The Great Escape from Portland Prison 1868;

Anyone living in the Weymouth  area  while Portland was still a main stream prison  will have memories of the horrendous traffic jams along the Chesil Beach Road, caused by the pursuit of escaped prisoners. All vehicles leaving the island would be stopped and searched, checking for the concealment of the said escapees.

As a young kid it caused no end of great excitement. My parents even tried using it as a subtle threat, (well, o.k., maybe not so subtle,) to  make me better behaved, whispering to me as we crept ever nearer to the stern looking officers to sit still and keep quiet, otherwise they might haul me off. Of course, that only added to the frisson of excitement.


This grim looking prison was originally constructed in the late 1840’s to house the convicts brought to the island specifically to work on the new coastal defence scheme. These mammoth works included the building of the breakwaters, the Verne citadel and surrounding batteries. These prisoners were used as manpower in the quarries on Portland,  painstakingly hewing the white stone free for their construction.

This was ‘hard labour,’  at its truest meaning.


Nowadays that Victorian prison building has become the YOI, (Young Offenders Institute,) but in its time it held many a hardened and persistent criminal, political activists such as the ‘dreaded’ Fenians, and the usual mottly crew, many of whom had turned to crime out of financial necessity.

Throughout the years of the prison’s history, there were many attempts at escapes, some succeeded, many didn’t.

Come 1899 and a story hit the national newspapers, capturing the imagination of their readers.

William Bartlett, one of those ‘persistant’ petty criminals was making his way out from the Bow Street police-court. Rather surprisingly, he had been taking the Police Commissioner to court for the return of a few disputed items,  William maintained they were his legally, but the courts felt they were more likely the ill gotten gains of a recent robbery.

Being considered a news worthy article the press showed an interest in the story, William was stopped outside by a reporter asking for his version of events.

William though had an even stranger tale to tell, he proceeded to enlighten the eager scribe about his past history, a ‘romantic’ tale about his daring escape from the dreaded Portland prison.  He boasted he that had been the ‘only man to escape’ those grey forbidding walls. (Not true in fact because quite a few had before him, some even tasted freedom for a few months before being recaptured.)

William also claimed that his daring escape made him the hero in Hawley Smart’s novel, ‘Broken Bonds’ published in 1874.

“The correct details of my escape have never been told.” William informed the reporter who was furiously writing down his every word.“I’ll tell you what actually happened.”

The wily old career criminal continued with his story.

“In 1868 I received a sentance of 10 years’ penal servitude. From Pentonville I was taken to Portland.


It was awful!

The endless round of hard work in the quarries, the short commons, and the strict discipline, made life almost unbearable.

It is to be wondered at that I made up my mind to escape!

I had many a sleepless night while I was laying my plans. I knew that no one had ever succeeded in escaping from prison; I knew that the place was watched night and day by guards almost as numerous as the convicts, and I was  aware that even if I could get clear of the prison it would be almost impossible to get far away in a suit plastered with the broad arrow.”

But things were about to look up for this chap in his rough prison suit.

William continued, “One day I managed to pick up a small piece of hoop iron. That seemed like a godsend. Every time I had the chance I took that iron hooping with me, and worked like a nigger to make it into a saw. I did it in fear and trembling, for the slightest sound would have betrayed me.

A stroke of luck awaited me.

I found a convict who had got a bit of a file. He had no ambition, and said the file was no good to him. I gave him my dinner for it, and with the file I was able to complete the saw. Then I managed, by working stealthily every evening after I had been locked up for the night to saw through the wood flooring of my cell. Every night I had to replace the boards, so that the warders should not see what I had done.”

It wasn’t going to be plain sailing though, when constructed, the designers had considered the possibility of such dastardly deeds, they had added a means to prevent escape through the floor.

William admits “… an awful dissapointment awaited me. The space beneath my cell was lined with sheet iron; but, nothing daunted, I eventually got through that. Then I got into an air shaft, and, after three months’ hard work, saw my way clear to liberty.”

He bided his time, it had taken months to get this far, no point in rushing his plans and risking capture.

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“At last the opportunity came. It was a dark night and all was still. With my sheets I had made a rope, and, as luck would have it, I had picked up a piece of wood, called a ‘dog’ with iron hooks at each end. I put my stool underneath the quilt, to look as much like my body as possible, in case the warders should look in, and then went down the passage it had taken me three months’ hard labour to make. After lifting an iron grating I found myself in the open air, and managed to throw the hooks on my linen ladder over a wall. By this means I got onto the roof of the officers’ quaters. There was no one about, and the only sound I could hear was that made by me beating heart. From the roof I had to jump on the boundary wall, about 10ft or 12ft distant.

I dare say it was a bold leap, but you don’t stick at trifles when you are escaping from Portland.

I made the leap, and was sucessful in reaching the boundary wall. Then I got to the ground by means of my linen ladder. Unfortunately, the hooks were so secure that I had to leave the ladder where it was, and if it had not been for that I might have been in London in three or four days.”

Things weren’t going too well though for the fleeing William.

“As it was I had an awaful experience.

Whilst making a desperate tug at the ladder I heard footsteps approching, and I rushed into the gaden of the Grove public-house. I turned round and saw a guard looking at the ladder. A few minutes afterwards shots were fired and a bell rung.

My escape had been discovered.

Guards were running in all directions; but, unperceived, I got through the window of the Roman Catholic Chapel, and concealed myself beneath the Communion table, which proved to be something very much like a box.

I could hear the sound of hurrying footsteps all night, but no one came into the chapel until next morning, when service was held there.

It was not a pleasant position to be in, I can assure you.”

Trapped in the chapel and unable to move, William spent a very uncomfortable few hours.

“A sneeze or a cough would have betrayed me, but, fortunately, all went well. But I got very hungry. So, at the end of about 33 hours, I stole out, and broke into the Clifton Hotel. I there found some bread and meat, cheese and tobacco. What was of more consequence, I was able to steal a hat and some clothes. With the clothing and food-the sweetest food I ever tasted-I returned to my hiding place in the chapel.”

