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Tales of Dartmoor Prison
Dartmoor Prison at Princetown had a reputation as being the most inhospitable place in which to serve time.

Dartmoor Prison was originally built at Princetown in Devon between 1806 and 1809 to house French captives during the Napoleonic Wars. During the War of 1812 many American prisoners were also confined there.

French and American officers were eligible for parole under a system which developed at this time. Under the terms of this system, those of higher rank were able to live within the community, in designated ‘parole towns’.

Between 1812 and 1816 about 1,500 American and French prisoners died in Dartmoor prison and were buried in a field beyond the prison walls.

The brutal mistreatment of American prisoners of war was investigated after the war by an Anglo-American commission, which awarded compensation to the families of those who had died there.

Conditions were even worse during the blizzard and soon trouble was brewing as inmates were repeatedly fed rations of salted meat. After a week in which no fresh provisions could be delivered by train, resentment and insubordination grew to such a fever pitch that a warder was attacked and stabbed in the neck by a convict. The governor reported the worrying situation to the Home Secretary who contacted the GWR requesting them to clear the line of snow as a matter of urgency.

Fifty workmen were despatched on a train accompanied by a snowplough but the work had to abandoned near Yelverton station when faced with a 200-yard long drift.

Next day eighty men set out and cut a path through the drift and made it as far as Dousland. Late in the evening of the third day of the operation, a special goods train with provisions from Plymouth finally made it to Princetown to alleviate the mood of the convicts.

The most thankful people to see the train service resumed were those prisoners due for release who had been forced to accept their situation as ‘boarders’ until conditions improved.

The GWR Plymouth to Princetown railway, was literally the end of the line for many offenders as humorously illustrated in this extract from The Lay of the Lagged Minstrel by An Old Dartmoor Lag, composed in 1907:

"Nine months slip by, one summer day, myself and others seven,
Handcufled and chained, we travel down for change of air to Devon.
And lest some female gay and fair, should tempt as on the rail
To stray from oirtue’s, narrow path, we go down by the mail".

Two convicts ensured the final leg of the journey was not completed on arrival at Plymouth on 28 January 1857. Under escort with a party of prisoners being transferred from the prison hulk Defiance to Dartmoor, they forced off their handcuffs and jumped from the train as it pulled up at the station and were never recaptured.

An amazing getaway from a moving train on the GWR line between Reading and Twyford occurred when a party of thirteen prisoners were being transferred from Dartmoor to Chatham Prison on Saturday 4 February 1860. Shortly after 4pm the train pulled away from Reading and was travelling at 30mph when two of the convicts, John Brown and Robert Bevill, slipped free of their shackles and blindly leapt through the window of the door in their compartment.

The Reading police were informed by telegraph from Slough Station and a search made of the woods and thickets between Reading and Maidenhead where the escapees successfully camouflaged themselves for the night by covering themselves with tree branches.

The next day they broke into a cottage at Woodley and stole some women’s hats, blouses and smock frocks, which they put on over their prison uniforms. Wearing this strange garb they strode into Reading town centre on Sunday night and immediately alerted the suspicions of a passer-by who summoned the police. Two inspectors approached the pair and when challenged Bevill immediately gave himself up but Brown swore he would not be taken and put up a violent struggle before being overpowered.

Next day in court, Brown laughed heartily when the police officer, sporting a black-eye received in the struggle to arrest him, described the prisoner’s bizarre disguise to the magistrates. The humour of the situation was not shared by the governor of Dartmoor Prison who took disciplinary action against two warders who had allowed the convicts to escape from their charge; an assistant-warder was dismissed from the service and a principal warder reduced in rank for negligence of duty.

A prison mutiny occurred at Wormwood Scrubs on Saturday 19 December 1891 when thirty inmates made a break during a chapel service. The ringleader was the only one to elude the warders and managed to cross the prison yard before being apprehended as he attempted to scale the outer wall. After Christmas the disorderly convicts were transferred to other prisons and a number of them bound for Dartmoor again caused trouble. They became rebellious in the train on the line between Yelverton and Princetown and details of the perilous situation were telegraphed ahead. Waiting for the insubordinate passengers at Tavistock Station was an escort of warders with loaded revolvers. With the revolt quelled, an inquiry was held and four convicts were sentenced to be flogged with the cat, whilst the chief mutineer was thrashed with the birch.

