn’t drag into the army, who had never worked.
“There was a bloke smoking at the bar, never took it from his mouth until it was finished, he had a pre-war Ford Pop. People didn’t have cars then.
“They were all into villainy and I would run them to jobs. This,” he explains, “is how I got involved.”
Before then, Albert was expected to have become a manager at the colliery.
His dad, a former Cold Stream Guard and “honest as the day is long”, had high hopes.
Albert’s skills, however, lay elsewhere.
He learned his trade from the instantly unforgettable Scottie Anderson. A man who once crimped a fuse between his teeth as the detonater went off.
Albert proved so deft at the art of making things go bang, he lectured on explosives to Bevin Boys at Rotherham Technical College for the National Coal Board.
On the little wicker table in front of him, Albert breaks off to pick up a pile of photos. “Anyway,” he says, “have a look at these.”
Some pictures are from the funeral of master thief George “Taters” Chatham.
Funnily enough, one photo turns out to be the one missing from our archives – it’s the picture of Albert at the hospital after his recapture.
“Those,” he says pointing to a bunch of uncommonly beefy men, “are all into villainy.”
Mostly though, the photos are from the funeral of George `Taters’ Chatham, held at Putney Vale Cemetery in London a few years back.
The nickname, says Albert, was due to the fact Taters was as cold as a potato and didn’t show emotion.
“He had the Duke of Wellington’s swords from the Royal Albert Museum, just to prise the rubies out.”
Of his era, it’s just Albert and Mad Dog Frankie Fraser left.
“I’m five months older than him,” he says.
“He’s a funny fella Frankie Fraser. Mad, definitely mad. I’ve known him for years.”
In a pub after the funeral, there’s a snap of Albert with Bruce Reynolds, the man who organised the Great Train Robbery. Serial burglar Peter Scott is next to him.
At the funeral, Reynolds introduced the mourners to the Sheffield pensioner.
“Albert is the finest peterman this country’s ever known,” he boomed.
It created a stir.
“And they’re coming up to me, shaking my hand. I didn’t know where to look,” grins Albert, in an unconvincing attempt at modesty.
The vicar at the service knew of the deceased’s past. All the same, he said Taters was “up there” in Heaven.
Afterwards, Scott gave his own address: “He’s not `up there’,” he said, “he’s down there – where I shall be joining him.”
Over the years, Albert’s done porridge at Leeds, Wakefield, Leicester and Dartmoor.
And there’s never been a safe he couldn’t blow.
“I did co-operatives, post offices – they were always a good one – foundries, finance places.
“Never did houses or stealing people’s cars.”
Albert’s last stint inside was a 10 year sentence for arson and receiving stolen goods. He came out in 1976.
Dot, the woman he was married to when he was serving seven years for the Birstall Post Office robbery – the reason he was in HMP Leicester – eventually divorced him.
They had four kids together. One Christmas she didn’t let them write to their dad.
“But she was always willing to accept a fur coat or a fur cape,” he glowers.
Albert married for a second time to a woman named Mary. She had cancer and the doctors told her she had four years. In the end, they were man and wife just four months.
Kath is his third wife. The couple have been married 43 years.
When he last tasted freedom, Albert went straight and ran a bakery. When he retired at the age of 80, he was working as a car and lorry mechanic.
“It’s all water under the bridge,” he says, brushing down his trousers.
“Right, you want to hear about my escape, don’t you?”
Albert and his accomplice Zephaniah Boswell “a bloody crackpot” had been sentenced to seven years at Leicester Assizes, in May 1953.
The court case at Leicester Assizes lasted three days and saw more than 40 witnesses.
In the end, the jury took 22 minutes to convict them of stealing £250, 2,103 postage stamps and 841 National Insurance stamps.
Hattersley, said the Mercury, had five previous convictions and had already done three years inside.
That December, Albert had made himself at home in Leicester.
In the news, was the plight of people on the east coast, which was badly flooded, so Albert and other lags volunteered to make sandbags in the prison workshop.
It wasn’t, as it turns out, a benevolent gesture. The workshop toilets had a skylight. In front of the skylight, one of three bars was loose. The concrete surrounding it had been made looser with the help of Albert’s ball hammer. A little white wash powder applied with an old shaving brush dried in no time and nobody was any the wiser.
The surplus concrete, as in The Great Escape, was scattered in the prison yard.
On the evening of December 18, Albert was ready to go.
“You know what,” he laughs, “nobody has ever asked me that question, not in all these years. Nobody knows why I escaped. But, I’ll tell you – I was going to do a £2,000 job in Manchester, to blow a peter at Cheetham Hill. I would have done it and surrendered to the nick. I would have knocked on the gates of the prison and surrendered.”
A car had been parked at the Leicester Royal Infirmary, opposite the prison. The keys were on the wheel and money was under the mat.
In the prison workshop toilets, a 30ft iron pipe ran from the laundry.
“On exercise I used to count bricks. I worked it out this pipe was about 30ft. At the bottom it ran for about 5ft and then disappeared into the laundry for the boiler.”
The pipe, thought Albert, would make a good ladder.
“I broke it off the wall.”
A man called Ginger was a on a machine making webbing and kept the “screw” talking while Albert made his getaway, but Albert wasn’t going alone. Tommy, a Leicester thief, was going too.
First they wriggled through the skylight, then Albert used the pipe as a rope. Tommy followed.
Next, they had to climb a 25ft sloping courtyard wall with slippy bricks and spikes at the base.
About a dozen guards ran across the yard to the big gate. It was raining. If they’d looked up, the prisoners would have been spotted.
