Night of the Nefarious Navvies – It was the Boxing Day of 1882, Princetown was cloaked in mist along with one of those miserable rains that soaks everyone to the skin. Just as it is to day, what do you do on such a dank and miserable day? – take the opportunity of enjoying the hospitality offered by one of the local hostelries. So 138 years ago, as it was a holiday, many of the navvies working on the construction of the Princetown railway took to the inns and bars. The chain of events that then followed demonstrates the bravery of both the policemen of the time and indeed several of the prison warders and the general disregard of the law.
On December 26th – over the course of the day the numbers of navvies grew and large crowds became ensconced it the various hostelries of Princetown. By that evening, fuelled with beer and cider, they turned into an unruly mob creating havoc and by eight o’clock in the evening things were getting out of control. The heavy weight of burden rested on the shoulders of P.C. Vanstone to bring the rabble to some sort of order. Unfortunately he was unable to talk any sense into the drunken mob and decided to arrest one of the ring-leaders – big mistake! Almost immediately he was set upon by several navvies all raining blows down on him. Fortunately a couple of prison warders came to his aid but they too were also attacked in the melee but after a mighty struggle they did finally manage to apprehend the ring leader. Now get this, his name or rather nickname was – ‘Sore-Eyed Cuckoo’! – I don’t think even Dickens could come up with such a villainous name for one of his novels. Anyway he was marched off to the Princetown lock-up where he spent the rest of the night. By this time information of the affair had reached Tavistock police station and a small force of policemen was dispatched to Princetown to ensure there was no more riotous behaviour.
Later the following day a Sergeant Richards and a P.C. Simpson along with a driver were detailed to escort ‘Sore-Eyed Cuckoo’ back to Tavistock in a trap. Before long it was decided to send P.C. Simpson back to Princetown because it was considered that as the prisoner was in handcuffs he would not be needed, so Simpson got out of the conveyance and began to walk back towards Princetown. It might be worth pointing out that the thick mist was still hanging over the moor, cutting visibility down to tens of feet. So here they are plodding along at a gentle trot when they reached between the Red Cottages at Foggintor and Merrivale when a gang of around twenty navvies burst forth from the fog, all armed with heavy sticks and clubs. Immediately the sergeant was knocked down before he had a chance of drawing his staff and the driver was ejected from the trap something akin to the ‘daring young man on the flying trapeze’. Having rendered the sergeant senseless and the driver lying on the roadside the posse then made off with ‘sore-eyed cuckoo’ still wearing his handcuffs. By this time blood was gushing from a deep wound on Richard’s temple and so the driver rushed back to the prison hospital where he was stitched up and ordered to stay overnight for observation.
As luck would have it the Superintendent from Tavistock police station was still at Princetown and he immediately had a fair idea where the culprits had gone and so sent out scouts to track them down. Meanwhile reinforcements were called and once it was deemed they had sufficient numbers they set out to the navvies quarters to make arrests. At 11.00 pm. they stormed the quarters and managed to arrest eight men, amongst them was a notorious fellow and poacher named Jethro Norrish who was charged with aiding and abetting the escape of a prisoner and attacking a police sergeant. The other seven men were charged with taking part in the riotous assembly at Princetown the following evening. However, it was considered that there was not enough evidence to charge two of the seven men and they were released.
Bearing in mind what had happened the first time a prisoner was conveyed from Princetown, Superintendent Mitchell was faced with the problem of not escorting one prisoner but six. This time the men were loaded up into two conveyances which left Princetown under cover of darkness at 11.00 pm. The police were offered the service of extra escorts in the form of a number of prison warders. It was suspected that if there was to be another rescue attempt of the prisoners it would take place around Merrivale, but as the convoy approached the spot many of the warders decided discretion was the better form of valour and slowly one by one they buggered off leaving just three brave warders. Fortunately there was no attempt to free the prisoners and on the following morning they were brought before the Portreeve, Mr. J. J. Daw (hope his first name was not ‘Jack’) where the Superintendent requested that they all be held on remand to allow more evidence to be collected, the request was duly granted.
On Friday January the 5th – six defendants appeared at Tavistock Police Court presided over by the Rev. R Gill (the Chairman), Mr. R.B.E. Gill and J. J. Daw the Portreeve. Immediately it was stated that PC. Vanstone was still recovering from his wounds inflicted in the melee Boxing Day night and was unable to attend. The first witness was sergeant Richards who related the story of the event, this time adding that he could identify one of the assailants was a man called William Manley who was stood in the very box infront of him. Manley immediately yelled out; “No sir, not me; I can bring evidence to prove I was not there.” Richards simply repeated his allegation. The other prisoners were then told to stand up, they were; George Knight, William Vinnicombe, William Ellis, William Ford, and Jethro Norrish.
The next person to give evidence was Robert Rutherford who was the instructor of stone cutters at Dartmoor Prison. He stated that although he had not witnessed the attack on P.C. Vanstone but he had seen warder apprehend ‘sore-eyed cuckoo’. He also remarked that P.C. Vanstone had looked in a room at the Railway Hotel and that after he had left five navvies followed him outside where later Rutherford heard that he had been attacked. Rutherford also identified William Ford as also being at the seen. Finally he intimated that he had also heard that; “a good deal of shaving and changing clothes that afternoon.” – make of that what you will.
