July 2008 Mutiny on the Moor

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This was a fascinating illustrated talk based on a book that Simon Dell has recently written, entitled: ‘Mutiny on the Moor’ - The story of the Dartmoor Prison Riot of 1932. priced at £4.99. ISBN 0 9549089 3 7  published by Forest Publishing to purchase contact 01626 821631.
Sunday 24th January 1932 was the date of this violent mutiny that took place at The notorious Dartmoor Prison. This date is only surpassed in the history of this prison by the massacre of American Prisoners of War in 1815 when seven POWs
died and 60 were injured. In 1932 there were no deaths but several convicts and police alike suffered major injuries.
 This talk was made all the more interesting by the remarkable selection of photographs shown, many when printed in Simon’s book, had not seen the light of day for more than seventy years. These came into his possession due to a ‘sharp eyed young man’ who at the time was unaware of what he had saved, when he rescued from a skip an album containing pictures of all the buildings damaged and destroyed in that mutiny of 1932. Early aerial photographs showed the layout of the prison, the buildings and exercise yards. Pictures of warders with rifles all helped to create the scene of Dartmoor Prison all those years ago. Superimposed on one of the pictures before 1932 were the names and position of the buildings, E Block, B Block, Church,  workshops, Kitchens, Hospital, administration Offices and even the old French Prison. A photograph taken in 1980 was so similar, just a few buildings having been removed.
The entrance to the prison with the famous inscription above it ‘Parcere Subjectis’ meaning ‘Spare the Vanquished’. This has more meaning than at first sight may imply.
Meals were the most common cause for complaint and 1932 was no exception. The inmates were a tough bunch of people. After WWI many young men returned to our larger cities trained in the ‘art of killing’. With little or no prospects, they wandered about the towns with nothing to do, many with weapons and quite prepared to use them. Dartmoor was in many cases where they ended up. Ruthless  young men stole cars and drove around towns, they were nick-named the  ‘motor car vandals’.
Warders lived in Princetown in houses very close to the prison walls and E Hall was the punishment Block. The strict regime was controlled by the Prison Governor and what he said, went. A lack of the skills of man management
contributed to the problems no doubt. There were always escape attempts and it has to be realised that there were very few motor vehicles at that time particularly in Princetwon and when members of the prison service or police force saw
vehicles with London registration plates in the area, control was tightened as the fear of escapes were anticipated.
Notorious criminals of the time were sent to Dartmoor and they often obtained coshes and knives etc, some smuggled into the prison and others made from wood and metal ‘gleaned’ from within the prison walls. There are people today that can
still remember the road blocks set during the WWII period and many years after when prisoners made ‘a run for it’. Very few actually got away.
Returning to 1932, Home Office Inspectors and Officials came to Princetown to hold an enquiry, taking over the Town Hall close by for a court room, photographs of prisoners being lorried to the court were shown. Pictures of the inside of the church where many of the prisoners sat close together, an ideal opportunity to pass messages from one to another, sometimes as many as 400 of the 450 inmates went to church. Gambling was one of the activities that took place within the confines of the prison and when debts had to be settled trouble could be caused. The authorities eventually realised that poor food was a big problem and it was reported that very watery porridge was being served to them and the inmates considered it unfit to eat. Was the food tampered with by convicts themselves to cause trouble or was a prison warder involved? These questions have not been answered. About 21 officers faced about 250 prisoners with nothing else but their trungeons. A final charge of officers suceeded in routing the rioters. Some of the loyal prisoners without doubt saved the lives of some of the warders at that time, and some were rewarded with reductions in their sentences. It was not until the police and army from Plymouth came did the rebellion get brought under control and cease. A story of a Western Morning
News reporter playing golf at Yelverton, seeing lorries, ambulances and fire-engines speeding across Roborough Down, incidentally doing 40 miles an hour, realised something was awry and followed them to Princetown and got the story. A photograph of the first police cars was shown. A three wheeler BSA, registration number OD 129.
The police were completely outnumbered but they showed great bravery in tackling the disturbance with nothing more than their trundgeons. Pictures of men going to work next day covered in bandages was a reminder of their devotion to duty and the risks they took and the damage inflicted on them. 100years of extra sentences were passed on the prisoners that took place.
Simon finished his talk with a short but very interesting and entertaining piece of ‘cine-film by ‘Pathe News’ taken from a little bi-plane flown down from London. This was complete with the sound of the engine heard over the commentary.
Anyone who asks Simon to give them a talk is in for an interesting event. Simon himself has been awarded the MBE in 1997 and the QCB in 2002. for his service to the community and still serves the community in which he lives.
In 1991 a small protest riot was held at the prison, Simon witnessed it and it also led to the death of one inmate. It also resulted in the destruction of most of D Wing........D Wing of 1991 was the same building as the old B2 Hall of 1932
where much of the trouble started in the 1932.
Simon Dell helped our group with the publication of : “Dartmoor’s Policeman Poet” which is still available from our Group at £4.99 plus p&p. ISBN 0 9536852 1 7

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