PRISON escapes were once a much more common occurrence than they are today - and in the 1950s and 1960s they were a constant problem.

Durham Prison was seen as one of the most secure, but even it let a few prisoners slip through its fingers.

The old Durham Jail, a fortified gateway in Saddler Street, was a formidable prison, with notorious conditions, but not such a formidable reputation when it came to preventing jailbreaks.

One of the first occurred in February 1737 when two prisoners - John Dodsworth and John Penman - "viciously knocked down"

the underkeeper of the jail. In March 1787, two smugglers escaped from the same jail by means of a rope.

When the new prison opened at Elvet in 1820, it proved just as hard to break. There were occasional escapes, but it was considered one of the strongest in Britain for many decades. In October 1961, The Northern Echo noted that Durham's escape record was second to none and that there had only been two escapes in the previous six years.

One of these escapes occurred earlier in 1961 on March 14, when Ronnie Heslop, otherwise known as "Rubberbones" or "Houdini"

Heslop, broke out of the prison.

Heslop, a native of Page Bank, lived at Ushaw Moor and excavated his way free from the prison over a period of four days using a teaspoon and kitchen knife after removing a ventilation grill from the cell floor.

Heslop, a serving soldier, was awaiting trial at the Quarter sessions of the Assize Court (now Crown Court) and jumped down from the roof of this very court during his escape. He swam the river twice as he made his getaway, in a feat emulated by Durham's famous escapee John McVicar seven years later.

Heslop had been charged with stealing £262 from a Spennymoor lemonade factory and attempting to blow a safe at the Ministry of Labour in the same town. He was on the run for six weeks before recapture.

Heslop's escape made the front page of the Northern Echo, but the paper's main story focused on political events in South Africa.

Escapes were seemingly not that significant an event. In fact, the night after Heslop's escape, there were escapes from Thorp Arch Prison, in Yorkshire, and at Wandsworth, which experienced a further escape on March 20.

With such frequent escapes, it is no wonder Durham's six-year record was seen as impressive.

In October 1961, the Government started to take action against prison escapes and decided Durham would hold some of the country's most difficult prisoners and particularly those prone to escape.

A specially-prepared wing, described as "a prison within a prison" was developed. It would become the famous E-Wing and was thought to be escape-proof.

One man proved otherwise. His name was John McVicar.

McVicar, a Londoner once considered the most dangerous man in Britain, was an armed robber who escaped from a coach taking him to Parkhurst Prison in 1966. He was on the run for four months and on recapture was taken to Durham Prison. He wasn't in for long as, on October 29, 1968, he achieved the unthinkable, an escape from E-Wing.

McVicar chipped his way through the brick wall of a shower room, replacing bricks with papier mache replicas.

After working his way into a ventilation shaft he entered the exercise yard and made his escape over the roof. Two convicts who attempted to leave with him were captured immediately.

After jumping the prison wall, McVicar found himself in unfamiliar surroundings, but in his autobiography, McVicar by Himself, he gives a heart-racing description of the streets and features that he encountered during his night-time escape.

With its winding river, numerous bridges and narrow streets, Durham can be disorientating to the stranger, so we cannot be certain of McVicar's route, but he certainly ran past the police station close to to the prison.

He does not seem to have crossed a bridge at any point but worked his way along a street, reaching a church and graveyard. From here he swam across the river, reaching gardens at the rear of what seemed to be a college. The church would seem to have been St Oswald's Church. He says he walked along a landscaped riverside walk for perhaps half-a-mile until his path was blocked by a factory area.

The riverside area near Framwellgate Bridge would have fitted this description in the 1960s. At this point, McVicar swam along the river, in the direction of the current, briefly encountering a rat sitting on an exposed pipe. The pipe and occasional rat can still be seen here today.

McVicar slept the night hiding on some derelict land perhaps at Framwellgate Waterside or maybe across the river near the Sands.

From here, he recalls observing the time on a cinema clock that was probably the Essoldo in North Road.

In the morning, McVicar climbed through some building works and entered a narrow cobbled street.

He mentions what he thought to be a bowling alley with crowds of youngsters (perhaps what was then the ice rink).

Whatever his course, within halfa- mile he was in open countryside to the east and it was heading in this direction that the police last reported seeing him. Roadblocks were set up that caused tailbacks stretching towards Sunderland but McVicar was wellaway from the roads.

McVicar worked his way through the open countryside around Plawsworth and finally arrived in Chester-le-Street where he contacted friends in London from a call box. A number of locals had spotted him in the area and the police set up a search headquarters at Chester Moor, but he was never found in County Durham.

He had slept the night in a car parked in a suburban garage before he was picked up in another car by friends who took him back to London. He remained on the run until captured in 1970.

McVicar was finally released from prison in 1978. Two years later his life and escape from Durham became the subject of a film starring Roger Daltrey. It was simply entitled McVicar.