Once ensconced within the relative sanctuary of the chapels walls, he set to with the next part of his scheme.

“Out of a black coat I made a pair of trousers, and put on another of the stolen coats, which happened to be made of velvet. The food I divided into six portions, and for six days I was concealed beneath that Communion table. There were frequent services, and, what was still worse, the priest used to come in at night for private devotions.”

William realised he couldn’t stay hidden in the chapel for ever, he had merely swapped one form of imprisonment for another! He had to make his move.

“At last I had more than enough of it, and broke into the priests house with the object of obtaining some money. I could find none, however. There was some silver plate, but that was of no use to me. I obtained a white stole, however, and with that made me something resembling a white shirt.”

It was now or never, he had to make his way across the Chesil causeway, or he’d never leave this god forsaken island.

“Feeling now fairly confident as to my appearance, I walked down the road, and saw a milkman, who, I afterwards found, gave information about me.

I passed over the bridge all right, and went on to Weymouth, and from there to Dorchester.

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At a little place 19 miles from Portland I concealed myself in a field. Two men came in blackberrying, and I had to get out. They asked me where I was going. I said to Blandford.”

Not all was that it at first seemed, a trap had been set.

“They volunteered to show me the way, but we had not gone very far before we met two police-inspectors. They asked me to go into a public-house and give an account of myself.

They were particularly anxious to know if I had a mark on my right arm.

Seeing the game was almost up, I tried to dash through the public house, but it was no good, and I was collared.”

Having been recaptured and brought before the courts yet again, the errant prisoner awaited his fate.

“I was afterwards sentenced to eight years penal servitude for the burglary at the Clifton Hotel.”

When asked if he had received corporal punishment for his daring deeds he simple replied

“No, I did not have the cat.” adding cheerfully “You see, I was tried by a civil power.” and the little man chuckled.

Though William was thoroughly enjoying reliving his moment of fame, the reporter ended his piece with a poignant sentence. “Immediately afterwards he assumed a graver tone, and asked, in mournful accents, ‘But what can an old convict like me do for a living?”


Excerpts taken from the Western Gazette 1st Sep 1899 and various other national papers of the time.


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Misdemeanours and misfits in the Victorian courts; 1863.

I just love to browse the old newspapers and see what our ancestors were up to.

The papers columns are filled with intriguing snippets of their daily lives, the usual hatch, match and dispatches, arrivals and departures, accidents and fights, and the misfortunes of those whose day to day activities managed to fall foul of the law and end up before the local courts.

From the Dorset County Chronicle of the 5th February of 1863 comes a veritable hotch potch of such events.

On a Friday at the start of the month, the County Petty Sessions were held under the hawk-like eyes of Captain Manning who was the chairman and his co-horts, Mr S Meade, Robert Hassall  Swaffield and Richard Ffolliot Eliot Esquire.
These men were the pillars of local society, the movers, the shakers and decision makers of the Victorian era.

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First to appear before the court that day was Robert Pearce of Portland, he had been summoned by fellow Portlander, John Pearce for an assault that had taken place on the 13th January. As Captain Manning went on to rail against ‘the disgraceful practice of persons throwing rubbish into the streets of Portland,’ we can only surmise that someone had remonstrated with the guilty party and received a thump for doing so.

Now anyone who knows the area well, also knows that certain names are synonymous with Portland, and Pearce is certainly one of them, makes for very interesting research in an era when the same family christian names were handed down father to son, mother to daughter, generation after generation, let alone all having the same surnames!
In the year 1863 there were more than a fair few Robert Pearce’s living and working on the island to choose from as I have already covered in a previous blog.
It could have been the Robert who had been born way back in 1795…you may think that at the ripe old age of 68 he was too old to be getting involved with a dispute, but as he was still slogging away in the quarries, he may well have been heading towards his twilight years but this was no doddery old chap, you had to be extremely fit for this work.

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Then again, it could have been the Robert born later, in 1814. He was only 47, and also a stone worker, as were the rest of his family.
Now, interestingly enough, this Robert appeared in the Dorchester Prison Admission and Discharge Registers for 1878…by then he was aged 64. Robert found himself hauled before the magistrates for ‘neglecting to maintain himself and family,’

The Prisoners Description Book book also gives us a glimpse of the man himself. He was 5ft 6 1/4″ tall, not surprisingly his brown hair was turning grey, his eyes were grey and his complexion described as sallow. Robert was the father to a brood of 10 children.
Life had obviously overwhelmed him!
Moving along to our next possible culprit , a 44-year-old quarryman who inhabited a cottage in the village of Weston along with his wife Susan, guess it’s no surprise to find that his name was Robert Pearce!
Or maybe it was the Robert Pearce who had been born in 1823, making this possible suspect age 40.he was the unmarried son of widow Jane, working…yes, you’ve guessed it, in the quarries.
Carrying on, it could have been the Robert from Chiswell, husband of Mary, he was 36…I won’t even bother saying where he worked!
Being born in 1826, makes our next suspect 35. this Robert was the husband of Kezia, to make a change he was employed as a carpenter.
I don’t think it could have been the Robert born in 1836, he had chosen a rather different route to that of his fellow island men, he had become a soldier in the 2nd Life Guards…but then again, maybe he had come home on leave…and was causing a bit of mischief.
Another member of the Robert Pearce appreciation society was the 25-year-old baker, was he littering the streets with his old dough?
Carpentry was also the career for 22-year-old Robert from Weston, son of John and Elizabeth.
Bring in suspect no. 10. this was a lad of 20, who also worked as a carpenter and lived with his extended family at Cove Cottage. He had a brother called John who was 3 years his junior.
Another one born that same year was the son of Richard and Elizabeth, he too had a brother named John, but there was a 15 years difference in their ages. True to form, this Robert followed in fathers footsteps working the white stone.

