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David Davies

David Davies

There is a well known saying, ‘a leopard can’t change its spots‘ and the story of David Davies otherwise known as ‘The Dartmoor Shepherd’ is an excellent endorsement of that adage. David Davies was what could only be described as an habitual criminal and was a resident of Dartmoor Prison. The reason he was known as ‘The Dartmoor Shepherd’ was quite simply because he tended the flock of sheep belonging to the prison. He was described thus:

He was as quiet, docile, and harmless a person as could be conceived – in fact, a model prisoner in every way – contented and even happy. He was employed as the shepherd of the Dartmoor flock. He loved his sheep, took the utmost care of them, and they loved him. He never drove them, but in a kind of Scriptural fashion he led them forth. They obeyed him, and he had no trouble with them.’, (Sir Alfred Wills, The Times).

Despite this glowing testament there was one problem with David Davies and that was his criminal record which was as follows:

Date Court Crime Sentence
23.06.1870 Montgomeryshire Larceny 1 month’s hard labour
02.08.1870 Ruthin Stealing a gun 8 month’s hard labour
24.07.1871 Manchester Burglary 7 years penal servitude
16.10.1877 Salop Stealing watch and chain 10 years penal servitude
05.02.1887 Salop Burglary 15 years penal servitude
18.04.1899 Liverpool Sacrilege I month’s hard labour
13.10.1902 Knutsford Stealing £1 6s. 6d. and p.c. 5 years penal servitude
06.06.1907 Manchester Stealing 8s. 0½d. 3 month’s hard labour, licence revoked
08.11.1908 Shrewsbury Breach of Prevention of Crimes Act 3 month’s hard labour, licence revoked

So for what could be described as a series of petty offences poor David Davies received sentences which totalled 38 years and 6 months a fact that did not escape the attention of Winston Churchill who in 1911 was at the Home Secretary. Churchill was looking into the effectiveness of the New Prevention of Crime Act when he found on a list of habitual offenders the name of David Davies. It simply read, ‘Shrewsbury: / David Davies, / aged 67; / stealing two shillings; / three years’ penal servitude and ten years preventive detention.’ Churchill soon came to the conclusion that the latest offence of stealing two shillings did not justify a prison sentence of 13 years and so a full report was demanded. After examining the details of Davies’ criminal career Winston Churchill was of the opinion that:

The burglaries were not of a daring or professional character, the criminal was not armed, the amounts stolen were in all cases very small, the property in most instances recovered, and there was no crime of cruelty or violence. The convict throughout his life had been a nuisance, but not a danger to society.’

It also transpired that in 1886, having served his 10 year sentence Davies made plans to go and live with his sister in Texas but on arriving at Le Harve he suffered an attack of ‘blood spitting’ caused by his weak lungs and was sent back to Southampton. From here he travelled to Shropshire in what was described as a, ‘destitute condition’ and then was caught for committing the crime of burglary for which he later recieved a sentence of 15 years. In 1907 Davies made another attempt at joining his sister but on arrival at Liverpool the captain of his ship refused to take him to America on grounds of his, ‘previous character‘. According to his record he must have then travelled to Shrewsbury where once again he was charged with breach of the Crime Prevention Order.

In 1909 Davies had submitted a petition in which he drew attention to the severe sentences he had recieved for committing minor crimes. He also stated:

 ‘That your petitioner begs to state that he has worked hard in prison and has conducted himself well at all times, and will do so again as far as his age, health, and strength will allow, as he is now an old man in his 69th year. That your petitioner humbly begs and trusts that you Gentlemen Commissioners will kindly assist me to get some of this long sentence reduced, as three years is a very heavy punishment for the offence committed. In all justice is there either sense or reason in the way I have been dealt with all my life.’

Winston Churchill visited Dartmoor Prison and met in person David Davies and also reviewed his case with the prison authorities. On returning to London, Churchill directed that Davies be informed that he was soon to be released on licence. Davies was released on the 6th of January 1911 and sent to Denbighshire where a job had been found for him by the prison authorities on a local farm. He was not allowed to leave here without permission for a period of 6 months, he absconded two days after arriving there. It was at the same time that the Dartmoor Shepherd became a celebrity thanks to the electioneering of Lloyd George. In a speech delivered in the East End of London Lloyd George alluded to Davies, ‘on that bleak mist-sodden upland in a convict garb‘ as a victim of a criminal code. Over the following months the plight of Davies was discussed in parliament and many of the leading newspapers as an example of the unfair treatment recieved by some in a very unbalanced judicial system.

