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Prison Breaks

Prison Breaks

Dartmoor Prison has always had the reputation as being a dark foreboding place from which there is no escape. To do so would mean risking life and limb amongst the quaking bogs of the moor. However, recent research on some newspapers of the 1800’s has revealed that not everybody was deterred from escape attempts. It is also interesting to note that the majority of gaol breaks occurred in and around Christmastime. The following list is by no means complete and I am sure there are other instances not recorded below. And it is funny how you seldom hear of many prisoners escaping these days, maybe things aren’t as bad as they should, sorry typo, used to be?

1851 – 26th November.

On Wednesday evening two convicts, named Samuel Baker and Edward Griffiths, made their escape from a cell in which they were confined in the prisons at Dartmoor. Intimation was immediately given to the authorities of this town (Plymouth) and on Thursday night, about 10 o’ clock, the convicts were apprehended in Jubilee Street, coming into the town, but Police-constables Philips and Axworthy, and after a severe struggle, during which Griffiths cut Philips severely over the left eye with the staff, which he took from the officers pocket, they were taken to the station house. In order to disguise themselves, one had on two coats and two waist coats, and the other had no upper clothing but his shirt. On Griffiths were found two knives, such as painters use for their work. They were taken before Mr G. Coryndon on Friday morning, who stated that the police officers who apprehended them merited much praise for their vigilance and activity, and he then directed that the two officers should convey them to Dartmoor. These men have escaped once before, and they were in close confinement in a cell, preparatory to being tried at the ensuing assizes for breaking out of prison, stealing clothes, &c.”

1851 – 19th December.

On Friday morning one of the convicts at Dartmoor Prison, named William French, made his escape, of which information soon reached our vigilant superintendent of police, Mr Baker, who on Saturday evening observed a man in Bridge Street, answering the description given of the escaped convict. On searching him Baker found two letters in his pocket addressed to William French, and on his shirt were the letters “D.P.” with the broad arrow. The next day the officer took the prisoner back to Dartmoor, but was told by the governor that on Friday last the Secretary of State, Sir George Grey, had visited the establishment, when instructions were left that if the man was captured he was to be taken before a magistrate for recommitment on the charge of breaking prison. On Monday morning he was brought up at the Town-hall before Mr Henry Cartwright, and on the joint evidence of the deputy-governor of the Dartmoor Prison, Mr W. Morris, the warden, Blake, and Superintendent Baker, was committed to trial at the next assizes. The man’s defence was that he had not broken prison but that the gate was open, and he passed the armed warder, who asked him where he was going. It appeared that the escaped convict had been assisted by some person unknown with clothes to disguise himself, and it was observed by the magistrate that it could not be too generally known, that a person who aids or assists a prisoner under sentence of transportation in making his escape is liable to the same penalty as the convict himself. The prisoner the same evening was taken by Superintendent Baker to the county gaol at Exeter.

1854 – February 5th.

Last Sunday two convicts made their escape from Dartmoor prisons. They proceeded across the river Dart, and were making their way towards Ashburton, when seen by a farmer, who suspected they were convicts from their dress. Having procured assistance, he went in search of the fugitives, and succeeded in apprehending them at a place called Newbridge. They were conveyed back to prison and have since been committed for trial at the Devon March Assizes.”

1854 – July 20th.

I was delighted to find this report as it ties in beautifully with the story on the ‘Convict Curate‘ and actually puts a name and date to the tale.

One man was charged with three offences. He was a convict in Dartmoor Prison, and the first charge was breaking the gaol; the next for burglary in the dwelling house of the medical officer of the gaol; and the third was stealing on the same night a horse on which he was riding away when he was stopped by the owner. He had stolen from the house a saddle and bridle, and a great coat. John Smith pleaded “guilty” to three indictments – one charging him with breaking out of Dartmoor Prison; another with burglary; and a third with stealing a horse – all on the same night.” The sentence of the court was, that he should be transported for a period of twenty years, to commence from the expiration of his previous sentence (making 35 years). The prisoner, who is a very fine man, 24 years of age, laughed heartily while the learned judge was recounting his different offences.”

1854 – September 1st.

On Friday last a convict named James Taylor, whose escape from Dartmoor Prison in company with another convict was apprehended by one of the police at Plymouth. It appears that, after making his escape Taylor broke into an outhouse and stole an overcoat and staff belonging to one of the officers of the prison; with these he went across the moor and, together with a prisoner called John Gray, who broke out on the same night, lay concealed in the neighbourhood in the hope of getting a passage to Australia. In this they were disappointed, and Taylor then went alone as far as Plymouth, where he was taken into custody with the officer’s topcoat and staff in his possession. He had only recently been received into the establishment, and was under sentence of 21 years transportation. On being taken before the magistrates at the Plymouth Guildhall he was fully committed to trail. The other man has not yet been recaptured.”

