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Whilst delving through some old copies of The Times newspaper I can across the following story from the winter of 1856. It serves as a good illustration of the type of prisoner that was once held in Dartmoor Prison and how the establishment got its notorious reputation.

The first report was dated the 12th of November 1856 and stated how on the 3rd of June 1854, Omar Shamgar alias George Woodcock had been sentenced at Derby for 10 years penal servitude. Then sometime in late 1856 he was apprehended in York and was charged with being found at large with no reasonable excuse. Woodcock had been in custody on a charge of burglary and it appears that because an important witness was ‘absent’ they were about to release him when somebody realised that he fitted the description of a prisoner that had escaped from Dartmoor Prison.

The chief warden of Dartmoor was duely summoned to York and on the 12th of November appeared before the magistrates and identified Woodcock as his escaped convict. It transpired that after being sentenced on the 3rd of June he was transported and admitted to Dartmoor on the 25th of September 1854. On the 25th of August 1855, Woodcock carried out a daring escape from Dartmoor Prison. This involved crawling through a drain that was reported to be “nearly a mile long,” which was no mean accomplishment. Once free of the prison he then stole a suit of clothes, dumped his convict clothes and made his bid for freedom. The authorities managed to stay of his trail for four days but then he managed to give them the slip.

George Woodcock was originally born in Sheffield and he was said to be able to speak four languages and had an excellent biblical knowledge. For most of his life he had devoted his time to thieving of one kind or another and had been convicted for various offences at Aylesbury, Durham, Leicester, Northampton, Retford and Bedford to name but a few. He had also travelled extensively in Europe and had escaped from several French prisons. Apart from Dartmoor, Woodcock had also escaped from Preston jail twice and nearly succeeded in breaking out of York prison. He told the chief warden from Dartmoor that had he not been apprehended in York, he and some accomplices had planned to burgle some house which was located just outside York on the banks of the Ouse. This ‘job’ would have netted the gang about £2,000 which using the retail price index comparison would be worth about £110,000 in today’s money. Woodcock was then sent to Exeter goal for trial and sentencing.


A short follow-up story was then published on the 12th of December 1856 when Woodcock was described as being “a notorious offender; and it is said that the criminal incidents of his life are as extraordinary and romantic as those of Jack Sheppard or Dick Turpin.” His convictions for burglary, picking pockets and similar offences totalled at least 18. He was known to have used the names of Woodcock, Massey, Thompson, Montgomery, Sigismund, Colbeck and Shamgar. In his own words, Woodcock described himself as being “born a rogue, brought up a rogue and means to continue a rogue,” he also boasted that he knew every goal on the country. It also appears that he knew he fate because he said that once returned to Dartmoor Prison he planned by means of a rope ladder to scale one of the walls and get clean away.


Another report was published on the 25th of December 1856 which adds a great deal more to Woodcocks notorious career. At this time he was 25 years of age and was now boasting that he had committed every crime short of murder. In the spring of 1853 Woodcock was sentenced at Bedford to 18 months in goal for burglary during which time he “behaved with great violence, and made several attacks upon the governor, Mr Roberts.” He appears to have gotten off lightly for the time as he was only threatened with corporal punishment. Clearly this had no effect because in the July of 1854 he wrecked his cell and threatened to kill anyone that came near him. The governor and some warders managed to overpower him and place him under ‘restraint’ even after which he tried to give the governor a good kicking which as reported “serious injury would have been the result had he fortunately not missed his aim.” It appears that Woodcock really did not like this governor because on another occasion he trapped him in his cell with the intention of stabbing him and, in his own words, “washing my hands in his blood and then destroying myself.” He then attempted several times to commit suicide by such means as smashing his head against the floor. This resulted in him being secured by both hand and foot to his bed for six weeks, no wonder he was getting hacked off. In the August of 1854 he was sent to a lunatic asylum where his behaviour vastly improved to the extent that he was described as having taken on a quiet and pious demeanour. But this it seems was a ploy to throw the keepers off their guard as on the 6th of October he escaped. Sadly he could not keep his sticky fingers to himself because in the November he was caught thieving and sentenced to a month’s imprisonment and 10 years penal servitude. Whilst in Derby gaol the governor made various inquiries as to Woodcock’s history and discovered that he had been in Wakefield prison five times for various offences. Woodcock had served one month in 1847 at Aylesbury prison for stealing a pair of shoes, three months at Durham in 1848, and in 1849 he received a sentence of one month at Leicester for stealing a pair of boots. The list then goes on with him serving 12 months at Redford for housebreaking in 1850, a further 9 months at Northampton in 1851 for stealing a pair of boots at Daventry. Whilst he was at Derby gaol he beat up another prisoner and attacked a warder with a piece of wood which he had broken off from the seat board of an iron bedstead. In Northampton goal he was placed in a ‘dark cell’ for misconduct, placed in irons on several occasions and flogged once. Whilst residing at Preston goal he made an escape attempt by climbing up a chimney, unfortunately he was discovered halfway up but refused to come down. It appears that the warders managed to persuade him to come down by lighting a fire underneath him and thus smoking him out. It was at this time he was sent to Dartmoor where in this report he was said to have escaped whilst doing some outdoor work where he made his way to York.


This is now back to where the story began and as mentioned resulted in him being sent back to Exeter gaol which The Times describes as being “the receptacle for all the escaped convicts of Dartmoor.” At this time the custom was that no matter where a convict was recaptured they were sent back to the Devonshire County gaol and after undergoing whatever punishment was meted out by the Exeter magistrates were then sent back to Dartmoor prison to finish their previous sentence.

The amazing thing about this story is that whilst there is no denying that when in prison Woodcock was of a violent nature his original crimes, compared to modern crimes and sentences seem very insignificant. Afterall, if a criminal can earn himself a reputation akin to Dick Turpin for stealing shoes and boots what would that make some of the headcases these days? I can see no court in the land handing out a 9 month custodial sentence for stealing a pair of boots – armed robbery maybe?

This is just one small insight into the type of convict that was once interred in Dartmoor Prison and there are numerous other examples of escapes, failed escapes and re-captures which would take a website of their own.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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