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A year later (1844) in Chiswell, and railway worker Edward Pearce christened his son Robert, this teenager (19) was working the railways like his Dad.
A second Robert Pearce had been christened in 1844, he was the 19-year-old son of Robert and Ann, next door neighbour to the 20-year-old Robert, and like most in that row of houses, he too followed his fellows into the dusty bowels of the quarries.

Seventeen-year-old Robert, son of quarryman Abel and his wife Susanna didn’t disappoint…quarryman!
Well…that just about exhausts the list of possible suspects with the first name of Robert and the second of Pearce…

I won’t even begin on who the likely John Pearce’s were…..suffice to say that they, (and the Roberts,) were in all likelihood related in one way or another.
The next lot of Portlanders to stand before the fearsome wagging finger of the chairman were four young lads.
Frederick Skinner, 18-year-old Richard Keeping, 17-year-old George Verion, a labourer on the breakwater and William Worden jnr. aged 18 a railway labourer, not a true Portlander because his family were incomers, they had followed the work when the new railway opened up in the area.

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These lads were there because Portland inhabitant Henry Stone, ( again another much used Portland name and far too many possibilities to say which one) was getting fed up with these lads ‘congregating and playing before his house.’
The lads, or young men really, were playing ‘cat’ a past time which entailed much lobbing of stones and had resulted in many of Henry’s windows being damaged.
All were fined 1s or one weeks imprisonment.
It seems that Portland was certainly a hot bed of mischievousness and misfits, because the next lot hauled in front of the panel were also Portlanders.
Elizabeth Symes was charging Peter Paul, John White Comben and Josiah Beere with damaging a horse trough on the 5th January.
Now this lot weren’t exactly youngsters, or even the sort to be larking around to the point of damaging property, from that we can only assume that they for some reason were frequent visitors to and offenders of some sort misdemeanour at the trough and the bane of Elizabeths life.
Firstly there was a Peter Paul who was 62-years of age and a respectable shop owner, but he also worked as a carter along with his 16-year-old son Peter. Maybe one of them wasn’t too hot with handling the reins and found their cart falling foul of the ladies trough.
John White Comben..hhmmm…despite having a middle name which normally makes researching them easier….there’s more than one possible culprit, with Comben being another of those, how shall I put it…large, prolific, widely spread and fast-breeding families.Most of the possibles were quarry workers.
As for Josiah Beere, well, he was an easy one.
The Beere family were also incomers to the island, and hadn’t yet had chance to get swallowed up into the all consuming Portland Pearce, Comben, Stone family fold.
Josiah was a 26-year-old married man from Devon who lived with his wife Ann down in the Straits, he was a carpenter.
Whatever heinous crime it was that these men had allegedly committed with the said trough, it was enough to get them fines of 1s each, and charged with £3 10s for damages, or choose to enjoy one months detention at her Majesty’s pleasure.
A bit of excessive Boxing day revelry had been the undoing of the next chap.
Back in Weymouth, Richard Smith had been out celebrating the festive season…but having overdone it somewhat he found himself incarcerated in the local jail.
Richard had been drinking heavily in the Fisherman’s Arms in Wyke Regis when he became more than a bit feisty and challenged the landlord to a fight. With that, local bobby, Sergeant Pitfield was summonsed to the scene who tried to apprehend the belligerent beer guzzler. Richard, not making the best of decisions at this stage became very abusive, foul language echoed around the pubs walls and out into the street, then he thought it would be a good idea to try to tackle to burly sergeant too.
For his chaotic Christmas capers Richard was fined 5s. and costs.
Next under the courts hammer was beer-house keeper Edward Edwards of Wyke Regis.He was charged with permitting card playing with his house on the 17th January.
Forty-two-year-old Edward lived in South Street, Wyke, along with his wife Sarah and their young family.

His learned trade was that of a mason, but needed a way to supplement his family income so he had set himself up as a beer-house keeper. In those days it was fairly easy to do as the Government had relaxed the licensing laws…you had to pay a small fee and then you were entitled to brew beer at home, and throw open your doors to the public.
According to Edward, his defence was that he had only been trading for a few months and din’t know that it was in fact illegal to be gambling in a beer house. According to him, on his perambulations around the booze-brewing homes in the area he had seen card playing regularly.
That was to be no defence for the Wykeite though, he was fined 5s.
Obviously not daunted by the slap on the wrist, Edward went on to become an official landlord, taking over and running the Albert Inn in Wyke.


Here he dwelled with his extensive family for many years, who all at one time or another worked in the busy and popular public house.
Having lost his wife Sarah, Edward spent the last few years of his long life living with his daughter Annie Lovell and her husband in Wyke, where he suddenly dropped down dead while out in the garden.

Consequently, for the last time, in the Spring of 1899, Edward found himself back in the rooms of the Albert Inn, only this time his cold, stiff body was laid out on the table while the inquest was held into his sudden death.
(During the Victorian era, with no actual mortuaries to hold the last remains of victims of crime of suspicious deaths, they were normally removed to the nearest public building…mainly pubs!)
We’re back over to Portland again for the next lot of wrong-doers.

William Hardy Samways, a Portland beer-house keeper, had been swindling his customers in order to make a few bob extra, he was fined for selling his eartheware jugs of beer short of their allotted measures…he rather wisely pleaded guilty.
This case was rather odd to say the least really, seeing as William was a Weymouth lad born and bred, and worked as a solicitors clerk for most of life while living in Weymouth from his birth to his last breath….hhmmm!
Call me suspicious, but I wonder if he had been paid a goodly sum to take the rap for someone else?
A Portland grocer was next on the list, Richard Moore, his crime was to have ‘an unjust weighing machine in his possession.’
Presumably they meant unjust from his poor customers point of view?
A good proportion of Portland’s inhabitants must have been in the court that session.
Another beer-house keeper from the island was reprimanded for allowing gambling on his premises. Thirty-seven-year-old John Cox and his wife Mary had opened up their house in Wakeham to the imbibing public’s inhabitants, rather fetchingly named the Delhi Arms, not because of any links with foreign travel as you might think, but because the narrow lane leading from the Straits where they lived was so named.
John stood in the dock and claimed that the cards must have been snuck in without him knowing, not that the panel believed him one iota, his notoriety had gone before him…he was well renown for keeping a disorderly house.

