“I signed it so the screws would know it was me who had escaped”
John Wilson, aka Charles Sparks, aka Alfred Watson, was a career burglar who was sent to borstal at an early age and in the leitmotif that would be the hallmark of his life, he escaped. He was nicknamed Ruby after breaking into the Park Lane home of an Indian Maharajah and stealing £40,000 worth of uncut rubies. Ruby was, on this occasion, no bright Sparks — he gave the rubies away, thinking they were not real.
On 27 May 1927 he was sentenced to three years’ penal servitude in the tough Strangeways Prison for a smash and grab robbery in Birmingham on 20 November 1924, during which a woman died. A warder told Sparks, “Nobody has ever escaped from here.” A fortnight later, Spark became the first man to escape. He paid £400 in bribes and bought mailbag thread and a knife. Then Sparks made a dummy from a blanket, stool and chamber pot. He was wearing a suit he had had made himself from a blanket because his clothes had been taken from him and he simply used his knife to saw through the cell bars. He left a signed poem on his bed:
The Cage is Empty
The Bird is Flown
I’ve gone to a Place
Where I’m better Known
He later said, “I signed it so the screws would know it was me who had escaped and not Shakespeare.” In May 1930 he was sentenced to five years for a series of car thefts. On 30 June he tried unsuccessfully to escape from Wandsworth Prison. By 1939 he was in Dartmoor Prison. He became the first successful escapee from the bleak prison, which he did on 10 January 1940 with Alec Marsh and Dick Nolan. Unable to steal the five keys he needed to escape, Sparks mentally photographed them and spent a year making them from metal he stole from the machine shop. He became known as “Public Enemy Number One” and spent 170 days on the run.
Strangeways Prison, Manchester; Dartmoor Prison, Devon, England
On his retirement Sparks wrote his autobiography, Burglar to The Nobility.