“I will never try it again, I did not know what Dartmoor was like.”
Princetown – February the 6th 1931 – It was a typical chilly February day at Princetown with the infamous Dartmoor mist rolling across the moor. The village was going about its daily business when suddenly the sound of a bell came clanging through the fog. Everyone paused momentarily from what they were doing and looked towards the infamous Dartmoor Prison. The tolling of that bell had not been heard for a good three years but the locals knew only too well what it meant – a prisoner or prisoners had ‘done one’ from the gaol, and how right they were. Now if anybody has ever experienced a Dartmoor ‘mist’ then they will know how unnerving they can be but if somebody wanted to simply vanish then a thick shroud-like wall of ‘mist’ provides the ideal opportunity. So it appeared on that day that someone or some people wanted to do exactly that.
John Mullins, alias James Flanagan aged 29, was a shoemaker by trade and was serving a five year sentence for house breaking. He was described as being five feet six and a half inches, strongly built with black hair, brown eyes and a fresh complexion. John Michael Gasken, alias Cook, alias Heatherington, aged 31, was an electrician by trade and was serving five years with five years preventative detention for forgery and false pretences. He was described as five feet six and a half inches tall, powerfully built with dark brown hair, brown eyes and a fresh complexion, he was also known to be of ‘violent character’.
On the morning of the 6th of February a gang of eighteen prisoners were busy breaking rocks in the prison quarry, Mullins and Gasken were part of that party. having finished the morning shift the gang was marched back to a tool shed for their midday meal. Once the lunch break was over the prisoners were then collecting their tools in order to resume work. It was at this point when Mullins and Gasken hid behind the shed where they had hidden a rope with a hook attached to the end. Taking advantage of the distraction the pair frantically scaled a nearby thirty foot wall and made off into the mist and the bleak moorland. At the time of their escape they were both wearing prison waistcoats, shirts and trousers.
Their disappearance was almost immediately noticed and the alarm bell rung, meanwhile the rest of the prisoners in the gang were marched off back to the prison. Armed prison officers were sent out onto the moor in search of the escapees. The search party was severely handicapped by the thick mist that surrounded the area but throughout the day it laboriously continued. Whilst the search was taking place details of the escape and the convicts were sent to all the police stations in both Devon and Cornwall. By this time some civilians along with bloodhounds had joined the prison officers in their search. Meanwhile all roads were picketed and every vehicle was stopped and searched. It was thought at the time that the two men, both competent drivers may have stolen a car. Later that day one of the search parties found some prison clothing dumped in the Tor Royal Plantation and immediately the area was combed with the help of the bloodhounds.
As the crow flies the prison quarry is about a mile and a half away from Tor Royal but assuming the escapees never walked through the centre of Princetown then at first they must have headed westwards towards North Hessary and then skirted around to Tor Royal. The only problem here is that they would have had to cross the main railway line and what is now the B3212 road to Yelverton. Alternatively they could have gone east which would mean crossing numerous prison enclosures and then cut down to Tor Royal, again having to cross the B3212 road. Either way they were not discovered that night despite a complete cordon being thrown around Princetown and a relief posse of prison officers both on foot and mounted and police officers still searching. Still there was still no sign of the men. However during that night came reports of a bungalow at Yelverton being broken into with numerous items stolen. Amongst the loot was two men’s suits, overcoats, shoes, shorts, razors, a flash lamp along with supplies of food. On this discovery a cordon of 50 warders, police and civilians was thrown around the village but again all to no avail. By this time it was assumed that Mullins and Gasken has fled the area and were heading to Plymouth by way of the river Meavy valley. To have gotten from Tor Royal to Yelverton in the dark, in the mist in the rain was no mean accomplishment especially with dogs and men on their tail.
On the morning of the 7th of February the search was concentrating in and around Plymouth on the assumption that the pair had made it that far. It was also taken as read that the escapees were now in civilian clothing and had food with them which made the task of capture that much harder. As it transpired the idea that the pair had made for Plymouth proved to be correct because on the 8th of February Mullins was recaptured at Crown Hill in Devonport. A sixteen year old boy had spotted a man fitting Mullins’ description sitting in a shed and immediately went off to fetch the local P.C. who at the time was enjoying his Sunday dinner. Duty called and having donned his uniform the P. C. apprehended the convict and took him back to Crownhill Police Station from where prison warders escorted him back to Princetown. Mullins later revealed to him that he and Gasken had decided to separate in order to get a better chance of freedom. It also transpired that shortly before separating the pair were laid in a ditch and a group of warders walked straight past them.
The following day, the 9th of February Gasken was also recaptured near Plymouth where he was apprehended by two policemen. Having wandered about the countryside all of the previous night he eventually came to a railway line and as it was still dark followed it to Liara. Later that day he sold a stolen jumper and with the money went into a nearby cafe and bought a meal. He then visited the public library where he spent some time reading newspapers. however unbeknown to him he was spotted earlier by a plate layer whilst wandering along the railway track. At the time Gasken was wearing the stolen blue overcoat and the plate layer just assumed him to be a detective participating in the search. For some strange reason Gaskin dumped the overcoat just before daybreak and unfortunately it was found and identified as that which had been stolen from Yelverton. When news of this got out the plate layer reported that he had seen a man wearing that exact coat walking towards the town. This then refocused the attention and later that afternoon a P. C. on ordinary patrol spotted a man talking to two other men on Ladysmith Road at Lipson in Plymouth. He immediately recognised Gasken and went over and asked if he was he. Gasken denied this, when another P.C. came along and confirmed the fact he was then taken to the Central Police station. Here, at first, he was still denying who he was but unfortunately when searched he still had a silver cigarette case on him which was identified as the one stolen from the bungalow at Yelverton. On this discovery he realised he was ‘banged to rights’ and admitted that yes, he was Gasken,. He was then given a meal before being transported back to Dartmoor prison. In his words he described his experience of Dartmoor as; “I will never try it again, I did not know what Dartmoor was like.” – sentiments many other escapees from the prison have echoed. This is precisely one of the reasons a prison was located in Princetown because there were locked cells, huge walls guarded by wardens and if all of those failed there was the bleak moors and inhospitable climate for escapees to contend with. Even if someone did manage to cope with all those factors there was still the challenge of getting past the many local inhabitants who knew only too well that there was a very lucrative reward awaiting them should they ever capture, which quite a few did, an escapee.
What brought about this page? Basically a pure fluke, whilst perusing through the Dartmoor items for sale on Ebay I came across the very ‘Description of Prisoner Just Escaped’ document issued on Mullins’ escape and signed by the then governor. As of the 17th of October 2016 it was posted for an asking price of £19.99 with no bidders, should you want this piece of Dartmoor memorabilia then you have until the 24th of October to bid on it – HERE.