Fined 10s.
Two young school girls were next in line, Sarah Lucas and Mary Crispin Stone, (you wouldn’t believe how many of those there were on Portland!). Sarah had been accused of hitting young Mary, it was put down to a mere ‘school girls’ quarrel.’
But sense had prevailed in the court, the two youngsters had been taken out of the courtroom to sort the silly spat out without legal intervention.

JUVENILE MAG 1889girls walking
The last man to quake under the courts gaze that day was not even local…but he had been partaking in a spot of local female company, and had left her with more than just happy memories.
Francis Barber, a carpenter who had been staying in the Portland locality and had been working on the major constructions going on in the area at the time. He was originally from Red Hill Surrey, but had moved temporarily to where work was aplenty.

While he was down here, Francis wooed a young local lass, softly whispering sweet promises in her maidenly ears,


promises he had no intention of keeping. Once the work was gone…so was he!
On the 15th June 1862, Ann Eliza Whittle, a Portland lass had given birth to his illegitimate son, now she wanted Francis to man up and support his child.
The court awarded her 1s a week.
it’s surprising who pops up in these columns of weekly news and gossip, if you get the chance, have a read through some of them…but be prepared for finding something you’d rather not have!



Writing a book, blog, short stories or your own family history, then why not bring them to life with historical graphics.

I have a huge collection that cover illustrations from Victorian articles about travel, prisons, children’s homes, poverty, philanthropy…

Check out my Etsy site for Victorian illustrations, many local ones being added all the time from my own personal collection.

1867; Danger in Portland quarries.

The quarries on Portland are world renown.


They are of  a strange type of brutal beauty, the glare from the white stone is blinding in the bright sunshine, the heat reflects mercilessly from the  calcified remains that makes up the huge slabs that tumble and totter precariously all around.

Ultimately, their beauty belies the ever present danger that resides within, no more so than for those who toiled in them.

The prison on Portland opened in 1848, it was constructed to hold the convicts that were deliberately brought into the area to work as labour in the quarries and on the new breakwaters that the government were constructing for a safe harbour.

This was extremely dangerous work, both for the prisoners who toiled in the government quarries, and the freemen who worked long side them.

One young man, 34-year-old Frederick Goody was about to discover just how dangerous they were.

Frederick was a  good old Essex lad.

He had a very troubled past, and was no stranger to the law. Most of it concerned with theft of food, so we can only surmise that these were the only way he could eat, maybe the family were poverty stricken, and it was a way of life for them…a question of survival.

His crime spree started at a very young age.  On the 18th May 1847 Frederick was hauled before the courts charged with theft, he was lucky that time as he was found not guilty. Already at the tender age of 12 Frederick was marked boy.

By the year 1850, when he was just 15 Frederick was before the courts again. The 9th April saw him stood in the dock along side two other lads, William Drury and Charles Deson. This time the crime was of a more serious nature, the three of them were convicted of breaking and entering a house. The 3 lads had broken into a bakers and stolen a bag of flour…then proceeded to leave an incriminating trail  as they made their way back to their lodgings! Once the police were involved, it didn’t take them long to find and follow the betraying track of grey powder, which led straight to the removed railing… that led them to their house, and the flour that smothered their clothing…they didn’t seem to be the most competent of criminals.

The magistrate decided that the eldest boy William was the ring leader and he got the longest sentence, Frederick and his accomplice were given 6 months.

Frederick was before the courts again in 1856, this time convicted of the theft of items from a house in Halstead. Convicted of Burglary, and having had fallen foul of the law before he received  4 Years Penal Servitude.


The year 1863 was to be Frederick’s date with fate.

In the October, he was again in court, having been found guilty of stealing 4 ducks and a hen from Mr Green, a farmer in Halstead. Frederick had been caught literally red handed.

As he had stealthily made his way across the fields in the dark, he had the misfortune to stumble across the local bobby, who spotting something unusual about his shape, asked to see what was under his smock… no surprises there, 5 limp, warm bodies of the feathered variety appeared, throats cut.


For that crime Frederick received 7 years penal servitude…and a one way ticket to Portland.

His description taken from his arrival was of an uneducated, illiterate man who knew no scriptures or passages from the bible. Portland was a fairly modern prison for its time, and as part of the mens stay during their term, they received one afternoon a weeks lessons in a classroom. Ironic as it may seem, for many of these boys and men this was their only chance of an education that they had ever had in their harsh lives.


The lad was soon put to work in the quarries.

The work was hard , though most prisoners tended to take their toil at a more leisurely pace much to the Portlanders disgust, who had to slave away to make enough money to live on.

That didn’t stop Frederick from falling foul of fickle fate though.

As a large  2 ton slab of stone was being slowly tipped by a gang of men, Frederick for some unknown reason walked right under the  slab just as it started its downward path of its descent…that was that…squashed flat as a proverbial pancake!

With numerous broken bones and a head shattered like a battered pumpkin there was no hope of survival for this newly educated man.

Frederick Goodey was buried  on the 3rd April 1867 on Portland.


Writing a book, blog, short stories or your own family history, then why not make them jump off the page, bring them to life with historical graphics.
I have a huge collection that cover illustrations from numerous Victorian articles about travel, prisons, children’s homes, poverty, philanthropy…
Check out my Etsy site for Victorian illustrations, many more, including local ones being added all the time from my own personal collection.


Related articles

1862; Portland prison, The Pleasantness of Penal Servitude.

These facts are taken from an article penned by an unnamed author in the Cheltenham Chronicle of 23rd December 1862 and yes, that is genuinely what he titles his article…. The Pleasantness of Penal Servitude!

