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Escape from Broadmoor


On the face of it things haven’t changed much at Broadmoor over the years. There’s still the moaning about patients having it too cushy, allegations of inappropriate relationships between patients and staff or the staff generally being too lax. The hospital celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2013 and remains a tribute to Victorian enlightenment as to the treatment of the criminally insane.

For the first time in 1863 Broadmoor opened its gates and gave male and female prisoners medical treatment for their condition instead of locking them up and leaving them to rot. Gardens were laid for outdoor exercise and recreation and common rooms provided for socialising.

Matters advanced further after the two world wars when in 1948 the running of the hospital was handed over from the Home Office to the Ministry of Health and more enlightened governors appointed, who now called the institute a Hospital, prisoners became patients, cells became rooms and privileges were awarded to patients who behaved themselves. An average stay in Broadmoor has now become six years.

Then in 1952 a spanner was thrown in the works by serial killer John Thomas Straffen after he murdered two children in Bath. The judge decided he was unfit to stand trial and sent him to Broadmoor, where Straffen decided to reduce his average stay from six years to six months by jumping over the wall and running for it. By the time he was caught four hours later, pursued by attendants on bicycles, he’d murdered a third time. The balloon went up with local residents demanding why there was no warning - there was no siren installed at this stage - questions being asked in Parliament and Winston Churchill as Prime Minister asking his ministers why Straffen apparently wasn’t considered mad any longer and not being sent back to Broadmoor.

The truth was it had proved embarrassingly easy for a dangerous patient to escape, and the ageing staff member who was in charge of Straffen at the time probably was past his sell-by date professionally and like the rest of his colleagues was not overpaid for doing a demanding job. Clearly changes had to be made, including the installation of a warning siren to give local residents a chance to protect themselves in the event of an escape.

Further major changes are now due at Broadmoor, with a new hospital complex being built next to the old and the old being converted into private housing. So there will be the chance, if you fancy it, to live in rooms once occupied by the poisoner Graham Young, the Kray brothers, the Yorkshire Ripper or, of course, John Straffen himself during his brief but not uneventful stay in Broadmoor. 

By Gordon Lowe

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