Following the cessation of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 many ex-servicemen found themselves homeless, out of work and penniless with no option but to tramp the country looking for employment, sleeping rough and begging. So great were the number of tramps and beggars that in 1824 the Vagrancy Act was passed which made it a criminal offence to be found begging or be sleeping rough. Anyone caught doing so usually ended up doing time with hard labour in one of the country’s infamous jails.
Whilst on the subject of infamous jails there was probably one of the most feared to be found at Princetown – namely Dartmoor Prison. I suppose quite understandably, so dire were the conditions that many of the convicts made escape attempts, most of which ended up with them being recaptured and handed a harsh punishment for their troubles. When a convict was at large in the bleak wastes of the moor every attempt was made to find him and return him back to prison. In order to achieve this huge man hunts would be mounted with warders, policemen and local moormen scouring over stream and tor. Should any moor-dweller successfully recapture an escapee he could claim a reward from the prison authority, such a person in prison parlance was know as a ‘Bog Trotters’
Ruben Jordan and Jeremiah Lidstone were both ex fusiliers and following the end of the French Wars found themselves homeless and out of work. Their only recourse was to tramp the highways and byways of England seeking employment or failing that begging in the towns and villages. These two ‘Knights of the Road’ had made their way into Cornwall where unfortunately for them a local constable found them asleep in a hedgerow near a small village called Bodwannick. They were soon stood infront of the local magistrate charged with vagrancy and sentenced to one month’s imprisonment with hard labour at Bodmin Jail. Here they spent their time either picking oakum or pounding away on the treadmill with the occasional taste of the cat-o’-nine-tails for good measure. Eventually the day of their release came and both men agreed that they needed to put as much distance between themselves and the cursed county of Cornwall as possible.
They had taken it into their heads to make for Moretonhampstead as they had heard that their was a beggar’s camp on the outskirts of town where they would receive a warm welcome. As they trudged across the lanes of Devonshire they would ask whoever they met as to the directions of Moretonhampstead and in the main were met with shrugs of the shoulders. One day they met an old drover slowly urging his herd of Devon Reds along a dusty track. Surely he must know how to get to Moretonhampstead they thought – wrong. The best he could do was to direct them to Tavistock and seek advice there. Having finally reached Tavistock’s town square they once again began asking directions only to be met with glares of distain and disgust. In desperation they followed the old adage; “if you want directions just ask a constable,” and sure enough they soon spotted one outside the Pannier Market. Before they could utter a word the constable growled; “be you a beggin’, cawse if ee be I’ll zoon ‘ave ee in thik lockup.” They assured him they weren’t and to prove the point showed him a handful of coin which they had earned ditching on a nearby farm the day before. The constable snorted, “You a bin in the jug by the of yer poll,” referring to the prison crop of their hair, “Bin up tu zommat no gude I vancy, zo wha’ kin I do ee vor?” the constable asked with a frown like a crooked furrow across his forehead. They explained they just wanted to get to Moretonhampstead and could he give them directions? With another snort like an angry bull he stabbed a finger in the direction of the Moor and stomped off. Thinking it could be a while before the next semblance of civilisation was to be found they took the precaution of buying some bread and cheese for the journey.
After a knee-creaking slog up an endless hill they eventually walked out onto the open moor where they were greeted by huge flocks of curly wooled sheep. Before long the dusty road took them to a small inn nestled in a valley with an old bridge spanning a river. Maybe the inn-keeper could give them more precise directions to Moretonhampstead? Ruben plucked up the courage to enter the inn but no sooner had the old wooden door creaked open than he was met with a tirade of abuse and sent packing. Once again they set off along the dusty track in what they hoped would be the ‘Yellowbrick Road’ to Moretonhampstead. As they reached the crest of the hill the moorland flattened out and they spotted a small black carriage trotting towards them. As it approached nearer they began to flag it down then much to their alarm they spotted that the driver was dressed in a prison warders uniform and immediately stopped their waving and began to saunter along. Too late, the warder pulled the carriage to a stop, silently eyeing them suspiciously. Once again they asked if he knew the way to Moretonhampstead. “Jest keep a followin’ this roawd pass Princetun n’ ee’ll cum directly to un,” he said, and with that whipped on the black carriage. There was no way the pair were going within a mile of that dreaded place, they had heard some diabolical stories about it in Bodmin. So they decided the best course of action was to take to the moorland below Princetown and make their way to Moretonhampstead. It soon became clear they had made a good choice as no longer were they trudging along that dusty, pot-hole road, instead they were wandering among sweet fragrant heather.
