In 1853 Dartmoor was in the grip of a harsh winter, the snow lay thick with drifts several feet deep. At this time Dartmoor prison was used to house convicts who were guarded by a company of the 7th Regiment of Royal Fusiliers. The deep snows had cut off Princetown and the ice had frozen the prison leat which meant rations and water were in short supply.
On Saturday the 12th of February two privates from the fusiliers at Princetown had been discharged from the Royal Military Hospital at Devonport. Their names were George Driver and Patrick Carlin and they were at their barracks in St. George’s Square awaiting an escort to take them back to Princetown.
Later that day a Corporal Ramsden took them the first seven miles of the journey to Roborough where the party was met by Corporal Joseph Penton. He had struggled down the ten miles from Princetown through horrendous conditions to escort the two privates back. Penton was accompanied by another soldier called John Smith who was returning to Devonport so it was a kind of ‘pass the parcel’ detail. When they met the Devonport party both men described how they had encountered snow drifts that came up to their armpits. Smith then attempted to persuade Corporal Penton not to attempt the return journey but to wait until conditions improved. Penton was having none of it and is reported to have said that he would return to Princetown with the two privates because “duty is duty.”
So Penton, Driver and Carlin set off up towards the moor and eventually managed to reach the Dousland Barn Inn where they stopped for a rest. Once they had regained their strength the men decided to complete the journey and despite the landlord advising them to stay they set off once again into the cold and the snow. That was the last time the soldiers were seen alive.
The following day search parties were sent out to find the missing detail and they managed to work out the tragic journey from discarded kit and foot prints in the snow. It seems that the three men reached the top of Peek Hill where they were halted by a huge snow drift. After a struggle the men managed to get through that and journeyed on to Devil’s Bridge where they encountered and even bigger drift. At this point privates Driver and Carlin presumably decided to try and return to Dousland and made it back as far as the initial snow drift on Peek Hill. It was here that the search party found their frozen bodies at a spot called Double Waters. However there was no sign of Corporal Penton and it was clear from the tracks that he had not returned to Peek Hill.
The tragic route of the three soldiers
The next day the search was resumed to the east of the big drift at Devil’s Bridge and Corporal Penton’s body was found by Soldier’s Pond. Tragically he had managed to get within 200 yards of what was then the Duchy Hotel (now the National Park visitors centre) and for some reason could not manage that final distance to safety. It was thought that the young soldier had decided to carry on and obey his orders. Penton was only 20 years of age and recently married, private Carlin was 23 and private Driver 27.
Soldier’s Pond Letterbox
An inquest was held at the prison barracks on the 18th of February where a verdict of ‘Accidental Death’ was recorded for all three soldiers. Their funerals were held on the 20th of February where it is reported that they received full military honours. The men were buried in a communal grave in Princetown churchyard and ever since have been known as the ‘Three Valiant Soldiers’. Their grave is located at the back of St. Michael’s church and is marked with a slate memorial which as the photo shows is getting in a bad state of repair.
The incident was reported in The Times newspaper on the 15th of February 1853 as shown in the actual clipping below;