Here is a true story worthy of a West End play, it involves a prison chaplain, a burglar armed with a knife, a shotgun and an amputated arm. The scene is large granite Victorian house located near to the church at Princetown. It’s a dark March night when all the village is fast asleep, that is apart from two men, the sleepless chaplain and an habitual criminal lurking in the shadows. What happens next is a tale of courage befitting any hero…
It was late at night on March the 9th 1895 and the Reverend Clifford Rickard was finding it hard to sleep. Being a Sunday he had completed his duty as the Prison Chaplain at Princetown’s infamous goal and although very tired sweet repose was denied him. Thinking that just maybe a pipe of his favourite tobacco and a read of a book would relax him enough to finally get some sleep he ventured downstairs to his study. As he trod down the stairs he heard a the sound of somebody moving around which at the time he initially took to be his wife. That night she was sleeping in a separate room nursing a young girl and so he just assumed she had gone downstairs to fetch a glass of milk. On reaching the hallway the chaplain noticed that the light was on in his study. This was strange as his good lady never ventured into that inner sanctum as it was his private domain so if it was not her who could have it of been? Now one of the perils of living so close to the prison was that sometimes when convicts managed to escape they would break into houses in order to steal clothes and food. So naturally his first thought was that it was some escapee plundering his home. Just as he approached the study door he was confronted with a man dashing towards him, in one hand was a lighted candle and in the other a large knife. The intruder was dressed in what could be described as conventional burglar attire; a short jacket, corduroy trousers, a neck muffler and cloth cap askew on his head. He was a well built man and stood at around five feet eight inches. Although an alarming sight the chaplain remained calm as being the prison chaplain he was only too accustomed with dealing with such villains. The following is a newspaper report of an interview with the Reverend Rickard detailing his ordeal:
“The man advanced – a rough looking customer. When he saw me, he began to shout and make extraordinary noises, probably with the idea that he would alarm me. But I am used to dealing with men of the sort. I asked him what he was doing, took him by the collar and walked him into the study. He followed like a lamb. We sat upon the table, and again I asked him what he wanted. He said. ‘Well, guv’nor, I only wanted some food, and a bit to go on with.’ I replied, ‘If you had come in daylight and asked me for food, it would have certainly never have been denied you; and I expect I should have given you something to go on with. But this isn’t the way to ask for it you know.’ He asked me not to give him up, and I rejoined, ‘I don’t know about that; I am afraid I shall have to give you up. This sort of thing won’t do.’ He began to get excited and cried, ‘Look here, you know I won’t be took, I won’t be took!‘ Then I saw that he had a knife with a large blade in his hand, and that it was open. I said, ‘None of that!‘ and tried to grasp the handle, but got hold of a portion of the blade as well, and he suddenly whisked the knife away, cutting two of my fingers to the bone. I thought the odds were greatly against me, and I told him he might go if he would give up the knife and the things he had in his pockets. But he refused and kept crying, ‘I won’t be took; I know what that means and I won’t be took!’ Just then I saw my gun in the corner of the room and I thought I would try and get hold of it. I began turning out his pockets and walked around him, and got to the corner. I picked up the gun in an instant, put it at full cock, and aimed at him, saying that if the man did not surrender I would shoot him. He blew out the candle and ran from the room. As I followed him I slipped a couple of cartridges into the breach. Instead of going for the kitchen or front door, the man went into the drawing room and tried the window but could not open it. As he turned again, I stood by the door. Pointing the gun at him, I shouted, ‘Bail up! Up with your arms, or I’ll fire!’ But he ran again. I did not want to shoot him, and as he passed me I hit him over the head or the back of the neck with my gun. But he did not try to escape into the open even this time. He went into the study, and stood by the fireplace. I blocked the doorway, and twice more told him to surrender, and that the gun was loaded. But he came at me with the knife, and I fired one barrel. He stopped a minute, but apparently I had missed him, and he came at me again with the knife. I fired the second barrel, and he dropped and rolled over. I could not believe that I had not killed him. The range was so short that it seemed impossible he could escape. I knelt down and examined him. He was bleeding a lot, and his arm was badly injured. I thought his end was coming and I did my best to induce him to prepare for it, but when the doctors arrived they said it would be best to remove him to Tavistock, though I wanted them to put him upstairs and attend to his injuries there.” The Western Daily Mercury, 13th March, 1895.
In 1920 the Reverend Rickard publish a book which related his time spent as the chaplain to Dartmoor prison in which he tells the rest of this story. So let’s go back to the point at which he shot the burglar. Having heard the sound of the gun shots his wife and servants awoke, on standing on the landing his wife asked, ‘What’s the matter, what are you doing?’ To this he relied, “I’ve got a burglar here and I shot him!‘ Mrs Rickard’s relpy will surely go down in history as she said, ‘Oh dear, I hope you haven’t hurt him?’ It did not take long for a couple of prison warders, who, having heard the gun shots, came to investigate. Despite his request to take the burglar upstairs the doctors dressed his wounds and in the company of a policeman and a warder he was taken to Tavistock hospital. Here he was attended by four other doctors who decided that his injuries were so severe they had to amputate his arm below the elbow. A couple of days later the chaplain went to Tavistock Hospital to visit the prisoner. It transpired that the man had become lost and eventually found himself at Princetown where he went to the police station to enquire where he might find lodgings for the night. The policeman said he was best to go to Tavistock and escorted him out of Princetown and having reached the Rundlestone road pointed him in the direction of the town. However, once the policeman was out of sight the villain doubled back through a fir plantation to Princetown. Having clambered over the garden wall of the chaplain’s house he forced a kitchen window and entered the premisis. Once inside he raided the larder, took off his boots and warmed himself infront of the fire. Having done so he lit a candle and then crept upstairs and rummaged through a writing desk but finding nothing of value made his way back downstairs to the study. It was here that he eventually became acquainted with the Reverend Rickard.