Dartmoor prisoners on the run had many obstacles to overcome; the grim weather; swirling mists that could envelope the landscape and reduce visibility to zero in seconds; treacherous moorland bogs where many ‘successful’ escapers may have been sucked; sharp-eyed local people known as ‘five-pounders’ eager to claim a £5 reward for apprehending a fleeing villain. Fugitives also risked death at the hands of their pursuers and the irony of the law of the land which protected game birds yet justified a shoot on sight policy against convicts in flight was not lost on ‘An Old Dartmoor Lag’:

"Sometimes when things are very dull, a convict makes a dash
To gain his freedom, but the guards of him soon make a hash
Lag-shooting is such a good old sport it’s never out of season,
But to shoot a pheasant in July is almost worse than treason".

One such tragedy occurred at 11am on Christmas Eve 1896 when three men made a run from a work party digging peat near the Blackabrook River. The chief instigator was twenty-two year old William Carter, who had been recently parted from his new bride to serve a twelve-year sentence for robbery with violence. His co-conspirators were Ralph Goodwin and John Martin, both serving long sentences for burglary.

As the mist descended and visibility deteriorated rapidly, work was abandoned and the armed escort ordered the party to march back to the prison.

On a signal from Carter, earth was thrown into the faces of the guards and the trio dashed for the cover of some woodland. The fleeing Carter was cut down by a hail of bullets and died instantly, while Martin was quickly cornered and knocked cold with a truncheon. Meanwhile, Goodwin vanished into the mist and spent the rest of the day trying to put as much distance as possible between himself and Princetown. As dawn broke the tired and hungry convict was dismayed to discover that he had travelled in a complete circle and arrived back within sight of the prison.

Tempted to give himself up but worried he might meet the same fate as Carter, he set out again and made good progress on Christmas Day. At one point he was spotted by a distant search party and gave them a cheeky wave of his hat before disappearing from view. That night he broke into two houses at Postbridge and obtained a change of clothes. On Boxing Day, he reached Tavistock and raided another house and hungrily ate the remains of a Christmas dinner before spending the night trudging along the GWR railway track to Plymouth. Goodwin was unable to hitch a ride on a passing goods vehicle but by morning he was at Devonport.

With a successful getaway within his grasp he took to the streets where his escapade immediately came to an end due to a guilt complex.

He met a policeman and wished him ‘Good morning’ without arousing suspicion, then, when the policeman’s dog ran playfully after him, he believed he had been rumbled, lost his nerve and ran off. The exhausted fugitive was chased by the officer and quickly cornered, then flashed a stolen knife at his pursuer, who calmly out-bluffed his assailant by pretending he had a gun, which he threatened, he would have no hesitation in using unless the desperate criminal gave himself up.

Returning to Dartmoor, where any vestige of festive spirit had been quashed by the death of a fellow inmate, Goodwin and Martin subsequently gave evidence at the inquest of William Carter, whose untimely death caused by thirteen bullet wounds in the back, was pronounced ’justifiable homicide’.

Despite Dartmoor being the setting for Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional "The Hound of the Baskervilles", which attacked and killed an escaped convict, hounds were surprisingly not used to track down fugitives until 1931. On Friday 6 February of that year, two men working in the stone sheds scaled a thirty-two foot wall with the aid of a rope to which was attached a grappling hook.

The fugitives were John Mullins, aged twenty-eight, a native of York serving a sentence of three years for a housebreaking offence committed in 1929. During the First World War he had served in France with his fellow escapee, John Gasken, aged thirty-one, also of York, who had completed only six months of a five year sentence for housebreaking, forgery and false pretences.

While serving a previous period of incarceration in November 1921, Gasken had boldly walked out of Birmingham Prison wearing a warder’s uniform. Instead of blindly heading out across the moor in the thick fog, the duo cleverly followed a track leading to Burrator Reservoir. The next day they stole food and a change of clothing from two unoccupied houses near the GWR railway station at Yelverton. By now, three bloodhounds loaned from kennels at Liskeard had picked up the scent and were hot on the trail but the hunt was called off after the eldest dog collapsed exhausted after five hours on the run.

