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Joseph Denny



Over the centuries there have been numerous attempts, a few successful many not, to break out of Dartmoor Prison. However seldom has anyone tried to break into Dartmoor Prison but back in 1890 one man made this his mission. The reason for this bizarre quest was one of revenge and retribution and his story took a very sinister twist in later years as will be seen.

Joseph Denny, alias George Adolphus Gordon, was a coloured native of Barbados, he was portrayed as having intelligent features and due to him wearing glasses presenting a benign appearance. However, what you see is not what you get and he was described as an habitual criminal who at times would resort to violence. His first term in prison was at Carmarthen Prison where he served six months for housebreaking. next came seven years in Liverpool jail for manslaughter. This was followed by a term of eight yard in Dartmoor Prison for the crime of felony where this story really begins. During his term at Dartmoor  124 breaches of discipline were recorded which resulted in various punishments; flogging, solitary confinement and spells on restricted diet. On the 8th of January 1889 he was released from Dartmoor Prison following which he joined a ship and spent nine months at sea. During the summer of 1890 he travelled from London to Tavistock where he was spotted in the streets with a troupe of performing dogs. He then made his way up to Princetown by train where he sought out the Duchy Steward, Mr. Barrington and asked if there was a piece of land upon which he could stage his show. A piece of waste ground was found and on the 15th of August 1890 he presented his performing dogs to a small crowd.

Very late the following night (August the 16th 1890) the then Prison Governor, Captain Oswald William Every was making his final inspection of the prison for the day.  Suddenly the sound of clanging alarm bells broke the night air, these were activated by wires strung along the inside of the prison wall which were attached to the bells. Their purpose was to give warning of anybody trying to break out of the prison. Immediately and search party was mustered who then began their inspection of the prison wall and lo and behold they discovered a man hiding in a toilet that was next to the carpenter’s shop. Immediately one of the warder recognised the man as being a previous ‘client’ of the prison – Joseph Denny. In which case it appeared that he was attempting to break into the prison. It was reported at the time that to gain entry to the prison Denny had crept through the Deputy Governor’s garden and then scaled up the prison wall. unfortunately when he dropped down he caught his foot in the alarm wire thus setting of the alarm bells.

Initially Denny refused to explain why he had broken into the prison but after a body search a knife and a box of matches were found upon his person. He then said; “I came to murder ‘Flash Hardy’, and murder him I will if I have got a chance.” He was then clapped in handcuffs and marched off to the local policeman’s house where he was detained in the lock up. The following day the Prison Chaplain paid Denny a visit and was told that the reason for his attempted break in was to set fire to the prison and once again confirmed that he was going to murder the Chief Warder Augustus Hardy, affectionately known in the prison as ‘Flash Hardy’. Earlier that same morning one of the prison’s farm workers discovered the carcass of a mutilated sheep which clearly had been clubbed to death and a large piece of flesh carved out of its shoulder. When question of this Denny confessed to the crime saying that; “I have done fifteen years for the old woman (referring to Queen Victoria) and she should be able to stand a sheep or two now.” Later that afternoon Denny was transported to Tavistock where he appeared before Mr. W. S. Rosvere the local magistrate. he was charged with breaking into Dartmoor Prison for an unlawful purpose, Being on prison premises for the purpose of setting fire to the building and killing and stealing a sheep which was the property of the prison authorities. The magistrate remanded him in custody until Tuesday the 19th of August 1890., Denny was then escorted back to Princetown until his trial.

Joseph Denny

At his trial Denny at all times was guarded in the dock by two burly warders due to the fact that Chief Warder Hardy was in the room, it was said at the time that Denny continually glared at Hardy with a look of menacing hatred on his face.  At the trial Denny produced a tirade of grievances saying that from the time that Chief Warder Hardy was appointed to the prison he had been subject to harsh treatment. He was often clapped in irons because, in his opinion, he was a ‘man of colour’ and a ‘plain speaker’. He then went on to explain that Chief Warder Hardy was in effect acting as the Governor, Deputy Governor, Doctor, Clergyman and everything else. Denny then noted that in all the prisons he had been in he had never seen a Governor delegate as much power to a Chief Warder as that afforded to Hardy. Denny then listed the numerous floggings that he had received and in his opinion some were deserved but many for no reason at all. On several occasions the magistrate warned Denny to be very careful as to what he was saying. To this Denny replied that there was no way he was to undergo penal servitude again and he was determined to speak his mind. Rather rashly Denny then went on to explain what he had intended to do once he got inside the prison. Firstly he would set fire to the building thus giving the prisoners the opportunity to ‘escape from hell’ and then lie in wait for Chief Warder Hardy and stab him to death once he had found him. He then added that he had been treated worse than a dog and ever since his release the desire for pay-back was always with him. By this time he was in full flow and continued to say how he had no regard for the law and that he would have no peace of mind until Hardy was in his grave. Adding that he would mount the gallows with a contented mind if he could dispatch Hardy before he went. Finally he pointed out that if ever there was a hell then Dartmoor was that hell and this was all the Governor’s fault as he never looked into matters properly. The trial ended with Denny being committed for trial at the assizes. As Denny left the courtroom he looked directly at Chief Warder Hardy and vehemently hissed at him saying “I shall remember you.”

