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The Lag and the Gypsies

It is reputed that Charles Ross was one a the very few Dartmoor prisoners who ever managed to escape and get completely away from penal servitude at the prison. In the mid 1800s Charles Ross, a landowner, was sentenced to serve seven years in Dartmoor Prison for robbery with violence. As he was never recaptured it was the prison authorities belief that he died somewhere on the moor leaving his bones at the bottom of a bog. However, on Sunday the 12th of September 1897 Reynolds’s Newspaper published an account of his daring escape as told by Charles Ross himself. So in his own words this is how he effected his bid for freedom which in itself was an amazing adventure.

“When I was received into Dartmoor, after doing nine months of cellular confinement in a London prison, I was put to work in the quarry. (Herne Hole). The granite quarry is situated close to the farm and about ten minute’s walk from the prison gates. You must understand that my determination to escape from penal servitude came to mind directly I knew that the Moor was to be the public works prison in which I was to work out my sentence, for it is easier to get away from the gangs in Princetown than it is at Portland, Chatham, or Portsmouth.
After working at ‘jumping’ in the quarry for a  week or two, I perceived that the quarry parties were too closely guarded to favour a man getting away, so I bothered the Governor and Mr. Courtman the Chief Warder till they shifted me out of the quarry and put me on the bogs. The bog parties pass out of the prison by a side gate to the cemetery (walled enclosures in which the French and American prisoners of war who died in Dartmoor Prison in 1814 are interred) and march across the Exeter high road and on to the bog land, where work of reclamation is located. As this work advances the bog gangs have to march further afield, but in my day we convicts worked close to the road.
It was no easy task to make myself acquainted with the topography of the ‘forestry,’ as Devonshire people call the moorland, but I mastered it gradually by chatting whenever I could with South Devon men – both warders and convicts. Yes; the officers very often would talk with you, though the rules that press on them are almost as cruel and ridiculous as those governing the conduct of the prisoners.
Well, bit by bit, I got to learn the names and positions of the tors, and I fixed in my mind’s eye the respective positions of Horrabridge, Ivybridge, Okehampton, Tavistock, Plymouth, and the moorland hamlets in between. Every night I drew a chart on my slate, and endeavoured to make it better and more complete day by day.
As a rule the convict bogmen are kept within the prison walls in foggy weather; but very often the mist rolls over whilst the lags are on the works, and in a trice the country all around is enveloped in a greyish kind of vapour that hides everything from view. Believe me, a Dartmoor fog can be just as gloomy and dark as a London November blend of smoke and sleet; and sometimes the mist, cold, and damp are enough to chill the half-starved convict to the bone, will hang over the prison for a week at a stretch, and make the prisoners’ existence doubly depressing.  However, if a man gets away while one of these  continuous fogs is about he can almost defy pursuit while in the wild.
The decisive moment came about three months after my shift from the quarry party. On this eventful day a north westerly wind blew over a dense white fog and the principal warder blew his whistle. The others in charge then ordered their men to ‘fall in’ and the convicts at once dropped their spades, sledges and jumpers, and drew up in double files having the warders in front and the civil guards at each flank. I noticed that the guards closed in and loaded their rifles, consequently, I there and then realised that death and a felon’s grave instead of life and freedom might be the result of a dash out.  My heart thumped against my chest like a sledgehammer as I furtively looked about me  and calculated my chances, while poor Jack, who was at the other end of the rank kept his eyes on me, I believe poor Jack was more concerned with my life than I was myself.
Fortune favoured me, for, luck would have it a mad devil of a convict in the party next to ours seized the opportunity to make a desperate attack on his warder, and taking advantage of the confusion that ensued, I sprang out of the ranks and dashed into the fog. Bang, bang, bang. One after another the rifles raised the alarm, and several bullets whistled past my ears as I Pressed forward with all my might, but,  fortunately not one of these leaden pills found a billet in any part of my body. I passed one of the guards at close quarters and heard him peremptorily  order me to stop, and it was a mercy that this officer did not succeed in shooting me down, but, as I say, fortune favoured me, and I was enabled to get away from the works uninjured.
All that day I wandered about the wilderness and when night set in I sank down exhausted under the lee of a huge boulder and endeavoured to get a spell of rest. My condition by this time had become extremely dilapidated and wretched – my feet were bruised and swollen through stumbling around the stones and my face and hands fearfully cut and lacerated. The wind had veered round to the east so the cold became terrible, and to add to my discomfiture I heard distant sounds of men’s voices and surmised that the Dartmoor men were out on the man-hunt. As the night advanced those sounds ceased and I dozed off.
As the sunlight gradually dispelled the mists I perceived that I stood at the foot of a  steep and mountain-like tor, the morass all around was littered with thousands and thousands of boulders that had rattled down from the heights above, and I assure you that the scene was wild and desperate enough to make me shudder. No one can imagine that there is in England such a savage and gloomy country till Dartmoor has been traversed where I crossed it.