It was an arduous slog, remembers Albert, who used webbing taken from the workshop to haul himself up.
Asthmatic Tommy struggled, and decided to call off his escape.
Cutting the webbing to land safely, he called “All the best, Alb,” before running back to the workshop.
Albert reached and hauled himself up past the window, where a woman was washing up, and onto the roof as the pipe began to give.
“I was fit as a fiddle then, but if I’d fallen I would have broken my back.
“The roof is like an inverted W. Over the parapets was steep going, on to Welford Road, crossing the stores, bachelors’ quarters, then over to the main gate and visitors’ area.
“I came over these buildings here,” he says, tracing his finger over the front page.
“I was striving for these other turrets because I thought it was only 6ft above wall – I’d only seen it from a distance. It was Welford Road round to the right.”
Looking down, he saw the governor’s garden.
“I didn’t jump though – that would kill you,” says Albert. “I held on with my fingertips, and dropped.”
Albert landed badly. He broke his right ankle in three places, and his right tibia broke through the skin.
“I got terrible pain in my back, right up to my head. I said, ‘Albert, you’ve broken your back.’ I laid there for possibly a minute. I came to sit up and as soon as I put that foot on the ground I was down.”
How bad was the leg?
“I couldn’t have got a Wellington on it. It was bloody agony! So I hopped. Pain’s only relative, isn’t it? It’s ephemeral.”
Using plant sticks as a splint, he hobbled on to Welford Road.
It was 7.25pm on a cold, dark Friday night.
Three young girls were huddled in an archway by the prison, laughing at the strange man hopping down the street.
“People just looked at you,” he remembers, “oh aye, they were looking at me.
“I hopped down the road (Tower Street) and knew that in any minute they’ll start searching.
“I got into a gateway behind a privet hedge. In this front room were three older people, with a Christmas tree in the front window, and I thought how nice it looked. I couldn’t have picked a worse garden – everyone walking past was looking at the tree. I moved gradually until I was at the bottom of the road.
“I dropped into the next garden using my shoulder first. When I went into this garden there was a fella coming in with a dog. It turns out I knew him from years ago, from another prison.
“I moved gradually until I was at the bottom of the road.”
In a backyard, Albert found a clothes peg and wedged it under the handle of the door.
“So I’m there, and everything went quiet. The handle went… but they couldn’t get in.”
The whine of moped or motorbike engines could be heard in the distance.
“A car must have driven away at the time [of Albert’s escape] and they thought I’d been picked up.”
When the noise receded Albert could hear the clatter of the railway in the distance.
It’s now 5am, Albert is freezing, and heads for the railway. All that time, he says, he was crouched in the street next to the prison. To get the railway, he crosses a recreation ground and some allotments.
“I got over a 4ft fence with one leg,” he laughs, shaking his head.
Eventually, Albert ends up at the railway embankment. And leaning his bodyweight on one side, flips over.
“There was four sets of lines. There’s only two now. I got my directions from the stars.”
Albert headed north.
“When you’re without a platform it’s a hell of a height… and I’m on one leg. I jumped to try to catch the buffer line on one wagon and I broke my splints trying.
“I crawled off and leaned on a signal and it changed and threw my arm off. I’m lying there on the ground and anybody could have come and got me. Then another train came in with empty wagons.
“I’ll never forget it, the guardsman was whistling Sweet Rosie O’Grady. I got into one of the wagons, a wooden wagon. I can see two coppers on the ticket barrier. and I’m travelling in an empty coal wagon. Passing the signal box, the signaller was looking the other way.”
Fifty miles later, the wagon starts going up hill as it reaches Sandiacre and then starts going down hill as the bumping and shunting starts.
“There was a sea of wagons, thousands, all for the pits of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire.”
It was Saturday morning. Albert can see lots of rabbits running around. He decides to leave the wagon, but hears voices and takes shelter. “By now though,” he says, “my brain’s gone.
“I see two blokes, lighting cigarettes, Turf cigarettes, I’ll never forget. One went and he dropped his empty cigarette packet. I picked it up and put it in my pocket.”
He offers a shrug. He can’t explain why he picked up an empty cigarette packet.
“I’d got that on me when I was arrested.”
He saw five workmen’s cabins with stove pipes and tried the doors. “Turner Brothers, wheelwrights, it said, and by this time I’m in terrible pain.”
At the fifth cabin, the door opened.
“What are you doing here?” said a man looking at him. “It’s private property.”
“I’m waiting for somebody,” said Albert, “I’m going in a minute.”
“You’re the man who escaped from Leicester prison, aren’t you?” replied the man.
Albert rolls his eyes in disbelief. “I said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’”
“He said, ‘I’ve got today’s paper, you’re in the Leicester Mercury.’”
“I said, `What are you going to do?’
He said, ‘I’m going to ring the police, it’s no good running away.'”
“I said, `Go on then, you bastard.’
“He were a straight fella, a nice fella,” says Albert, “and so he locked himself in the cabin.”
Eventually, five policemen arrived.
“The superintendent was a gentleman. He said, ‘Are you going to give us any trouble, Albert?’
“I did a copper, once,” shrugs the pensioner.
“I said, ‘I’ll have a job, I’ve got a broken leg and ankle.’”
“I sent him a Christmas card every year after that until I finished my sentence. Compared to Sheffield, the coppers in Leicester were decent people.”
Shortly after being returned to HMP Leicester, Albert was transferred to high security Dartmoor.
“Better class of prisoner at a high security prison,” he smiles.
A different version of this article first appeared in the October 2010 edition of the Leicestershire Chronicle.
Albert died in July 2015.