Dartmoor is renown for its notorious Dartmoor Prison and it is not surprising that down the centuries such an inhospitable institution has had its fair share of escapes. One tale from the 1850’s illustrates the daring, ingenuity and the lengths that some of the prisoners will go through to escape from the stark granite prison:
One dark, moonlit night one of the inmates managed to get out of his cell and make his way undetected to the warder’s mess hall. Here the man climbed up into the roof and silently crawled across the supporting beams as the unsuspecting warders ate their supper below. Once clear of the mess the convict clambered over a wall and broke into the prisoner doctors house. At this point he deemed it sensible to get out of his prison clothes and so rifled the doctor’s wardrobe and stole a suit of clothes. Then he was faced with the hardest dilemma of all – how to get off of Dartmoor. The prison was not located at Princetown by accident, there were two roads which would lead off the moor but any escapee that took either of these routes would soon be caught, either by the patrols or by being spotted by a member of the public. The only other option was across the vast expanse of waste which would mean crossing perilous bogs, fast flowing rivers and numerous other perils. This particular prisoner decided he had risked enough peril and so opted for the easier option of the road. Somehow he managed to break into the doctor’s stable where much to his relief the man found a horse. So far things were going well and it was only when he tried to gain entry to the tack room that the prisoner’s luck started to change. No matter how hard he tried the man could not open the heavy lock and so could not get a saddle and reins for the horse. Time being of the essence, the prisoner decided to settle for what he had and so rode the horse with only its halter.
An early postcard showing warders at the prison gates.
Having reached the road the next decision to take was that of direction, he could go east, west, or south west, north or south was not an option as that took him across the barren fens. The prisoner opted for the direction of the setting sun and rode west and trotted rather shakily towards Two Bridges. Up to this point he had been fortunate, his escape had thus far gone undetected and he had not met a living soul. That however changed as he passed the Saracen’s Head inn (which today is the Two Bridges hotel) where he saw a moorman leave the inn and mount his pony. The prisoners spurred his horse into a trot in the vain hope that his larger mount could outpace the little moor pony. Clearly he had no idea of the capabilities of the Dartmoor pony as it was not long before the moorman was trotting alongside. Being a typical moorlander it did not take the man long to strike up a conversation. He explained how tomorrow was ‘Drift Day‘ and that he was off to make ready for a busy day. The moorman then inquired as to whom he had the pleasure of riding with, without hesitation the prisoner introduced himself as the new curate and explained how he was attending to his pastoral duties. The moorman then observed that the prisoner was riding his horse without a saddle and bridle and so asked why this should be. The prisoner explained that one of his flock had been taken seriously ill and how his groom had the night off which meant the urgency of his calling necessitated riding his horse bare back. The moorman looked silently at his travelling companion and after a while asked why his suit was so ill-fitting. Up to this point the prisoner had not given any thought to the fit of the stolen suit but then he remembered how the prison doctor was of a rotund figure and having lived on prison gruel he was now thin and bony. The inquisitiveness of the moorman started to annoy the prisoner and he snapped that the pressures of his new job had led to a dramatic loss of weight hence his suits no longer fitted as they once did.
Early postcard of Dartmoor convicts and warders.
A sullen silence ensued and the prisoner could feel the moorman suspiciously eying him as he trotted along. Suddenly, as if an awful truth had dawned on the moorman, he shouted that he recognised the horse the stranger was riding and that it was the prison doctor’s. Realising that he had been caught out the prisoner kicked the large horse into a gallop and sped of down the road. Over his shoulder he could hear the ‘clippy clop’ of the little pony’s hooves and a quick glance revealed the moorman in hot pursuit. The convict kicked his mount even harder in an effort to put some distance between himself and the moorman. The chase would have befitted one at the local Bellever races, the big horse went clattering down the road with sparks flying as its metal shoes clipped the surface stones. The prisoner kept looking back and was relieved to see that the gap between himself and the moorman was forever widening. Just as he thought he would make good his escape he heard the moorman shout out “Halt! Right about face.” With that the horse screeched into a sliding stop and the prisoner was pitched over its head and landed in a winded heap on the roadside. Dazed and confused he looked up to see the moorman stood over him with a knowing grin on his face, “you are a five-pounder to me, your reverend party,” he triumphantly announced. The convict knew exactly what that meant for the reward for capturing an escaped prisoner was £5, he also knew that £5 was a lot of money to a moorlander and there was no way he was going to let that sum go. The only option was to go quietly and face the music back at the prison. The prisoner looked inquiringly at the moorman and asked what had happened. The man explained how he knew that the doctor’s horse used to be a cavalry charger and so was trained to stop on command, he then added that being a moorman he had seen the army training their horses on the moor and had learnt the command for stop. That was what he shouted out and that was why the horse slid to a halt.
The moorman duely got his reward and the convict lost all the years he had served as a punishment for escaping and in addition had another seven years added to his sentence for stealing the suit and horse.
If you are interested in the history of Dartmoor Prison and are at Princetown then the Dartmoor Prisoner Heritage Centre is well worth a visit. Here you can see many exhibits which relate the history of the prison including escape weapons and tools that have been used or found and much much more.