They relate to the prison that was built on Portland to contain the convict labour force for building the Portland breakwater and the Verne citadel.

These men had been shipped here by the government as free labour. Their lives were harsh and often dangerous, working in the quarries alongside the Portland quarry men. Many paid the ultimate price for their dastardly deeds, but many were here for crimes that had been committed through the sheer necessity to survive.

The prison received its first inmates in 1848.

What follows is information taken from the news article… I suspect that maybe some of it is to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Firstly, from the reporters habit of embellishing somewhat on certain facts and figures in the desire to give their Victorian readers the sensational articles they so often enjoyed, and secondly, the prison authorities  tours of the prison and its ‘modern’ facilities to the reporters that frequented these places may have been somewhat staged for the duration of the guided tour!

The majority of the prisoners were here for hard labour, and down in the dusty, dangerous quarries, it certainly was that…for some!

They worked in gangs, mainly by themselves, sometimes with the Portland quarry men. It was said that you knew when you were about to come upon a prison gang, all around the rim of the deep pits of the quarries stood the warders. Men armed, ready for any signs of trouble or disobedience.

The writer of the piece was certainly not impressed with what he witnessed on his tour!

The prisoners stand out, they have closely shaven heads, and very distinctive dress.

Their uniforms picked out the sense of the man. Some worked in chains, their past history deeming them a risk of flight or violence.Those who were  dressed in grey and yellow, these were the ruffians who had tried to run away in the past. Those in grey and black were the ones the warders had to watch closely, they were deemed violent, particularly towards those who guarded them so closely. Not without good cause, as a few warders had become the victims of their anger and violence, some attacked, and a few murdered in a most foul manner. These chained men he complains “clank about with a defiant swagger as if their chains were honourable distinctions of their strength and courage,”


The author of the piece almost romantically describes the confined men as “their hard, firm, ruddy, healthy look, like pugilists in condition for a fight.”

His next sentence is not quite so flattering, he compares the way that they work. The convicts have a “slow, laze way of working”, which contrasts with “the busy energy and speed of the free workmen.” What he conveniently forgets to mention is that the free mens wages depended on how much stone they mined during their long shifts! The author complains how when it starts to rain, the prisoners are marched to the shelter of tin sheds that had been erected for their convenience, while the free man carried on, no matter the inclement weather, he had to endure what Heaven sent down if he wanted to earn a crust for himself and his family.


He also compares the two classes when it comes to meal times.

The free men stop at 12 o’clock, having already done twice as much work as any two convicts together, their chairs a slab of dusty white stone, their simple lunch of bread and cheese, or maybe a bit of dried fish, washed down with a tin pot of coffee.

The convict however, has it easy. He stops at 11.30.a.m. when they are marched back to their cells. here he can wash up, and comb his hair (though what hair exactly he’s supposed to be combing I’m not sure, as they were all shaved!) at 12 o’clock steaming hot dinners are dished out to the gangs, an example of which follows “One pint of soup properly seasoned, thickened with barley, rice, carrots, and onions, and equal in nutrient to any ever placed on a gentleman’s table; 5 1/2 oz of cooked meat, free from bone; 1 lb of potatoes, and 10 oz of rich suet pudding.” The men then retire to the comfort of their cells for an hour to enjoy their feast.

But a few cause trouble, complaining about the quantities they had been given, the rules of the prison dictate that a warder had to march the prisoner to the kitchens to have his meal weighed to prove that they were allocated their correct portion.

The men were also divided into stages…depending on how much of their sentence they had served, and how they had behaved. Those in the 3rd and 4th stage were granted extra comforts and priviledges. They could dine in a communal room with fellow convicts. On Sundays those in the third stage received extra rations, 2 oz of cheese, 3 oz of bread, and a pint of beer. Those lucky few who had reached the dizzying heights of the 4th stage could look forwards to treacle pudding as a welcome treat after their meals on a Thursday, and on Sundays their beef was baked instead of boiled!

The writers biggest gripe is that these men in the final stages of their time were eating far better than the hard working quarrymen. “we gradually raise the scale of luxuries till they dine at last on soup, baked beef, bread and cheese and beer, and pudding.”

No wonder, claims he, that men are no longer afraid of penal servitude when they are treated to such luxuries.

Then the irate author goes on the describe other parts of the convicts days.

Men could put their names down to go and see the govenor. Mainly concerning permission to write a letter. They were only supposed to write and receive one letter every three months, but the rules were not enforced. Some asked to change duties from toiling in the quarries, asking to be transferred to the prison garden, or working on the railways that served the works at the breakwater. He bemoans that fact that the prison looks to all intense purposes as if they were pandering to every whim that the prisoners demanded.


At 1 o’clock, the men are gathered in the courtyard, where the reports of discipline are read out. The governor then makes his way to visit those who were confined to the “separate cells”, the disorderly and the violent, or those who show an unwillingness to work. They were reduced to 1lb of bread and water, literally on ‘bread and water’ for the day. Lying, as the writer bitterly complains “on their backs all day.”

Then its back to work in the quarries for the majority, it grates on him when he talks about watching them at work. “Hard labour” being a farcical term for what these men were doing, talking , laughing, discussing ways of smuggling ‘little luxuries’ in via the free men. Whiling away their time in an almost leisurely manner until it was the end of their working day.

I get the sense that the more he saw, the more angry he was becoming, what he described as the failure of the penal system.

Back in the prison, the men would attend evening service in the chapel, then return for their suppers in their cells. Lights out at 8 o’clock, excepting for those men who were in the last part of their sentences, again they had extra privileges, they could read until 9.

Mornings started early for them, 5 o’clock in the summer time, 5.30 in the dark winter hours.

Their days began with cleaning and sweeping out their cells, their morning ablutions, after which they received their breakfasts. On Sundays and 3 of the week days it consisted of 1pint tea and 12 oz of bread, On the others it was 1pt cocoa and 12 oz of bread.

