It was October 29, 1968 – and just another average Tuesday.
In the News, violence erupted outside the American embassy in London when an anti-Vietnam War protest got out of hand.
In the pop charts, Radio 1 was giving plenty of air time to a future number one hit single, Joe Cocker’s With A Little Help From My Friends.
And up at St James’ Park, Newcastle United were sitting 13th in the First Division, having suffered a narrow 2-1 defeat at Liverpool the previous weekend.
In Durham Prison, meanwhile, one of Britain’s most dangerous criminals was preparing to attempt the impossible and escape from the jail’s high-security E Wing. His disappearance sparked a nationwide manhunt.
In a decade which spawned the Kray Twins, the Great Train Robbery and Harry Roberts, the feared armed robber, John McVicar, would again propel the subject of crime and criminals into the news headlines in Britain.
Twenty-eight-year-old John McVicar was holed up in Durham’s fortress-like E Wing with some of the country’s toughest lags.
It was a ‘prison within a prison’ and considered virtually escape-proof but, 50 years ago, the Londoner would shatter that theory.
In fact, McVicar had already escaped from the clutches of the prison service once before. In 1966, he went on the run for four months when he bolted from a coach carrying him to Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight.
And on October 26, 1968, he was at it again.
McVicar had, over time, carefully chipped his way through the wall in the shower room, painstakingly replacing each brick with a papier-mache replica.
He was able to enter a ventilation shaft, crawl along it, enter the exercise yard, then cross the roof before lowering himself down the prison wall.
In the middle of the night, his heart pumping and adrenalin racing, McVicar found himself running through the narrow, winding streets of Durham city.
Rather than cross any bridges, the escapee swam across the ice-cold River Wear, before sleeping fitfully through the rest of the night on some derelict land.
Next day, as a massive police hunt was mobilised and TV crews and newspaper men rushed to Durham, McVicar kept away from the roads and followed the course of the river and railway for seven miles, finally reaching Chester-le-Street.
Despite being spotted by a number of local people, he evaded capture by police swarming around the area.
He was able to call friends in London from a phone box, and as a car raced North through the night to pick him up, McVicar spent his last night roughing it in County Durham before being whisked back to “The Smoke” and freedom.
For two years, McVicar remained on the run until he was re-captured in 1970.
Despite receiving a sentence of 26 years, he was paroled in 1978, and published his autobiography, McVicar by Himself. He also began studying for a postgraduate degree at Leicester University, and began a successful career as a journalist. He was seen regularly on TV in the 1980s and 90s.
Today, John McVicar is 78. His exploits can be relived in the hit 1980 feature film, simply called McVicar, starring The Who’s singer, Roger Daltrey – no soft touch himself in his younger days.
Source : Chroniclelive