One might assume that this was a happy ending to what could be described as a sad tale of injustice apart from a newspaper report of the 15th of April 1911.  On April Fools Day he broke into a place called Moreton Hall and stole four bottles of whisky some of which he drank and the rest he tried to sell. At his trial on the 5th July 1911 the judge sentenced Davies to nine months imprisonment.

David Davies either reformed or was never caught committing any crime for the next four years but then on the 18th of December The Times newspaper reported that, ‘The famous Dartmoor Shepherd’ was charged at Liverpool with stealing money from an offertory box in St. Bridget’s Roman Catholic Church. He was spotted rifling the box by a nun who raised the alarm which was answered by several women who mobbed the 74 year old and held him until the police arrived. On the 5th of January 1916 he was sentenced to six months imprisonment of the offence.

No sooner was he released from his latest stretch than on the 8th of July 1916 he was again up in court facing charges of stealing from another offertory box. This time two special constables caught him red handed and the Warrington court duly sentenced him to twelve months imprisonment.

Once again, David Davies went quiet for a short while until the 30th of August 1918 when he was charged with the offence of sacrilege. This time he was caught pilfering an offertory box by the verger of the local church at Matlock from which he stole 18s. 10d. as usual he was given a three months prison sentence for his troubles. On the 8th of April 1919 Davies was up before the Staffordshire Quarter Assizes. Once again he had been charged with stealing 11s. from the poor box at Uttoxeter Roman Catholic Church. In his statement he said that some weakness had taken possession of him and he pleaded for mercy as he’ ‘felt himself wearing out and had always wished to end his days outside prison walls.’ The judge sentenced him to six months imprisonment and because he was now 77 years of age there would be discretionary hard labour.

In 1923 it can be safely assumed that Davies was alive and well and living near Oswestry because on the 17th of November he was charged with stealing 7d. from offertory box at the local Roman Catholic Church. At his trial he pleaded guilty and asked to be sent to the workhouse, this request was granted but only after he had served three months imprisonment, by now Davies was 81 years of age.

On the 19th of February 1924 Davies was charged at Shrewsbury with loitering with intent. He had been seen dropping lighted matches into the offertory box of the abbey church in order to see how much was inside. As always he was duly sentenced to imprisonment, this time for 2 months. It appears that old habits die hard because what must have been only a few weeks after his latest release he was charged with loitering with intent to commit a felony, this time at Oswestry. Guess where he was loitering? Dead right a churchyard, this time at West Feelton. At his trial he once again pleaded to be sent to the workhouse as opposed to prison and this time he was granted his wishes and duly escorted to the workhouse by two policemen.

Why is it not a surprise to learn that by the January of 1925 the Dartmoor Shepherd had absconded from the Llanfyllin workhouse reported in a southerly direction. However that assumption proved wrong when at the end of February he was arrested in Macclesfield. It transpires that the Rev. Sharples of Christ Church spotted Davies hacking away at the offertory box with a chisel. He was then wrestled into the vestry and locked within until the police arrived. Again there is no record of this outcome of this charge but on the 12th of August he recieved a three month sentence for attempting to break into the church as Astbury, Cheshire. Things began to catch up with Davies on the 30th of August because at the Llanfyllin workhouse he was charged with absconding from the workhouse and taking clothing with him. His excuse was that he wanted to get away and work on the hay harvest and that he could not find his own clothes. The judge noted that, ‘it must be a long time since you did any haymaking‘, to which Davies replied, ‘I can thatch a stack with anyone‘. After completion of his original sentence the Dartmoor Shepherd was herded back to the workhouse where he remained for a good six months before wandering off again. This time he got as far as Overton-on Dee where the police caught him on the 13th of January 1927.

On the 2nd of January 1929 the master of the workhouse was taken ill and Davies saw a chance to once again go for a wander. This time he managed to get three miles up the road before collapsing dead on the verge. The later inquest held that Davies had died from exhaustion and heart failure. He was finally buried in the cemetery at Llanfyllin on the 6th of April in a grave paid for by sympathisers.

It is estimated that during his lifetime the Dartmoor Shepherd served about 50 years in various prisons and the majority of them were because he just could not keep his hands out of offertory boxes. Maybe, the authorities would have been better leaving him in Dartmoor Prison where he could have tended his flock in peace and quiet


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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