It was off to repent their sins again in the chapel before presenting themselves for work at 7 o’clock sharp in the courtyard.

To top it all, each prisoner received a half a days free schooling each week. On that day he was allowed to take a bath and have his hair cut.

On Sundays the had complete freedom  to walk about the yard, or sit and read in their cells.

The author was obviously not at all impressed with what he had witnessed in Portland prison, bemoaning the fact that while the free men working in the quarries had to strive hard for very little in return, these so called convicts undergoing “hard labour” were living the life of riley!


In all probability, what was supposed to happen in prisons, food quantities, free time, education maybe wasn’t as quite cut and dried as he had described it, and the unfairness of those who had committed crimes living a life better than those who strived to maintain theirs wasn’t that simple.

Who knows, maybe he was right…but I sure know which side of that heavy wall I would have wanted to be.


Writing a book, blog, short stories or your own family history, then why not make them jump off the page, bring them to life with historical graphics.
I have a huge collection that cover illustrations from numerous Victorian articles about travel, prisons, children’s homes, poverty, philanthropy…
Check out my Etsy site for Victorian illustrations, many more, including local ones being added all the time from my own personal collection.


Related articles

1906; The Portland boy buccaneers.

Slightly out of the Victorian era I know, but only just.

This story caught my eye as it summed up the excitement and invincibility of childhood, feelings of the exciting escapades of the Famous Five, even though the lads involved were more teenagers, and the story had it’s slightly dark side.

In the April of 1906 three lads were brought before the Dorset Quarter Sessions, they had previously appeared in the Weymouth courts, but because of the seriousness of their misdemeanours it was decided to try them at a higher level.

The three lads, all 14 at the time of their trial lived on Portland.


Timothy Long lived with his Mum and Dad, John and Arabella in Victoria Terrace.

James Matthews was the son of Alfred and Emily, they lived at no 85 High Street.

The third lad was John Fisher, who lived at his home no 80 Grove Fields with parents William and Mary.


The three lads had a lot in common. All their families had moved to Portland because their Dads were employed on Government works at the time. They had obviously struck up a very strong friendship…and a certain amount of plotting and scheming, a fair amount of it more than somewhat illegal,  came with this close knit gang.

They had set them selves up in a secret den, well hidden within a cave.

Now that’s not unusual for kids, at that age they like their own privacy and space, well away from prying parents eyes.

They had even filled it with supplies…haven’t we all done that as kids? living in a fantasy world at times, make believe. Problem was, their secret supplies were slightly more sinister, and the way they were obtained somewhat suspect.

When the cave was discovered and then searched, it contained a good stock of tinned provisions…most of it stolen from local traders!

What was more shocking was they also had loaded weapons hidden away, and other pieces of military hardware! These the lads had obtained them by breaking into the Admiralty stores and helping themselves.

It was described in court that the cave was well stocked, and had been set up as if for a long siege!

Even after being dragged before the courts the three lads were still treating it as if it was part of the role playing, a bit of fun.

The judge however soon wiped the smile from their faces…Long and Matthews were sent to prison for a fortnight, the third lad, Fisher was bound over.


Their short careers as buccaneers was over!

Timothy Long went on to work as a  stone quarry labourer down in Brixham Devon.

James Matthews  went on to be stone worker in the Portland quarries.

John Fisher opted for a career in the Navy as naval stoker.

A far cry from their earlier Troublesome Trio escapades.


Writing a book, blog, short stories or your own family history, then why not make them jump off the page, bring them to life with historical graphics.
I have a huge collection that cover illustrations from numerous Victorian articles about travel, prisons, children’s homes, poverty, philanthropy…
Check out my Etsy site for Victorian illustrations, many more, including local ones being added all the time from my own personal collection.


Related articles

1865; Portland…keeping it in the family.

I know that Portland is not technically an island, (the Chesil causeway connects it to Weymouth), but it’s treated as such in many respects, not least that the folks on the island (I.m sure that being a proud race, they won’t mind me saying) have a long history of being fairly insular!


When a new Directory of Dorset was issued in 1865, it showed some figures to hold up that statement.

Apparently there were a total of 196  people or companies listed in the directory for the island,( not being on the overlarge size!) and of those 21 (nearly a ninth in total !) bore the name Pearce. Four of those with the same christian name John.

Comben was another frequent Portland name, being a mere fifteen of those…which included 4 Williams.

Next came Stone….they could boast 10 with that surname…3 Benjamins and 3 Williams!

Eight people had the surname White…another 4 Williams!

Some of the less common surnames were Flew (7), Scriven’s (5) and Benjamin(3)

One wonders how when the islanders were talking to one another about someone else did they know which person it was they were discussing?

It is said that when the Portland Artillery Corps was set up with a total of 60 men volunteering, of those 15 answered to the name Pearce!

That must have made for a great deal of confusion on the parade ground when the sergeant in charge barked an order for Pearce!.


Writing a book, blog, short stories or your own family history, then why not make them jump off the page, bring them to life with historical graphics.
I have a huge collection that cover illustrations from numerous Victorian articles about travel, prisons, children’s homes, poverty, philanthropy…
Check out my Etsy site for Victorian illustrations, many more, including local ones being added all the time from my own personal collection.


Related articles

1866; Portland quarry men and boys…theyz toils ‘n toils.

Portland is world famous for it’s quarries.

This Isle is littered with immense craters in the ground, and large roughly hewn blocks of stone tumble in seemingly haphazard piles across the almost lunar landscape.


There’s absolutely no doubt that those men and boys who slogged away day in day out in the quarries at Portland earnt their meagre wages.

However, the year 1866 saw an extraordinary feat, it involved the removal of an exceptionally enormous slab of stone…by manual labour alone.

One Wednesday morning in June, at the Kingsbarrow quarry which stood just beyond the Traveller’s Rest public house, a special ceremony was about to take place.

A group of privileged spectators had been invited along to observe this herculean feat.