Warder Williams was next on the stand, he said that between 7.00 and 8.00 pm. P.C. Vanstone and Chief Warder Maltby called at his house and stated that Vanstone had been assaulted. All three went to the Prince of Wales Hotel where Vanstone and Maltby went in to find the assailants. Vanstone then reappeared and confirmed that the men were inside, but no sooner had he said that than six navvies charged out of the hotel. Vanstone then placed his hand on one of the men and confirmed that it was he who had attacked him. Immediately the rest of the navvies began attacking Vanstone but Williams managed to keep hold of the prisoner. He too was then attacked receiving several punches to the face and blows from clubs to his arms at which time another navvy was pelting stones at both him and Vanstone. Williams dashed back into the Prince of Wales Hotel for protection but no sooner had he entered that the landlord and his son yelled out to let him go, another scuffle then ensued and Williams said that Tooker the landlord’s son had also punched him. At this point Williams yelled to Mr. Rutherford that Vanstone was being attacked and he immediately went to his assistance. Meanwhile Williams and Simpson managed to get ‘Sore-Eyed Cuckoo’ back to the lockup. He then went back to help Vanstone who along with the battering also had his nose nearly bitten off. Finally with more help Williams then went to Knight’s lodging house where the rest of the assailants were playing cards that is apart from Vinnicombe who had retired to bed nursing a black-eye. The Superintendent then requested that all of the prisoners be remanded in custody with the exception of George Knight who Vanstone was not prepared to identify and he was released. The Superintendent also stated that a Joshua Norrish and a Thomas Sanders had also been arrested for the attack on sergeant Williams but he too was also unable to confirm their identity. Also one Thomas Sanders had also be apprehended for the attack on Williams but he stated he had been at Lydford at the time, this later proved false but even so it was decided to discharge him as well.
On Monday the 8th of January – the same bench sat again. This time there were twelve men in custody one of which was ‘Sore-Eyed Cuckoo’ who had been arrested at Truro the following Friday. By this time there was a great local interest in the case and the courtroom was rammed to the rafters. It was decided to bring the prisoners up in two batches, the first batch charged with the assault on Sergeant Richards, resisting the police in the execution of their duty and rescuing a prisoner. He also said that although the seven men intended to plead guilty but maybe the bench would like to hear some evidence. He began by naming the prisoners, Charles Dickens take note, they were; John Dooling alias ‘Cuckoo Young Bird’, George Evans alias ‘Jimmy’, William Burridge alias ‘Ginger’, Richard Pook alias ‘Dicket’ or ‘Dickey’, John Taylor alias ‘Squint’, George Smith alias ‘Killaway’ and William Deane alias ‘Shoemaker Jim’.
Once again Sergeant Williams repeated his evidence and even produced his battered helmet as proof of his vicious assault. This first batch of prisoners were then taken away and the second contingency brought forth. These included; William Pedlar, alias ‘Sore-Eyed Cuckoo’, William Manley, William Vinnecombe, William Ellis, and William Ford, George Evans was also added to group having also appeared in the first batch. All were charged with having assaulted PC. Vanstone whilst in the execution of his duty and the 26th of December, all pleaded not guilty. Evidence was then provided by PC. Vanstone, the prison warders, Superintendent Mitchell, and the Prison Doctor, all virtually repeating what they had said before. George Knight, the owner of the boarding house gave his version of events saying that he, Vinnicombe, Ford, Manley, Ellis and his wife all went to the Albert Inn where they all left at about eight thirty, he and his wife returning home whilst his lodgers went to The Railway Hotel. Knight’s wife then gave her evidence which contradicted some of what her husband had previously stated.
Next up was Rebecca Parnell who swore she was outside the Prince of Wales public house when the fight took place. She saw Vanstone hit Pedlar across the head and heard him say; “you are killing me!” Then a gang of navvies went to Pedlar’s rescue but she stated that Vinnicombe, Ford, Manley, Ellis were not present during the attack, she then named some navvies that were involved.
Having heard all the evidence the Magistrates retired to consider their verdicts. On their return basically said that they were unsure whether or not to send the men for trial at Exeter where they possibly would receive severe punishments. So, hoping that this experience would make the navvies change their ways it was decided to sentence them there and then. For biting PC. Vanstone’s nose Evan was sentenced to three months imprisonment with hard labour and a further three months for attacking Sergeant Williams. Dooling got four months for his assault on the Sergeant, Burridge three months for the same offence. Pook, Taylor, Dean, Ellis, Ford and Smith received two months each. ‘Sore-Eyed Cuckoo’, as he was the main cause of the events was sent down for four months with hard labour, and Manley and Vinnicombe were discharged due to lack of sufficient evidence. William Tooker, the landlord’s son was fined £2 and costs. At a later hearing William Richards, alias ‘Saucy Jim’ was charged the assault on Sergeant Richards and was sentenced to two month imprisonment. At another hearing Edward Murring, alias ‘Curley Burley’ was also tried insomuch as as it was allegedly he that had grabbed the horse when Sergeant Williams was attacked. Due to conflicting evidence he was discharged.
Finally I bet you are dying to know how ‘sore-eyed cuckoo’ got his name – quite simple really – apparently he always had sore eyes and just to finish the mind’s eye impression of this rough navvy he also wore earrings.