“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again,” this could well be a motto of one John Michael Gasken, a prisoner serving time at Dartmoor Prison. In the February of 1931, he along with another prisoner, John Mullens effected an escape from the prison. Both remained at large for three days when they were recaptured and sent back to Dartmoor. After being caught Gasken’s final comment was, “I will never try it again, I did not know what Dartmoor was like.” Well, he either had a short memory or he really didn’t like Dartmoor Prison because on the 16th of November 1932 he ‘did one again’.
As quite often Princetown was enveloped in one of the infamous Dartmoor mists which over the years has been an open invitation for prisoners to attempt escapes. At 3.00pm Gasken along with a new accomplice, prisoner Frederick Amey took advantage of the lack of visibility to make their bid for freedom. Gasken’s description was of a man five foot five inches tall with brown hair and blue eyes along with a mole on his cheek and three more on his neck. He also had a scar on the back of his right finger. Amey was a 42 year old man from London living in an address what was renown as a “common or garden nest of criminals,” in Tottenham Court Road. A plasterer by trade and was serving a three year sentence for housebreaking and receiving stolen goods. He was described as being five foot five in height with brown hair and blue eyes. He had a scar on the left side of his face with another on his chin and with tattoos on each arm.
On the day in question the men were working on a roof of one of the prison halls when suddenly a ladder was placed against one of the outer walls and the two men scrambled up it, leapt off and headed off in the direction of Tor Royal Plantation. As per norm, as soon as an escape was discovered the alarm bells were sounded and search parties of warders sent out in pursuit. On this occasion a party of plain-clothed officers were dispatched by charabanc to the prison take over the warder’s duties. Initially the various search parties concentrated on the surrounding prison fields and woods plus the nearby American cemetery. The prison hounds were also utilised in the hope they could pick up a scent trail, sadly they were unsuccessful in their endeavour so it was decided to abandon this stage of the search. Meanwhile police officers were summonsed from Tavistock, Lydford, Plympton, Newton Abbot, Bovey Tracy, Totnes and Moretonhampstead. It was then decided to search on the north side of the prison with the help of two bloodhounds. Hopes were raised when the two dogs pelted off in the direction of Two Bridges on what appeared to be a scent trail but after a couple of hundred yards they gave up the chase. After several more attempts it was decided to call off the search of the immediate area due to the thick mist and the fast diminishing daylight. meanwhile police officers (some armed with revolvers) were dispatched to set up road blocks and to stand watch at other prominent points around the moor. Other prison warders in cars and on motorcycles were sent out to the outlying villages and hamlets. As the night drew in there was a dramatic drop in temperature accompanied by an ever strengthening wind all of which would have made for a very uncomfortable night for the escapees.
Throughout the night the search parties kept their vigils and come daybreak concentration focused on further parts of the Moor. Several reports began filtering through, one said the men had been spotted around Moretonhampstead, heading in the direction of Whiddon Down another said they had been recaptured in Exeter. Later that day it was suggested that two men fitting the descriptions had been seen near Bridstowe station along with other supposed sightings near Hexworthy. It was thought that more credence must be given to the Hexworthy reports which was further supported by the fact that the bloodhounds were following a scent trail. This direction took the searchers over some of the moor wilder parts of the moor where the bogs presented sticky problems. It was also reported that these quaking mires needed to be inspected just in case the escapees had fallen into one.
On Saturday the 16th of November all attention was focused on the railway station at Horrabridge because a break-in at the railway station had been reported. A crowbar was discovered and signs that unsuccessful attempts had been made to force an entry into the station building. Seemingly these attempts having been thwarted a window was smashed and entry gained. The burglars then had stolen four porters overcoats, oilskins and a porter’s cap along with bars of chocolate and coins which had been taken from a smashed vending machine. It was assumed at the time that this was the work of Gasken and Amey. Once more the trusty bloodhounds were enlisted (one of them named Smuggler was in fact blind) and they soon picked up a scent trail leading towards the river. Further confirmation that the searchers were on the right track came in the form of boot marks which carried the impression of the prison broad arrow in them. After five miles the hounds came to a hedge and abruptly lost the trail but being near a crossroads it was assumed the men were heading for Plymouth. By then both men and hounds were exhausted so they all returned to the station for a well-earned rest despite the fact that valuable time was being lost. Meanwhile a car was sent to Dartmoor Prison to collect more of the prisoner’s clothing in order for the hounds to have a stronger scent. Once the clothing had arrived the hounds were sent off again and it didn’t take long for them to find a trail. Then an overcoat was found and as it was bone dry it was deduced it had been discarded by one of the escapees a theory reinforced by the discovery of discarded chocolate wrappers identical to those stolen from the railway station. Smuggler was now on a definite line and he led the search towards Denham Bridge and along a cattle track towards the River Walkham. He then went through a thick covering a bracken which showed signs of having been beaten down, excitement was mounting as he charged off up a hill when sadly it seemed he was only after a flock of nearby sheep. Then all hope was lost and as a mist was descending and darkness creeping in the decision to call it a day was made with all and sundry returning to Horrabridge. The conclusion of the day was that Gasken and Amey had holed up somewhere in the woods around the river Walkham. For the next two days intensive searches continued with reported sightings coming from all over Dartmoor and Devonshire surrounds all to no effect.