After six weeks of recuperation the prisoner was sent to Tavistock magistrates court to face his charges but being a man of the cloth the reverend asked that he be shown clemency. In a true demonstration of, ‘forgive them Lord for they knoweth not what they do’ the chaplain pleaded that losing his arm should be enough punishment. However it was soon pointed out that this would not happen as the prisoner was also being sent to the Ivybridge assizes where he was facing two other charges of burglary. On the 17th of June 1895 the prisoner appeared before Judge Vaughan Williams at Exeter Guildhall. Here he was faced with two charges of burglary at Ivybridge to which he pleaded guilty and the charge of burglary at Princetown TO which amazingly he pleaded not guilty. So the trial then centred on the Princetown offence when the prisoner asked to cross-examine the witnesses. When Rickard took the stand the prisoner started by saying ‘ when I met you at the bottom of the stairs…‘ to which the judge interceded asking why he had pleaded not guilty and to what what stairs was he referring to? Undaunted the prisoner continued, asking Rickard if he thought there was a chance that he could have reached the gun before the chaplain. Clearly this demonstrated that the man was guilty of the crime because he was relating the actual incidents of the night. After the judge summed up the case the jury briefly retired and returned back with a charge of guilty. Once more the chaplain asked the judge for leniency, saying that in losing his arm the prisoner had received enough punishment. The judge adjourned the trail until the following day when sentence would be given. The next day the judge said how in fact he had already come across the prisoner when presiding over case in Chester where he was charged with another burglary. He also reminded the man that at the time he had promised never to commit such a crime again. However, once again the man stood in the dock for further crimes of burglary. But it was the judge’s opinion that having lost an arm he would find it difficult to resume his career of crime and taking the chaplain’s plea for clemency into account he sentenced the man to one month’s hard labour.
Having served his term the man was released to find that the Reverend Rickard along with some of his friends had provided him with a sum of money and he was sent to Bath where under the guardianship of the Church Army he would set up a trade as a fish hawker. However, two weeks later it was learned that he had disappeared along with what was left of the money. The following October news came to Princetown that a man had been arrested in Shropshire for a series of burglaries. The police had the suspicion that the man they had arrested was the same as the one who broke into the chaplain’s house but this the villain strongly denied. A request was sent to the reverend asking if he had a photograph of the man who broke into his house but despite having one Rickard refused to send it. His reason being that he had enough of the matter and didn’t want to get further involved. So a local policeman who knew the Princetown burglar was sent up to Shropshire to identify the prisoner, sure enough it was the same man. This time he was charged with six counts of burglary, two he pleaded guilty to and the rest not guilty. At the end of the trial the judge pointed out the fact that he had gotten off lightly with the Princetown burglary thanks to the chaplain’s intervention. He also added then following his release the chaplain had even given him enough money to start a new life in Bath but instead he disappeared and carried on robbing houses. The man was sentenced to six years imprisonment. Sometime later an old prisoner visited the chaplain and said how he had met his burglar whilst serving time at Parkhurst Prison and how he had told him that when free he would also pay the chaplain a visit. It was only on the last couple of pages of his book that the Reverend Rickard revealed the burglars name – Mollott.
There is a slight twist to this story, at the time of the incident it was reported in a local newspaper that; “Superintendent Nicholls does not believe that the individual who, a few days ago, visited Tavistock, and informed nearly everyone with whom he came into contact that he was a Scotland Yard detective and identified the Dartmoor burglar as an ex-convict named Baker, was what he represented himself to be. He was well dressed, and called at the house of the Superintendent who was out of town. It is the opinion of several persons to whom the stranger spoke that he was under the influence of drink. He stated that in addition to being a detective, he was a ‘Times’ reporter and intended to contribute a sensational report to the paper. He called at the Cottage Hospital, saw the injured man, and said to him, ‘You are Baker, and have served 12 years’ penal servitude,’ to which observation the other reported, ‘ You are a good natured fool.’ On Saturday three public-house proprietors visited the Tavistock Cottage Hospital from Ivybridge and identified the burglar as a man who was staying at Ivybridge when a burglary was committed there some weeks ago. The man still refuses to give his name. He continues to progress favourably.” It seems that the mysterious impostor posing as a detective managed to foil some people as the following newspaper report demonstrates; “On Thursday, a Scotland Yard detective identified the man as an ex-convict named Baker recently released after 15 years penal servitude.”