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Headlamp Howler

In the October of 1939 Dartmoor Prison once again proved to be the inescapable establishment it was designed to be. In the following incident it was also the wartime restrictions that proved to be the final downfall of three escaped convicts.
The three ‘stars’ of this show had all previously served time in Dartmoor prison and presumably knew ‘a thing or two’ about the place. They were; Thomas Edwards a 40 year old baker by trade who was serving three years for warehouse breaking. He was described as being; “5 ft 6 inches, of proportionate build with a fresh complexion, brown hair and blue eyes.” Then came Charles Bishop, a 45 year old stoker who was serving three years for burglary. His appearance was; “5 ft 7 inches, of proportionate build with a fresh complexion and brown hair.” Finally bringing up the rear was one Arthur Cox a stevadore by profession was the youngest member of the cast at 37 years of age. He was serving a four year sentence for burglary. He was described as; “5 ft 9 inches with a fresh complexion, brown hair, blue eyes and clean shaven.” One could assume that as he was known among the warder as the ‘Dartmoor terror’ he was not a role model of a prisoner and was well acquainted with the ‘cat o’ nine tails’. At the time all three of these men were being usefully employed in the prison kitchen.

On Sunday the 15th of October the trio began their daily work in the kitchen at 6.30 am. About 20 minutes later it was noticed that they were nowhere to be seen. They had managed to escape through a toilet window in the kitchen building. Then as the prison was still shrouded in darkness they scurried over to the high prison wall, climbed over it and fled onto the moor. It was later discovered that the wall had been climbed with the aid of an improvised ladder. This had been fashioned by bolting two planks of wood together and adding inch-wide crosswood steps. An old sack and prison sock had also been used to get over the wall.
There can be no question that this escape had taken some very careful planning. Firstly, the improvised ladder had somehow been secretly built and then well hidden. Secondly, they obviously knew that one of the vital necessities needed for escaping over the bleak moor was food. As they were working in the kitchen the men managed to supply themselves with enough for a couple of days. Another vital part of their plan was that they knew only to well that being a Sunday there would only be a skeleton staff of warders. Finally being wartime it would have been common knowledge that the prison bell and siren would not be used when their escape had been noticed. This was due to the fact that these were only to be sounded in the event of an air raid. Clearly to do so would have alarmed the local folk of Princetown as well as the inmates. Therefore the only way of relaying the fact was by verbal communication.
Having gotten over the wall the trio then made their way across the prison gardens and out onto the open moor. Newspaper reports of the time stated that they then went; “along the edge of a stream which runs close to the road leading from Princetown to Two Bridges.” This ‘stream’ was in all probability the Devonport Leat. By this time search parties comprising of prison warders and members of the Devon Constabulary were sent out in all directions. Men combed the moor in all directions whilst others stopped cars along the main roads. Later on that morning the search party numbers were reinforced by members of the various local special constabularies. But search as they might no sign was found of the men. What was rather concerning was that near to Two Bridges a petrol can was found with about a pint of petrol in it. There was no sign of any morning dew on the drum which suggested it had not lain there very long. Even more worrying was that this find alluded to the fact that the escapees had received some outside assistance in their breakout. There were now two possibilities, either they had received some help and were long gone or because of their food supplies they were hold up somewhere waiting for things to die down.
Then a report from a householder living near to the Warren House inn reported that she had spotted in the distance three figures crossing the moor. Immediately search parties were dashed to the area to investigate the report. After several hours of carefully combing the area they finally came across the mysterious three figures who turned out to be two men and a woman out for a hike.
Another possible sighting then came from the Haytor area where three men had been spotted walking along the road near Bonehill Gate. It was reported that two men strolling along that road came across three men dressed in what was described a militiamens uniforms. Immediately the trio began walking in single file and on nearing the other men two of them leapt into the roadside bracken whilst the other kept walking forwards. Immediately the two passersby realised that these were the escaped convicts and once out of earshot dashed to Widecombe to report the sighting. Once again the search parties were hurried to the area but by this time darkness had descended accompanied by one of the infamous Dartmoor mists. As conducting a thorough search was out of the question men were positioned on all the available vantage points in the area. Another report was received from nearby Holwell Farm of their dogs barking. Immediately the police went to investigate but found nothing untoward.

From the Widecombe area the escaped trio made their way to Ashburton where they broke into a private garage and stole a car. It was then that all their carefully laid plans went to pieces. It was dark and the men clearly had no local knowledge of the moorland roads. They would have also known that speed was of the essence to evade capture. So they charged along the roads with the headlights on full beam. Being 1939 with its wartime blackout restrictions the sight of a speeding car with headlights ablaze soon alerted the police to their whereabouts. It did not take long for a posse of police cars to give chase and the hot pursuit ended near Bovey Tracey. Having been stopped the three men then decamped from the car and dashed into a nearby wood. The wood was immediately surrounded and at 1.30 a.m. the men were apprehended and taken to Newton Abbot police station for the rest of the night. The following day Bishop, Cox and Edwards were safely deposited back in Dartmoor prison.

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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