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Christmas Convicts

Christmas Convicts

I’ll be home for Christmas

You can count on me

Please have snow and mistletoe

And presents under the tree.

Everybody wants to be at home for Christmas where they can relax and enjoy the company of family and friends along with the seasonal food and drink. But for those locked up behind bars this is not an option and the festive season has to be spent in various prisons around the country and none can be so imposing as Dartmoor Prison. So, should any prisoner be missing his festive celebrations then the only option is to escape and make a bid for freedom. Here is a catalogue of such attempts that have taken place at Dartmoor Prison over the centuries most of which resulted in hardship and recapture:

December 1850

Three convicts under sentence for transportation escaped from Dartmoor Prison, their names were; Bradwich (20 years of age), Thompson (22 years of age) and Webster (22 years of age). Clearly they did not want to spend 10 years at a penal colony.

The three convicts were re-captured having first gone to Plymouth where they took the road for London. Their journey was interrupted at the Laira toll gate where they were unable to pass because they had no money for the toll. Eventually they managed to climb a wall and make their way to Ashburton where they were caught. During their three days of freedom the prisoners had lived off some stolen corn and field turnips.

December 1851

Two convicts named Edward Griffiths and Samuel Baker escaped from Dartmoor Prison. Griffiths had previously attempted to escape and was confined to the ‘strong cell’ as punishment. It was in here that he managed to make a hole in the wall and once out he released Baker. Both men fled to Plymouth where they were spotted by two policemen, Baker was apprehended by one of the policemen while Griffiths managed to escape into a nearby field. He was chased and caught by the other policeman who after losing his truncheon to the convict received a good battering. However, not to be outdone the policeman fought back and finally managed to restrain Griffiths. Both men were returned to Dartmoor Prison,

Two days later another convict named John Thomas managed to escape from the prison whilst in a work party who were out on the moor. He was described as, ‘aged 19, 5ft 6 in. in height, dark brown hair, swarthy complexion, grey eyes and wearing the convict dress.’

It appears in this year quite a few Dartmoor prisoners wanted to be home for Christmas as one William French also made good his escape. He only remained at large for just over a day before being captured and returned to the prison. At his trial he claimed that the main gate had been left open and he simply walked out as opposed to making an escape.

December 1856

A convict from Dartmoor Prison was indicted for assaulting a prisoner warder called Alexander Carrick. At his trial, John Riley was accused of creeping up behind the warder and hitting him on the head with a spade to which Riley pleaded guilty. He then proceeded to tell the court that he, ‘would not care for being hung that moment if you would only let me have the ***’s life‘. The judge then said what a cowardly attack it was and Riley then went off on another one:

I don’t call it cowardly. I should have been a *** fool if I had not tried to kill the ***. Talk about slaves! Let the public go to Dartmoor, and there they will see what slaves we are. If they sprain their ankle they give them poison; if they have the toothache they give them a dose of salts. I only speak for my brother convicts. If one complaint of a warder, they put a nine pound weight of iron upon him; a set of ***! they never had any clothes on their backs till they got there.’

The judge then spoke out, ‘I want to say to you‘… Riley then chimed in, ‘I don’t care a *** what you say, I can assure you‘. The judge then asked him if he had done but it seems Riley hadn’t done. ‘No; I have not done. You and all the rest of you are a set of *** swindlers. Hang me at once.’ For his troubles John Riley was sentenced to three years hard labour.

December 1876

A convict was caught trying to escape from Dartmoor Prison by way of digging through the walls. It appeared that he had been working for some weeks on his plan and had even managed to hide the spoil from his labours. Unfortunately on the day he was discovered the hapless convict was but one stone between himself and freedom. Apart from a brief mention in The Times newspaper the only thing he got for his troubles was a flogging.

December 1890

Joseph Denny was charged at Exeter Assizes for trying to break IN to Dartmoor Prison. It was alleged that with the help of a clothes line he attempted to climb over the prison wall. Unfortunately his foot caught in a bell wire which immediately rang out the alarm and despite getting into the prison he was soon caught hiding in an outhouse. The purpose for his visit was to murder the Chief Warden and then set fire to the prison, a large knife and a box of matches were later found in his possession.

December 1892

A group of prisoners were transferred from Wormwood Scrubs to Dartmoor Prison as a consequence in the part they played in a serious outbreak. They were met at Tavistock by a large escort of warders who were all armed with loaded revolvers. An inquiry was held at the prison and resulted in four prisoners being flogged with the cat o’ nine tails and one being birched.

December 1896

Three prisoners attempted to escape from Dartmoor Prison whilst on a working party below the prison. Whilst marching back to the prison the men tried to make a run for it, the guards ordered them to stop but were ignored. This resulted in a volley of shots being sent in their direction, one of the bullets killed a prisoner named William Carter.  A second convict, William Martin, was soon caught and wrestled to the ground. The third convict, Ralph Goodwin, managed to make good his escape and was aided by the descent of a thick fog and nightfall. He was however recaptured at Devonport three days later.

December 1897

Almost a year to the day when Carter was shot dead another convict attempted to escape whilst out on a working party. Alfred Lincoln and a group of six other prisoners were building a wall on the prison estate when he asked to be ‘excused’ for a moment. During that moment he hopped over the wall and made for a nearby plantation, he was immediately spotted by a warder who gave chase. On nearing the plantation he was met by the prison guard who had heard the alarm raised when he fled. They fired two volleys of shots which led to the prisoner falling to the ground and then being captured and handcuffed by the warder who initially gave chase. One of the shots was said to have, ‘touched‘ the man although how seriously was not reported.