Following the trial Denny was then taken to Exeter Prison where he was kept until his Devon Assizes trial which was held on the 2nd of December 1891. Whilst at Exeter Prison Denny he confessed to having previously murdered a woman in hull and in addition that he had been suspected of the outrages that had taken place in the East of London. This remark alluded to the Whitechapel Murders committed by ‘Jack the Ripper’. Immediately these comments were reported to the County Police and the Home Secretary but no evidence was ever found to link him with the Whitechapel Murders. However, due to his strange demeanour whilst at Exeter Prison the prison officials were convinced he was hiding a dark secret relating to some horrific crime. His trial was held at Exeter Castle before Judge Grantham. When presented with the convictions the court held against him he denied them all saying that he had been mistaken for his brother. At one point Chief Warder Hardy was called to give evidence throughout which Denny barged in complaining of his treatment under Hardy. The Chief Warder explained how he nothing to do with Denny’s treatment as his duties were merely to ensure reports were logged and that he was never involved in adjudications. Next an instance of Denny being handcuffed and left in the cold whilst on a work party came up. Hardy noted that should any prisoner refuse to  work then they were cuffed but were free to walk about and this was not just a punishment for Denny. When it came to Denny’s turn to address the court he broke down in tears. He confessed that he had harboured a grudge toward Hardy but at the time he was ‘in a passion’ and now he was begging for mercy as he was a coloured man far from his distant homeland. Judge Grantham was not swayed by the pathetic pleas and sentenced Denny to twelve months hard labour.

From Dartmoor Denny was removed to Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum and once released on a ticket of leave he ended up in Southampton. It was not long before he was once again before a police court in the December of 1891. This time he had been charged with stealing a coat belonging to John Eldridge which was worth nineteen shillings from the Sailor’s Home. It was reported at the time that he was ‘very respectfully dressed’ for the occasion but nevertheless this did not stop Denny presenting the court with an hour and a half’s tirade on the  horrors of penal servitude. Mostly this involved recounting his treatment whilst at Dartmoor Prison. He also stated that; “a grave would be better for me now and you won’t get me back to Broadmoor Criminal Asylum, you will get my dead body first.” Towards the end of his statement Denny’s attitude became more compliant had he stated that the reason fro his previous convictions was due to heavy consumption of alcohol and that now he just wanted to go back to his native country. He also added that since his spell in Broadmoor he had changed his attitude towards Chief Warder Hardy and that he would leave ea ‘higher power’ to take vengeance upon him. Needless to say all this had very little effect on the magistrates and he was sent for trail at the next assizes.  On hearing this verdict Denny became violent and a struggle ensued in getting him back to the cells. He was then placed under watch as it was thought he may try to commit suicide. There was yet another struggle when guards attempted to place him in handcuffs in order to transport him from Winchester Prison. In the end Denny ended up with nine month’s prison sentence which was to be followed by a five year supervision order which meant he had always to report his whereabouts to the police. In 1895 it was discovered that a theatrical show called ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ was appearing in Bishop Auckland and they were employing a coloured man by the name of Joseph Hedley Denny. Once again in the October of that year he was before the courts, this time on the charge of stealing and wearing apparel from the house where he was lodging. Following a search of his room the police found stashed in a box; a fur tippet, a silk handkerchief, a woollen shirt, woollen linings, a muffler, woollen gloves, cuffs, a hairbrush and a hat brush all valued at £2. 5s. All of the items were stolen from various rooms in the lodging house His excuse was that he wanted to give the theatrical company a’good show up’ as they only paid him 12s a week. His main concern was what effect those charges would have on his supervision order to this question he soon found the answer – a further six months imprisonment. What happened to Denny after that is a mystery, one suggestion was that he died in some prison?

James, T. 2006. Over the Wall and Away. Chudleigh: Orchard Publications.

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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