About two o’ clock I struck the Tavistock road and cautiously looked about me. The road towards Tavistock – yes, I had got within a mile and a half of the town – ran up to a brow, and just below the bend I observed a hawker’s basket van drawn up by the wayside. An old gypsy man, and a handsome dark-eyed young woman were watering the horse from a rivulet, and seeing they were alone I went boldly up to them. The old man after looking me up and down curiously brandished his whip and yelled out in dismay, “Gracious Naomi, here’s the lag the prison people is a looking fur. Look ‘ere my lad, off yer bunks as quick as yer likes. I an’ my gal don’t want ter get inter trouble fur the likes ov you.” “Gently master – gently,” I responded, quietly, and seeing that the man was too scared to listen to me, I turned to the girl and spoke in Kaulo jib – my mother was a gypsy woman you must know. Naomi was a true-born Romany chorl and acting under the belief that I too was a jacho rom, she seemed inclined in my favour. In fact the handsome hawker was deeply moved when, with all the eloquence that is born of desperation, I pictured what would happen  if I were retaken and escorted back to the prison. A convict who attempts to escape from a British Siberia is treated with merciless vigour, for our prison officials prefer to see a man tamely and slavishly submit to his fate rather than show the spirit and pluck that should animate a man’s heart be it good or bad. The dread punishment an escapee incurs is inclusive of twenty one days penal class cellular confinement, a dozen or two strokes with the cat, and the ‘yellow dress and slangs’, that is, an hideous part-coloured garb and fetters riveted onto the ankles. Naomi gravely heard what I had to say then, and without a moment’s hesitation, she spoke to her father, and almost commanded him to extend a helping hand to a distressed fellow rom.
The old man after reluctantly consenting to aid me in getting off the moorland, entered into the fun of the thing with all his heart. First of all he took me into his van and gave me an entire rig out; and when I had stripped off my convicts clothes Naomi took and hid them beneath a boulder. One of the things given to me by Old Rube was a skin cap with lappets that served admirably to hide my closely cropped hair. Further the old fellow artfully stained my face and hands with a preparation of walnut juice. I am naturally dark, as you can see, but after Old Rube’s manipulations, I looked as black as an Indian.
“There my lad,” the gypsy remarked approvingly after completing my disguise, “yer own muvver wouldn’t know yer now. Look ‘ere, I was going on to Princetown, but perhaps we’d better go back to Tavistock.” “Nat dad,” I replied, “that would raise suspicion. No, keep on the road just as you would have done had I not come across you. No, you needn’t conceal me in the van, in this sort of thing boldness  and audacity make a better chance for a cove. Look ‘ere, I and your daughter will foot it at the horse’s head. If anyone stops me the gal can do the palaver.” “But man alive, we shall have to go  right by the prison gates.” “So much the better, dad, Bless your heart, it’ll take the dary off; for no one would suspect a convict on leg-bail would run in that direction.” “Wheugh,” Old Rube exclaimed admiringly; “but yer’s a plucked one, matey, an’ no bloomin’ error about it. All right, we’ll get on ahead.”
We were soon on the road – I and Naomi in front and Old Rube in the rear. We had not gone far before we encountered two warders on horseback. My heart beat like a wild fire when the officers stopped us and inquired whether we had observed a convict lurking about. The gypsy lass coolly replied in the negative, and the ‘screws’ passed on. We met with several other men who were on the man-hunt, but no one delayed our progress, and my hope and confidence gained strength as we turned off the high road and passed the prison quarry. A civil guard stood in front of the entrance to the prison, and as we passed he civilly wished us a “good day.” I could not refrain from glancing at the dark grey and time-worn stones above the gateway, inscribed as they are with the noble old Latin words Parcere subjectis (spare the vanquished). These words, you know were cut into the granite by French soldiers who possibly little dreamed that, in after years, the inscription would hearten many a poor devil of a convict up in Dartmoor.
The gypsies began hawking at the chief warder’s, the first house on the right after passing the prison, and they did a fair amount of business as I led the horse slowly through the village. I had warned my friends not to hurry at all, and, as we proceeded towards the Duchy Hotel very leisurely, I endured a slow torture for I was dreadfully afraid that some of the warders off duty would recognise me. Fortune, however, favoured me right to the end, and late that very night we got safely into Plymouth.
At Plymouth I bade my Romany friends adieu, but not before we had arranged when and where we could meet again. I then worked my way onto Bath and Bristol, and finally found a home and friends in Wales, where, nine months after my escape from Dartmoor, I renewed my acquaintance with the gypsy lass to whom in all probability I owed my freedom. Soon after our happy reunion I and Naomi were married in a quaint little country church not 100 miles from Monmouth.”

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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