1855 – 25th August.

George Woodcock escaped see – George Woodcock.

1856 – 16th November.

Two convicts escaped from prison at Dartmoor on Saturday night last. On arriving at Buckfastleigh they broke into a dwelling-house, threatened the inmates with violence if they made a stir, changed their apparel, and left their convicts dress behind them. They were, however, apprehended and committed for trial to the Devon County Gaol at Exeter. On arriving near the gaol, in the custody of Joseph Harris, one of the convicts slipped his handcuffs and bolted from the cab in which they were being conveyed; Harris put the cabman in charge of the remaining prisoner, and went after the fugitive. After firing a shot at him with his revolver and threatening him with another shot, the convict surrendered. While this was going on the other prisoner in the fly also succeeded in escaping with the handcuffs on, and without either hat or shoes. He was speedily pursued, but succeeded in eluding the vigilance of his pursuers until Monday, when he was apprehended at Cullumpton, a town about 12 miles from Exeter.

1859 – April 15th – 20th ?

A convict effected his escape from the Dartmoor prisons a few days ago, but was hotly perused over the moor by the authorities. The fugitive was ultimately captured at Buckfastleigh, a distance of 14 miles from the prisons.”

1860 – April 6th.

Late on Thursday night (11th December 1863) George Ball, who escaped with two others from Dartmoor Prison on the 1st of April 1860, was captured at Woolwich. At the time of his escape he had served between two and three years of a sentence of 15 years penal servitude for having committed a burglary at Lewes. John Robinson and Joseph Hampshire, the two convicts who escaped with him, were captured soon after their escape; but Ball left his companions at Bridgewater and proceeded to Cardiff, where he sailed a few days afterwards to America. There until the past few moths he has served as captain of a company of southern guerrillas, but was taken prisoner by the North and sent home. Immediately on his arrival in England he made his way to Woolwich, where he enlisted as a gunner in the Royal Artillery band, in which he served for the past few months. Last night he became embroiled in a drunken row, and was put into the hands of the police. While locked up at Shooter’s-hill station Inspector Bell discovered who he was by his having “G.T.” marked on his left arm, and that he was under the delusion that Prince Albert was his personal enemy. Six years ago he broke out of Bethlehem Hospital twice, on one occasion taking with him a lunatic murderer.

A further report of the 19th of December 1863 added:

At the Woolwich Police-court yesterday Charles Foster, alias George Ball, was placed at the bar before Mr Maude on a remanded charge of making his escape from the Dartmoor Convict Prison, where he was undergoing a sentence of 15 years’ penal servitude for committing highway robbery with violence. Benjamin Sims, a convict warder at Dartmoor stated that the prisoner was sentenced to 15 years transportation at the Lewes assizes in December 1858. He was confined at the Dartmoor Prison in the same cell with two other convicts, Joseph Hampshire and John Robinson; and on the night of the 31st of March 1860, the prisoner and his companions made their escape, by removing the iron bars of the cell and climbing onto the roof of buildings which communicated with the outer wall of the prison Robinson was subsequently apprehended, but Hampshire is still at large. Police- constable Randall proved apprehending the prisoner at the Royal Artillery Barracks, and on telling him the charge the prisoner said, “As you seem to know all about it, it is of no use to deny it.” It appears that since his escape from Dartmoor the prisoner sailed from Cardiff for America and enlisted in the Confederate Army. He was taken prisoner by the Federals, and through the interest of Lord Lyons was enabled to return to England. He appears to be a man of some education and about three weeks since he delivered a lecture upon “Africa” to the troops of the garrison.”

1876 – December 19th.

A convict at Dartmoor Prison was on Tuesday morning discovered to be attempting to escape by digging his way through the wall of the prison. He must have been engaged in the work for some weeks, and displayed considerable ingenuity in making away the extracted materials. Only one stone lay between him and success when he was detected. On the next visit of the Director of Prisons the man will undoubtedly be adjudged to be flogged. The officer who had charge of that part of the prison is suspended pending investigation into his alleged laxity.”

1877 – August 21st.

Another desperate attempt to obtain liberty has been made at the Dartmoor Prison. Two convicts named Morgan and Britton, while working in a field on Tuesday, suddenly rushed towards a wall, over which they vaulted, and went dashing along to get under cover. A warder loaded his rifle and fired over the wall in the direction the fellows had taken, but a yell of “Oh, murder! what are you at,” delivered in an unmistakably Irish accent revealed the fact that he had struck a warder instead of the runaway, and that one of his shots had grazed the head of a fellow officer. A sharp run resulted in Britton being caught in a plantation, but Morgan made good his escape amongst the tors and bogs of Dartmoor, and is still at large. Britton will probably undergo a flogging – a punishment inflicted on Tuesday on some half-a-dozen mutineers who nearly murdered a warder a few days ago, and who were overcome only after a sharp struggle.”