January 1898

On the 2nd of January a ‘desperate character’ named James Morgan escaped from the prison by cutting through the bars of his cell, dropping some 12 feet into the yard and then climbed over the wall with the aid of some scaffolding. Having made good his escape the convict fled across the moor and reached Gidleigh Common. Here his luck took a turn for the worst when he was spotted by a man named Perryman who was out rabbiting. Perryman gave chase but was soon outpaced, however, not wishing to lose his reward, he unleashed his dog who took over the chase. Perryman then met a neighbour who was riding across the moor and borrowed the mount to rejoin the hunt, he soon caught up with Morgan who by this time was being held by the dog. The prisoner was then taken to Chagford from whence he was taken into police custody.

December 1936

A prisoner named Christopher Sumner was working in some gardens adjacent to the prison when a thick Dartmoor mist rolled down. Seeing his opportunity the prisoner slunk off hoping to hide in the swirling miasma, sadly his freedom lasted but 40 minutes when the warders recaptured him.

December 1939

Two prisoners named Reginald Mead and Albert Beard escaped from the prison in what was assumed to be a well planned operation. It appears that over a period they gradually sawed through the bars of their cell with a hacksaw blade, then when the time was right they broke through the second floor cell window and with the help of some ropes lowered themselves down to the yard. From here they used some kind of grappling iron to clamber over the 20ft outer wall and make their bid for freedom. Seven hours later they gave themselves up to the search party who found them barefooted and sodden some eight miles from the prison. Two other prisoners had tried to escape by using the same plan on the same night but the warders heard the glass of the cell window breaking and rushed to detain them.

December 1951

Two prisoners escaped from the prison whilst on an outside working party, they were Frank Cook and Walter Smith. Once again a thick Dartmoor mist descended and this provided the cover for them to escape. Cook was recaptured on the Tavistock to Okehampton road and Smith was then found at the foot of a 350ft quarry face having fallen from the top. According to witnesses the couple were seen, ‘riding desperately hard’ on a motor cycle. Shortly after this a motorist reported that he had been stopped by a man who said his friend had been injured and then asked if the driver would take them to hospital. The motorist refused but said he would send help once he got to Tavistock and accordingly the police were soon sent to the scene where Cook was found at a cottage door.

December 1955

George Jackson escaped from the prison whilst on an outside working party, it seems he had been detail onto a milking gang at the prison farm when he managed to slip away. He was recaptured 24 hours later when he was caught after breaking into a house at Mount Tavy Gardens at Tavistock.

December 1956

Two prisoners, Frank Bond and Douglas Jackson were on an outside working party that was labouring in the prison quarry when they managed to escape. Road blocks were immediately set up around the area and people warned not to approach the couple as Bond was serving a sentence for murder. It soon became clear that the couple had made it onto the north moor when a burglary was reported at Okehampton, the occupier reported that food and clothes had been taken. The search was then intensified by the addition of police dogs and Royal Marines joining the parties. The remains of a fire were then discovered at a quarry near Sticklepath which again seemed to confirm the fact that the men were still in the area. However, four days later the couple were captured in the main street of Bridgewater which was some 50 odd miles away from Dartmoor. The men offered no resistance and it later transpired that they had travelled there by train.

January 1959

On the 5th of January William Day and Dennis Stafford escaped from Dartmoor whilst working inside the prison, they managed to scale the wall with the help of a scaffolding pole which ironically had been used in a previous escape. Once again the Dartmoor weather aided their escape for at the time a thick mist and heavy rain had engulfed the prison. The following day a set of prison clothes and a glove was found near the Moorland Links hotel at Roborough and a car belonging to the chef was reported missing. The stolen car was later recovered at Bere Regis in Dorset which led the authorities to believe the two men were at large outside Devon. However, in mid February the body of Day was found floating in 10 feet of water at Burrator reservoir by a maintenance workman and was later recovered by naval frogmen. Stafford was recaptured on the 20th of February in London.

January 1963

This escape took place outside of the Christmas period but has been included here because it just goes to show how stupid some people can be. On the 24 of January a party of prisoners was sent out on a snow clearing party, it was during this task that Roy Fox and William Cook decided to take their leave. Once it was noticed that they were missing the search party soon found two sets of footprints in the snow and simply followed them until they brought them to Fox and Cook. Cook managed to evade capture and as a result had to endure the dangers of 15ft snow drifts and freezing temperatures. Miraculously he somehow made his way to Roborough where he broke into two houses where he stole food and cash to the value of £49. Cook was later spotted in Plymouth where he had bought clothes and had a haircut, he was recaptured on the 3rd of February.

December 1963

Henry Bramley was working at the prison stables when another dense Dartmoor mist descended, this gave him the opportunity to simply walk away from the prison. Six days later he called at Mount House School on the edge of Tavistock and gave himself up. It appears after six days of trudging around the moor he became too exhausted to carry on.

December 1966

Two men escaped from Dartmoor Prison on Boxing Day and for over a week the search parties tried in vain to locate them. But on the 3rd of January, Mark Owens and John Thompson were recaptured at Ashburton in a most remarkable way. A stolen car had been found on the A38, two miles from Ashburton which led the authorities to believe they were in the area. The same day several sets of footprints were found in a garden at Ashburton and the householder reported the fact to the police who duly arrived to investigate. Whilst they were there the householder’s young grandson along with two friends decided to search a nearby straw barn. Armed with toy pistols they entered the building and discovered much to their surprise the two prisoners hiding amongst the bales. The men were then handed over to the police at toy pistol point and escorted away. The prisoners had been at large for just over a week during which time they had lived off a carrot and a cabbage stolen from various gardens.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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