Amongst the select audience was the local clergyman, Rev David Hogarth and his good lady wife, Charlotte, John Ball a Captain in the Royal Navy based at Portland, John James Patten, local mason and Master builder, Mr J Bishop, Mr Hindmarsh, Mr W Comben and various other members of the local elite.

What they were about to witness was the removal of an immense capstone from the  quarry.

The block having already been prepared in the usual way, with great wedges piercing the vein below, the heavy bars were brought in and put into place.

With that, a crew waiting patiently to one side, consisting of just 4 men and 2 boys, set about moving this immense slab of Portland stone.

This leviathan piece of limestone measured 29 foot in length, 18 foot wide, 9 foot deep. The stone alone weighed over 390 tons, but if you took the “cap” (rubbish) that sat on top of it into consideration, this small group of men and boys were attempting to move a total of over 400 tons!

Slowly, and with their every muscle and sinew of their being flexed and rippling, and sweat dripping from their faces, the crew started to work their magic on this slab of stone. Bit by bit…inch by inch, this great chunk of Portland slowly edged away from its bed…until the enormous block reached its tipping point.

While the transfixed audience watched on with baited breath, seemingly in slow motion at first, it started to slide, then with an ominous deep rumble, it was wrenched from the depths of the earth, and with a swift downward movement, the 400 ton block and its accompanying rubble hurtled down into the bowels of the quarry below.

Billowing clouds of choking white dust rose high in the air covering the onlookers in its fine particles, causing them to reach for their handkerchiefs in an attempt to cover their faces and mouths.

This achievement did not pass unnoticed, the  names of those involved in this incredible feat were noted in the local paper, (those of a local nature will not be at all surprised…all are good old Portland names.)

Many came from the same extended family, it wasn’t unusual for grandfathers, fathers and sons, uncles, cousins and nephews to be working the same quarry. With the Portland penchant for keeping it in the family, (breeding and work!) it’s often hard to disentangle them all.

The young hard working crew consisted of 17-year old Hiriam Otter, (son of Abraham Otter, a stone merchant), 23-year-old  John Otter, Henry Otter (take your pick on this one…there were a few by that name who worked in the quarries!) and John Joliffe, ( a fair few of those too.)

The two young lads working alongside the men were Robert Otter and William Hodder.

Special mention was made in the article of Robert’s father, 33-year-old William Henry Otter, seemingly a man of immense strength, but for some reason one who was not used in this task.


Portland quarrymen were a breed in their own right!


Check out what’s happening in the Portland quarries of today…


A Pinterest board of old Portland photos;
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St George’s churchyard at Portland. Murder in 1803

Now I.m not one of these people who normally likes to wander from church to church, but was stopped in my tracks (well, the car was stopped in it’s tracks really)  when we parked opposite St George’s church on the top of Portland.

The sun was just beginning to set in the sky, going down behind these incredibly ornate grave stones, talk about looking like something from a Bhram Stoker horror movie…I was mesmerised.


Wandering into the graveyard which was starting to merge into the dusk I took out my camera and started snapping away.

I must have passed this place hundreds of times and not really noticed it before, had it not been for the fact that the sun was dipping at the precise time we were parking I probably wouldn’t have looked twice.Image

Once I had my shots, and downloaded them on my computer, I decided to do a bit of digging into the history of the church, and it was fascinating.

The church itself is beautiful, it was built mid 18th c to replace the old St Andrews that was above Church Ope Cove,(presumably that’s why the word ‘church’ appears in the name of the cove?) and was in poor state due to the unstable land it was built on.

One of the reasons it was placed where it was because of the depth of soil…the necessary 6ft!

Even then they had problems…the grave yard was almost permanently waterlogged, as fast as the grave diggers dug the burial holes so they filled with water.

The solution was easy, just order every man and boy on the island to dig a large drainage ditch around the graveyard, those who didn’t obey the order were fined!

Nearby a dwelling was erected for the use of the parish clerk, this is still there, but may be better known as The George Inn, a building with a lot of history.

You might even notice a striking resemblance to Sir Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s cathedral, some claim it is one of the ‘most impressive 18th c churches in Dorset.’

The graveyard is the holy grail of burial grounds.

Take the time to go and have a wander around if you’re in the area, it’s fascinating and so too are some of the stories of those laid to rest there.


Buried there  are  a group of native Portlanders  who were shot when press gangs  invaded the island at the start of the 19th c, they were looking for men to drag onto the ships to work their passage.

It became infamously known as the Easton Massacre.

In the April of 1803 a British naval frigate moored in Portland Roads, here were men on a mission, to find willing, (or unwilling,) crew for their vessels.


Having no luck on their first trip ashore they tried again next day, but the wily Portlanders were waiting for them this time.

The two fractions met head on in Easton Square.

Portlander Robert Bennet was grabbed by the press gang but the Portland folk, both men and women, fought back, and in the melee shots were fired by a group of marines who were under Captain Wolfe’s command.

Three men died that day, Alexander Andrews, Richard Flann and William Lano.

A couple more received serious injuries from the days scuffle, one being Mary Way, who lingered a while longer on this earth, but the cold soil called her.

According the newspaper report three men were tried at the Dorchester assizes in 1803 for the wilful murder of William Lano (oddly, no mention of the murder of Mary Way or the other two men!)

Captain Wolfe and Lieutenant Hastings of his Majesty’s ship the  L’Aigle, and Lieutenant Jefferies of the marines were charged at Dorchester assizes with “while trying to impress men” they caused their deaths.

It seems that the judge and jury beleived the innocence of the press gang members who were in the dock, helped by the statements of the prisoners witnesses.

All three men were released and honourably acquitted.

The bodies of those ‘murdered’ were carried to their last resting place in the churchyard of St George’s where their bones rest to this very day.


Writing a book, blog, short stories or your own family history, then why not make them jump off the page, bring them to life with historical graphics.
I have a huge collection that cover illustrations from numerous Victorian articles about travel, prisons, children’s homes, poverty, philanthropy…
Check out my Etsy site for Victorian illustrations, many more, including local ones being added all the time from my own personal collection.


