Looking through files in the National Archive at Kew, I’ve discovered that the last person to escape from the Tower of London wasn’t a Jesuit priest, a Scottish king or a treasonous royal physician. It was an RAF second lieutenant awaiting court martial in 1919 for passing dud cheques to the Café Royal.
Victor Napier was a South African who joined the Royal Flying Corps as a second lieutenant in 1917. In March 1919, aged twenty-one, he was tried before a General Court Martial on two charges: of closing a bank account without providing for some post-dated cheques made out to the Café Royal, and of escaping from the Tower of London on 14th February 1919.
Despite taking place on Valentine’s Day, Napier’s escape had little romance – or indeed drama – to it. He put on a visitor’s coat and strolled past his guards who failed to recognize him. Later that night he strolled back into the Tower and was re-imprisoned.
At the court martial, Napier was found guilty of passing the dud cheques, and pleaded guilty to escaping from the Tower. He was sentenced to be dismissed from the RAF. But ten days later, the Judge Advocate General refused to confirm the Café Royal conviction, finding that “the evidence did not justify the finding”. Only the guilty plea for escaping from the Tower now stood, and so Napier’s sentence was commuted to ‘a severe reprimand’.
What wouldn’t a few of the Tower’s better known prisoners have given for that sentence? Guy Fawkes was tortured for two days, before being hanged, drawn and quartered. Anne Askew, a Protestant martyr, was burned at the stake. No one even knows what happened to the sons of Edward IV. But Victor Napier, the Tower of London’s last ever escapee, walked away with a reprimand. I wonder whether he dined off that story for the rest of his life…?