On the 3rd of December 1939 two men escaped from Dartmoor Prison in what at the time was described as; “one of the most amazing dashes for liberty in the history of Dartmoor Prison.” It was also said that their means of escape; “made history.” There were numerous newspaper reports of the escape most of which slightly conflicted with each other. So here is what could be deemed as the consensus of opinion of the events.
The two men involved in the breakout were 38 year old Albert Beard and 32 year old Reginald Mead. Beard was a labourer by trade and was 1 year into serving a four year sentence for larceny. Mead, by profession a motor mechanic, was serving a four year stretch for shopbreaking.
The two men were occupying adjacent cells on the second floor of the main prison block. Some how they had managed to obtain a hacksaw and can of oil. They used the oil to deaden the sound of the hacksaw cutting through the bars of their windows. This was the part of their escape which apparently ‘made history’ as this was the first time anyone had managed to saw through the prison bars. At around 6.15 a.m. they then with the aid of a rope lowered themselves 25 feet to the ground and crept across the prison yard. This stage of the plan had been cleverly designed as it was an hour before daylight and the time when there was just a skeleton staff of night warders on duty. With the assistance of some’ conveniently’ placed planks they scaled the 25 ft. outer wall (or 20 ft. wall depending on which report) and made off across the moor in a north westerly direction.
Unfortunately for the two prisoners they were spotted and the alarm was quietly raised. I say quietly because the prison siren was not sounded as at the time it may have been confused with an air raid signal. However, it was estimated that over 100 warders along with a large police contingency aided by soldiers was soon mustered and sent out in pursuit of the men. Now, bear in mind that this was wintertime and the moorland conditions would have been grim to say the least. Also imagine being out on those bleak moor dressed only in thin prison garb, not a pleasant prospect! The first sightings of the escapees was at Redlake (either eastern or Western Redlake) from where it was suggested they made their way to Tavy Cleave. By this time they would have been cold, wet, hungry and totally despondent. So much so that the men ended up at Nattor Farm seeking refuge at around 1.00 p.m.. Again here there is some conflict with the reports. One states that a painter working at the farm recognised the men from the description which had been circulated. He then asked them if they were the two from the prison to which they replied that they were and wanted to give themselves up. Alternatively it was the housekeeper, Mrs. Amelia Land, they surrendered to who afterwards commented that; “I was not a bit afraid, they were just about done in. This is a lonely part of the moor, and we get used to strangers occasionally calling.” Beard and Mead were kindly given food and dry clothing whilst they awaited the arrival of the police and warders. As they were leaving one of the men said; “We are very much obliged for your hospitality; we feel very much better now.” With that they were marched off back down to the prison. If you look at a map and try to plot their route you will soon see that this was no mean fete. To me I would have gone up to Omen Beam, onto Cox Hill, pick up the Walkham Head peat track, head to the Redlakes, across Tavy Cleeve to Nattor Farm. All in all a route of 7.74 miles. In all probability these two man had no map nor any local knowledge so heaven knows where their wanderings took them? What you can be assured of it would have been no joyous occasion in the depths of December with no warm or waterproof clothing. All that hardship for a brief spell of around seven hours of freedom. As in virtually every escape that has been made from Dartmoor Prison this clearly demonstrates one of the reasons for siting the prison at Princetown – there is no easy way out.
Just a final aside, it was also reported that Beard was no coward when it came to evading capture. He once avoided arrest by slipping out of his coat and diving into a river. He was finally caught and sent to Walsall prison from which he also escaped.