Portland’s own glorious Cheddar caves…Ooopps, but then again, maybe not; 1869

When ever I research items of local history, it never ceases to amaze me the amount of articles in the local papers of the time that tell of new or rare things that the Victorians discovered, but despite all their curiosity of the amazing natural world around them…their first reaction would be to grab their gun and kill it, or in the case of amazing geological discoveries, destroy them !

The area around Weymouth and Portland was a favourite spot for those who came to the region, both men and women would spend hours exploring the beaches and cliffs looking for geological or prehistoric keepsakes to take home as a reminder of their visits to the area. 

We now know that the coastline around here is a hot spot for all manner of wonderful discoveries, no wonder then that it gained World Heritage status as the Jurrasic Coast.

Fossils galore  literally tumble out of the crumbling cliffs at your feet and litter the beaches hereabout.

woman beach child basin

Portland was a veritable smorgasbord of discoveries, especially during the Victorian era when people began to study such things, and began to realise their worth.

Such was the case with a fantastic discovery on Portland in 1869.

Chesil beach

Near St George’s Church at Reforne on Portland was Hitchcraft Quarry.

One day, while the quarrymen were working there moving the layers of limestone, to their amazement they suddenly uncovered an entrance to a natural cavern.

It was vast, nearly 600 yards in length.

Inside that enormous “stalactite cavern” was what was described as “many wondrous and curious petrifications,” which included numerous huge and beautiful tinted stalactites.

What did they do with them…they destroyed them!

Goodness only knows why, maybe they saw a quick buck to be made selling the fossilised pecularities to inquisitive visitors to the island. (which at that time were numerous due to the Portland breakwater and Verne citadel being constructed.)

As the reporter says… had they stayed their hand and thought about it, maybe Portland would have had their own visitors attraction similar to Cheddar.

Bunny Caves sounds good to me….

P.S. Anyone who knows anything about Portland knows you are forbidden to say the r….t word while on the island 😉

Even later on, in the 20th century, the fascinating finds kept coming.

In 1926, Mr H E C Brickell who was the headmaster of St George’s school at the time, suddenly  found himself in the limelight.

He kept a miniature museum of Portland antiquities within the school itself, and had been recently handed a find, “some old bones,” by a quarry worker.


The discovery had been made at Inmosthay, Reforne, not far from the school.

Realising that they might be of importance, he forwarded them to Sir Arthur Keith, an eminent antiquarian, who  recognised them as part of a mammoth and a few bones of a prehistoric horse both from the Ice Age.

The learned man in his reply also asked if any worked flints had been discovered nearby, with that members of the Dorset Field Club set off in search of any historic implements.

Nothing was found, but ” the quarrymen working there are keeping a sharp look out in the ‘vents’ or ‘gullets’ in the whitbed.”

In 1936 an “Old Warriors Skull” was discovered in one of the quarries.

Men were busy working at Comben’s quarry at Chalklands one week-end, they were clearing rubble from the site ready to access a new “task” of stone.

In amongst the rubble were numerous bones, but little notice was taken of them, they were just gathered up and disposed of with the rest down into one of the old workings. (one wonders why they were quite so blase about these bones?)

That was until one load was tipped, and out of the chute fell a human skull “with a perfect set of teeth.” Not only did it lay claim to a full set of gnashers, but a also rather suspiciously a“large irregular hole in the side of the head.”

Now the men were interested…they quickly scrambled down into the gaping void to try and retrive the skull, but it had crumbled away, all bar the jawbones.

The papers report that the skull was probably from way back in Portland’s history. (presumably they had been properly studied and found to be ancient and not the remains of some more recent foul deed.)

Chalklands was the site of the first ever recorded battle of Portland which was fought nearly 1,200 years ago.“In the reign of Brithic King first came three ships of Haeretha Land (Denmark,) and they sought to land at Portland. The officer of the King who commanded here went to them and endeavoured to compel them to come to the King’s vill (Dorchester?) ‘as not knowing whence came they, but he was slain by them.”

Fifty years later there was another battle on he same site, when Adedelhelm, duke, assited by the forces of Dorsaeta fought with the Danish army at Portland and after a long engagement defeated them.. ‘But,’ say the Chronicles, ‘the Danes remained upon the field and the Duke was slain.”





Portlands own Jurassic finds 1837

Only when you read the old newspapers do you realise what a rich tapestry of life runs through the area.

A little snippet appeared in the June of 1837’s newspapers.

Over on Portland Mr Richard Lane owned and ran a quarry there.


 One day, while the men were hard at work, a large block of stone was removed from its bed some 40 odd foot below the surface. To everyones amazement, it’s removal revealed a hidden and secret world, for beneath was the opening to a huge cavern. What was even more impressive, was what gems were found inside that cavern. Not jewels of the diamond variety, but bones, hundreds of bones. There were not only the normal sheep, bunnies,( see…didn’t say the r….t word), deer and bullock bones, but more exotic animals such as tigers and hyenas. 

These bones were apparently in an excellent state of preservation, some were even completely embedded in the stalegmites that dotted the floor of the cavern.

It was decided that they were “of great antiquity” many believing them to be from the Antediluvian period (the period before the Great Biblical Flood) 

Some of the bones were gathered up and handed over to the Museum of the Weymouth Institution. No mention of what happened to all the remaining ones, presumably they made great little ‘holiday’ souvenirs for the wealthy visitors to the area, and a nice little earner for the quarrymen.

A further report later in the year states that great interest was taken in these remains by the general scientific community. . Large fossilised trees had been uncovered before on Portland, but these were the first such animal remains ever found on the Isle.

The museum itself in Weymouth was growing in fame and popularity due to it’s expanding collection of natural history and exhibits of the local geology and minerals.

In the October of that year, the Museum was visited by no less a celebrity than the Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells, such was the interest in these fossilised bones of ancient times. 

I wonder what ever happened to them?