1882 – October.

A plot among the convicts at Dartmoor to make a general escape is reported. A discovery has been made of skeleton keys, constructed out of the bones which the convicts have found in their meat at meal times. Two convicts were recently found in a closet, after having unlocked and escaped from their cells, their evident intention being to secrete themselves there until the opportunity presented itself for getting away. It is believed that many of the convicts have possessed themselves of these bone “keys” and it is even stated that not long ago a convict actually made an offer to one of the officers to unlock any door in the prison; while another is said to have informed the authorities that a general plan had been formed for breaking out of the prison. It was intended to make keys of bones to unlock the cells in one of the prisons, seize the warder in charge at night and when the night watchman, who carries a pistol and some of the keys, went his rounds, to overpower him and throw open the other prisons.”

1890 – August 16th.

Joseph Denney, 44, a coloured man and a native of Barbados, is in custody at Tavistock, charged with breaking into Dartmoor Convict Prison for an unlawful purpose. He was discharged from there 18 months ago, having undergone eight years’ imprisonment for felony in London, previous to which he served seven years for manslaughter in Liverpool. He got over the wall surrounding Dartmoor Prison at midnight on Saturday and in doing so caught himself in the wire of a bell at the main entrance. This drew the attention of the officers on duty, and of Captain Every, the governor, who had just entered the establishment to make his last inspection for the night. A search was made, and Denney was found secreted in a closet in the carpenter’s shop. He made no secret that his object of being there was to have revenge upon Chief Warder Hardy, against whom he appears to entertain a bitter feeling, and to set the prison on fire to give him an opportunity to liberate two convicts, one named Dixon, and the other undergoing a life term. When formally charged before a magistrate yesterday, at Tavistock, for the purpose of remand, the prisoner said his real name was George Adolphus Gordon, but he served his imprisonment at Denney. He said while he was at Dartmoor he was treated worse than a wild animal, because he was a coloured man, and he told them that when liberated he would have his revenge, if not for 12 years and would do so yet if he had the chance. He declared he would mount the gallows with a contented mind if he had ridded the prison of the chief warder whom he referred to as the Duke of Wellington.”

On the 4th December 1890, the prisoner was sentenced to 12 months hard labour at Exeter assizes and at the trial he was indicted on a separate charge for stealing the property of the Prison Commissioners, namely 1 sheep?

1896 – 24th December.

Three convicts at the Dartmoor convict establishment at Princetown made a desperate attempt to escape yesterday morning, with the result that one was shot dead and a second man wounded. The third a man named Ralph Goodman, was last night still at large. It appears that about 11 o’ clock the usual order was given to the convicts engaged in the boggy ground below the prison to “cease labour,” and while the gang was being marched from the bogs back to the prison three of them broke away. They were instantly challenged, but as they continued to run the warders in charge of the gang fired several shots. They endeavoured not to inflict fatal injuries on any of the men, but the result was that one was killed immediately and another was inured so badly that any further attempt at escape on his part was out of the question. The third man, however, ran on and ultimately escaped, and up to the time when darkness set in he had not been captured. Any chance of tracing him was greatly discounted by the fact that thick fog prevailed and obscured the whole country. Several armed parties were sent out in search of him, but in the darkness the task was a very difficult one. The captured convict was severely injured, having received several shots in the head.

A further report was then filed on the 29th of December which stated:

… William J. Martin, William Carter and Ralph Goodwin made a bold dash for liberty, and attempted to scale a wall which bounds the road. The armed warders at once fired, both with the intention of deterring the convicts from their desperate attempt, and also to give warning to the other warders. Five of the guard are said to have fired, and one of the shots took effect upon Carter, who was probably scaling the wall when the bullet struck him. He was hit in the spine, and was found to be dead. Martin, another of the convicts, was quickly overtaken by one of the warders, but he resisted capture in a most determined manner, and a keen struggle took place between him and his pursuer. In the end the warder knocked him down, and held him until assistance came, when he was taken back to the prison. Goodwin, the third man, got away, and up to last night was still at large. Search parties were organised as soon as the affair was reported, and, some on foot, and some on horseback, searched the moor in all directions during the whole of Thursday, but without effect, and the efforts which were renewed yesterday were equally without effect. The body of the dead convict, Carter, was removed to the prison mortuary, and Martin, who had sustained injuries, it is said, in his fight with the warder, was removed to the prison infirmary, where he remains under treatment… A description of the escaped convict was telegraphed to Plymouth, Exeter, Devonport, and the towns on or bordering upon Dartmoor. He is described as Ralph Goodwin, alias John Thomas Hammond, aged 29 years, a mariner by trade. He was born at Liverpool, and was sentenced at the Hants. assizes in February last to five years’ penal servitude for a burglary at Portsmouth in January. He was, of course, wearing the usual convict dress, but seems to have quickly discarded his boots, which were found near the spot from which his escape was made. Carter, whose death was due to accident rather than design, was one of the notorious Lewisham masked burglars, and was sentenced to 12 years’ penal servitude and to 20 strokes of the cat. A mounted messenger arrived at the prison yesterday morning and reported that the house of Mr. Warne at Post Bridge, about two miles from Princetown, had been entered by the convict. The family sat up late, and on awaking yesterday morning discovered that a pane of glass in the dining room had been smashed, the catch of the window drawn back, and the room entered from without. The burglar helped himself to the remains of supper, and provided himself with a long black overcoat, a pair of tan leather boots, and a child’s sailor hat. His convict jacket and cap were left in the house. Goodwin was subsequently seen passing another house in the vicinity, and went in the direction of Mis Tor. A diligent search was made in that direction during the day, but the man was not discovered, and was believed to be waiting in hiding until darkness came on.”

Goodwin was recaptured on the Sunday morning at Devonport. At the inquest of the shot convict a verdict of “justifiable homicide” was returned with instructions for a prison director to visit Dartmoor to inquire as to the incident and award Goodwin his punishment.

1897 – 9th December.

Yesterday morning another attempted to escape from Dartmoor convict establishment. The man who is named Alfred Lincoln, was one of a gang of seven convicts who were engaged in building a wall, and made an excuse to separate from the rest of the men. He climbed the wall and darted off. Principle Warder Sillifaunt, who was on the other side of the wall, saw the man run off and gave chase. Lincoln made for a plantation about half a mile away, and where near it met the prison guard, who had heard the alarm. The guard fired twice, and the convict fell and was handcuffed by Sillifaunt. One of the shots touched the man, who was recaptured near the spot where a convict was shot dead when trying to escape last Christmas. Lincoln was sentenced to five years for manslaughter at Durham. He was let out on ticket of leave, but was agin convicted of assaulting the police at Sunderland for which he was sentenced to three months imprisonment and to serve the remainder of his term.”

1898 – 2nd January.

Another convict escaped from Dartmoor convict establishment on Sunday night, but was recaptured last evening (Monday) after an exciting chase. The man, whose name is John Morgan, alias Henry Harley, was serving his third term of penal servitude, his last conviction having been at the North London sessions in 1894, when he was sentenced to 10 years penal servitude for larceny. The alarm was raised at 8.40pm on Sunday by a night-watchman in the prison who saw a couple of knotted blankets hanging out of a cell window. It was found that the ventilator of the cell had been taken out as well as the pane of glass, and two outside iron bars broken through, probably by blows with a stool which was in the convicts cell. Morgan then squeezed himself through the small aperture and, using his blankets as a rope, reached the ground. He scaled the high boundary wall by means of a scaffold pole and, by the time he was missed, he had got clean away from the prison. Armed search parties were sent out, and mounted men and cyclists scoured the country in all directions. It was a bright moonlit night, but in spite of this and of the open nature of the county, Morgan managed to elude his pursuers throughout the night and until the following afternoon was well advanced, when he was run down near Chagford, a village about 12 miles on the Exeter side of Dartmoor…

The following report then appeared in the newspapers on the 5th of January 1898:

The capture of the convict John Morgan, who from Dartmoor on Sunday night, was, says our Plymouth correspondent, effected in exciting circumstances. Mr Perryman of Gidleigh, was out rabbiting with his dog and gun on Gidleigh Common, near Chagford, when towards evening, as he was near a plantation on the hillside, he saw a man of very suspicious appearance stealing along in the shadow of the trees. Mr Perryman, who had heard of the escape of a prisoner from Dartmoor, at once came to the conclusion that this was the man. He gave chase, but finding that he had no chance with the convict on foot, put his dog after him. Seeing a neighbour on horseback, he at once mounted the horse and rode after the convict, discovering on overtaking him that the dog had laid hold of him and was holding on. Mr Perryman immediately arrested Morgan and brought him to Chagford, handing him over to a constable, who took charge of him until the arrival of the warders.

I cannot end this page without relating a modern escape story from nearby Channing’s Wood Prison that happened in the late 1990’s. The poor chap must have been desperate and he wasn’t the sharpest pencil in the box, bless him, because whilst out on a work party he seized his chance and leapt on a tractor and sped off down the Devonshire lanes at about 10mph – needless to say he was soon recaptured.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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