Eventually they came across a man-made channel with crystal clear water lazily flowing along it, every now and again they saw trout darting in and out of the weeds. So peaceful was this spot the two men decided it would be an ideal spot for lunch. No sooner had they dug out their bread and cheese when five burly men suddenly pounced on them. “That be they,” shouted one of the ‘Bog Trotters’, “zee their air’ cut, that be they alright.” The next thing they knew the two men were flung violently to the ground as the scrum pounced upon them. In a flurry of excitement their hands were tied together with rope which smelled of acrid sheep’s piss. “Naw den you bliddy convicts, you’m a gawing back tu prison, zo ee be,” yelled a bull of a man who also smelt of sheep’s piss. The two ‘convicts’ were hauled to their feet and herded along a stony track back towards Princetown.
As the ‘Bog Trotters’ and their captives reached the outskirts of the town they met up with two warders and eager for their bounty the moormen paraded Ruben and Jeremiah triumphantly infront of them. With eager thoughts of the reward money and a right royal night in the ‘Plume’ in their heads the moormen looked expectantly at the warders. “Us ‘ave a got um sir, us got um vor ee,” said the man who clearly was the leader of the pack. “Oh no ee bain’t,” said a warder, “zeese bain’t the wans us be zearching vor.” The moormen looked stunned, “if um bain’t dey den who be dey?” spluttered a diminutive man. “Dun knaw,” said the other warder, ” but ee best let um gaw.” With than a warder undid the ropes and the two comrades quickly departed back down the track which they had just been hauled up.
Once again the two men were back on the open moor and had decided to get off it as quickly as possible before they met anymore ‘Bog Trotters’. Before long they came upon heaps of stones piled up and what seemed like rotting wooden structures. They soon realised these were the remains of some old mine workings such as they had seen when tramping across Cornwall. It was about this point when a sudden chill floated across the waste which was closely followed by rolling clouds of opaque mist. Before long they were enveloped in a dense shroud of a grey miasma which took the visibility down to a mere few feet. Ruben was just saying to Jeremiah that maybe they should hunker down until the fog lifted when there was a loud crack followed by a pitiful scream. Looking around to see what had happened Ruben was astounded to see that there was no sign of his mate anywhere. He took a few steps backwards and heard some muffled moans coming from deep down in the ground. Then he spotted a yawning hole and once again heard the sound of cursing coming from deep inside it. Even stranger was the fact that he could distinctly make out two voices emanating from the dark chasm. Carefully he laid himself down on the edge of what could only be an old mine shaft and peered in. There he saw Jeremiah laying on top of another body which seemed to be wearing the unmistakable stripes and broad arrow clothing of a convict.
Having safely extracted both men from their fusty old dungeon Ruben could plainly see that this escaped convict was in no fit shape. He clearly was exhausted, starving and cold so Ruben took off his old army great coat, dug out the remains of the bread and cheese and sat the poor wretch down on a nearby heather clump. Eagerly the convict gulped down the bread and cheese and wrapped the coat tighter around his shoulders. Joe Cross, for that was the convicts name, began to tell of his plight. He was working on a convict gang draining some bog land when a dense mist came down. He and another ‘lag’ took the opportunity to disappear and make a bid for freedom, the guards soon noticed their escape attempt and began firing volley after volley at them. Luckily Joe Cross managed to dodge the flying shots and made his way out onto the moor. Slowly shaking his head, the convict explained; “The minute the big bell of the prison rings, and the flag is hoisted to let everyone know a convict has escaped, there’s a score or two of them peat-cutters leave their work and are after the poor devils, the five quid being more’n they can earn in a couple of months.” He then gave a big sigh and put his head in his hands; ” We can’t get far in this fog but when it lifts you two may as well take me in and get the fiver rather than the Bog Trotters as I can’t last out here any longer.” With that he fell asleep. Ruben and Jeremiah quietly discussed what should they do. Both being old lags it went against their principles to turn the escapee in but on the other hand if he was saying he couldn’t make a decent bid for freedom then five pounds was a lot of money to them. As the mist was showing no signs of lifting and night was approaching fast the two old soldiers decided to batten down the hatches for the night and make their minds up with what to do with poor old Joe come daybreak. After a cold damp night spent out on the moor daybreak came and they soon saw that the question of the escaped convict and what to do with him had been answered – he had vanished into oblivion. In one way they were quite relieved as to turn in a fellow lag was just not done but that five pounds would have been more than welcome and bought a feast of bread and cheese.
What became of Joe Cross nobody knows, was he recaptured, did he make his bid for freedom or just perish somewhere on the unforgiving Moor? As to Ruben and Jeremiah they finally reached Moretonhampstead only to find there was no promised Shangri-La for tramps and so they carried on tramping the highways and byways of old England. However, no matter where they roamed the two made a conscious effort to steer clear of Dartmoor and the ‘Bog Trotters.”