On Tuesday the 22nd of November a report of a burglary came in and involved a large house at Forditon near to Crediton which was close to the main Southern Railway line. At 4.30 am. intruders were disturbed by the barking of the household dogs and made a hasty retreat. However, they had managed to steal some cigarettes, tobacco, two or three pipes, a fleece lined raincoat, two bottles of stout, some apples and three shillings in silver. In their hurry to escape the burglars left a Great Western Railway porter’s cap which clearly pointed to Gasken and Amey. Later that same day two men were seen entering Oldridge Wood which is located between Crediton and Tedburn St. Mary. Straight away a contingent of some 100 police officers were sent to the area who then began their search. Then a farm labourer reported that as he was leading a horse and cart down a nearby road he saw two men who appeared, “haggard and worn,” and although unsure as to who they were they did match the description of Gasken and Amey. Once more extra police were brought in and road blocks set up along with policemen being placed to watch strategic points in the vicinity. A separate plan of attack had been implemented which involved searching the outlying areas of Exeter which included the railway line around Pyne’s Bridge and New Bridge which was between Exeter and Crediton. Just as it was getting dark two police officers were walking along the track when they spotted two men ahead of them. On seeing the policemen these men immediately jumped over a hedge, dropped ten feet into a field and made off with the policemen hot in pursuit. After a frantic chase Gasken and Amey were soon apprehended when Amey was heard to have said that at one time one of the bloodhounds had been within ten yards of them. He also commented that a terrier dog used in the search had come up to him and in order to keep it quiet he stroked it. Having been recaptured Gasken and Amey were taken back to Exeter police station from where they were the transferred back to Dartmoor Prison the next day.
Some later details and incidents were reported such as when were making their way to Horrabridge they came across a swollen river with just a flimsy bridge across it. Gasken went first and on reaching the other bank turned around just in time to see Amey fall into the water. Without hesitation he went to the rescue and managed to haul him safely out of the raging torrent. It was after a a brief rest that they carried onto to Horrabridge Station. Fortified with chocolate they headed off towards Okehampton where on the way they ate mangolds and turnips which were growing in the fields en-route. At Okehampton they began to follow the railway line on which in one track-side hut they stole leggings and in another managed to light a fire and dry off their sodden clothing. As they neared Crediton they unexpectedly bumped into a signalman who asked what they were doing. Having said they were tramps the unsuspecting man then advised them to be careful as there were a lot of police in the area. As this was Gasken’s third escape from a British prison and on each occasion he made for railway lines the police were fully expecting the two escapees to make for one which proved top be a correct theory.
The final chapter in this saga involved Amey who having been returned to Dartmoor prison along with Gasken were placed in solitary confinement with a diet of bread and water before their trial for escaping was heard. Amey took exception to this and on several occasions demanded to see the prison Governor. Eventually Major Pannall agreed to see him and accompanied by several warders visited his cell. Somehow during the visit Amey manged to push past the warders and punched the major in the face, such was the force of the blow that it knocked the Governor off his feet and he fell backwards hitting his head against the wall. Somehow shortly after this incident Amey managed to convince the prison doctor that he was suffering from the effects of the cold sustained whilst on the run and so was transferred to the prison hospital. On the 10th of December Amey’s wife travelled down from London to visit her husband as she was concerned about his health. During her visit Amey related the details of his adventure but also commented that the reason he had attacked the governor was not only for being punished before his trial but the fact that the warders had removed his bed during the day time despite the fact he was suffering from exhaustion and exposure to the cold. He also claimed he had a head wound but would not say how he had received it, probably with the tussle after attacking Maj. Pannall.