On Sunday morning, Mullins was recaptured on the outskirts of Plymouth after the fugitives had become separated.

Gasken remained at liberty for a further two days. During Monday, he sold a stolen jumper at a second-hand shop and bought himself a cup of tea and two large Cornish pasties and cry for his capture. He was finally apprehended near the GWR locomotive depot at Laira on the outskirts of Plymouth.

Hoping to board a goods train to Bristol, he walked along the track using a stolen torch. Along the way he had spoken to some railway workers who mistakenly presumed he was a railway detective searching for the escaped convict.

With the bloodhounds closing in and baying loudly in the distance, a policeman saw Gasken entering an office in the railway siding. When challenged Gasken claimed his name was Brooks and that he had just arrived from Southampton and was waiting to board a boat at Plymouth.

His story was disbelieved and he was detained and questioned by a suspicious Detective-inspector Lucas: ‘I believe your name is Gasken and that you are missing from your home on Dartmoor’. Still refusing to accept that the game was up Gasken replied innocently, ‘Where is Dartmoor?’ ‘You will know soon enough’ was the confident reply and after vainly protesting ‘You are making the worst mistake you ever made in your life’, Gasken finally dropped the pretence and admitted he was the missing convict adding ‘I am hungry and fed up’.

John Gasken’s five days at liberty had taken its toll on his health and he was confined in the prison hospital having developed pneumonia.

After his capture he told police ‘I didn’t know what Dartmoor was like — I’ll never try it again’ yet, within two years he was on the run again. This attempt was made on Wednesday 15 November 1932 when Gasken accompanied by London burglar Frederick Amy were carrying out repairs to the roof of some cells and utilised a ladder, thoughtlessly left unsupervised for their building work, to scale a fifteen foot wall to the outside. Although never venturing more than thirty miles from the prison, Gasken and Amy established a record for escaped Dartmoor convicts and were at liberty for six days before their recapture.

Neither man had been involved in the infamous Dartmoor Mutiny in January of that year when prisoners planned a mass breakout. The attempt was made and thwarted as 350 men were being escorted to a Sunday chapel service. The prisoners then went on the rampage for an hour vandalising and burning prison buildings. Many surrendered and quietly returned to their cells before the hard core rebels were finally brought under control when forty policemen drafted in from Plymouth charged with drawn batons.

Security had supposedly been stepped up following this incident that attracted national headlines, so the escape of Amy and Gasken was an added embarrassment for the prison authorities.

Bloodhounds were brought from Shaugh Prior but the hunt was temporarily called off at nightfall. Meanwhile, the fugitives made their way towards the railway at Horrabridge Station and on Thursday night broke into the booking office and took oilskin coats bearing the distinctive initials GWR.

The robbery was discovered at 6am and the bloodhounds
soon picked up the trail and followed it along the railway line in the direction of Tavistock until the scent deviated to the moor where it was obliterated amongst a flock of sheep. Gasken and Amy laid low during the day then completed their chosen route along the GWR track to Tavistock where they joined the Southern Railway line at Lydford.

Gasken realised that he would be expected to retrace his earlier escape to Plymouth, therefore had decided to try his luck in the opposite direction walking from Lydford to Exeter. Throughout the weekend the police searched in vain for the two men. According to the convicts, at one point the bloodhounds came within a few yards of their hiding place and the fugitives stroked a small terrier accompanying the search party until it ran off disinterested. Continuing their journey along the railway, they met a signalman and satisfied his curiosity by convincing him that they were seeking work.

They net closed in when they broke into a house at
Crediton and stole food, money and a change of clothes leaving behind the GWR oilskins. Late on Tuesday night their record-breaking escape came to an end only twelve hours short of a full seven days at liberty. Spotted on the railway track on the outskirts of Exeter, they went quietly when approached by two policemen. John Gasken was normally one of the best-behaved men in the prison but could not resist the opportunity to outwit his captors when the chance presented itself to go on the run.

When asked by a policeman if he was glad his latest escapade was over he replied ominously, ‘Yes, but I didn’t want it to end this way’.

www.legendarydartmoor.co.uk/prison-break.htm
By brizzle born and bred on 2015-01-27 12:47:01
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