John Avery Heritage
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 Sharing local history with the community
In 1967 the Queen Mary set off on her final voyage to Longbeach, California. This watercolour by Eric Crompton records the farewell.A stone carving on the RSH Hospital Chapel.An afternoon stroll on Plymouth Breakwater
John Avery is a Fellow of the Huguenot Society of Britain and Ireland, a member of Southampton
Heritage Federation, City of Southampton Society [Honorary Life Member], Friends of Southampton Old Cemetery [Honorary Life Member],  Friends of  Town Quay Park, National Federation of Cemetery Friends, The Southampton Fryatt Plaque, Devon Family History Society, West Country Historic Omnibus & Transport Trust , Landmark Trust, National Trust
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   Home      The Dartmoor Mutiny
 The  Dartmoor Mutiny

There have been in its history a few riots at Dartmoor Prison but the one which took place some 80 years ago in January 1932  is especially of note and is referred to as the Mutiny.

The rioting prisoners were rounded up and a special assize court was held in the village of Princetown.  Only a couple ringleaders were identified and to many observers harsh, disproportionate sentences were passed on the offending convicts. Several MP's led a campaign of asking the Home Secretary to review the harsh sentencing. Led by James Maxton MP with support from Winston Spencer Churchill and other MP's and The Tribune magazine with the support of Compton Mackenzie OBE, the author, and some newspapers continued their campaign for several years. Finally five years on in 1937, the Home Secretary announced that prisoners still serving extra time [or yet to start their extra sentences] would receive a reduction of 25%.

The main ringleader, John Alexander aka James Robb had been sentenced to 10 years based on very questionable evidence which surely a modern day appeal court would challenge. From day one he protested his innocence and driven by that belief he had attempted to escape on four occasions. With that background we can see why he would support a grievance against the justice system. His 10 year sentence was thus increased by a further 10 years for the attempted escapes and later when his 20 years had been completed he would serve an extra 6 years for his part in the mutiny.
The Prison Service inflicted its own regime of punishment against the convicted mutineers. They were frequently moved to other prisons at short notice making visits from families difficult and often incurring large expense for non-wage earning wives; each and every night all of the mutineers were subjected to strip searches. One of the mutineers, James Ibbesson whose original sentence of 3 years had been increased to 10 years broke under the mental strain and was transferred to Broadmoor, the asylum for the criminally insane where he was to spend the rest of his days.

Their grievances were the poor quality food often stale or badly prepared, instances of prisoners in punishment cells being beaten up, warders using prison supplies for personal use and homosexuality acts forced on the convicts by a minority of the warders plus the practice of keeping convicts locked up in their cells for 18 or so hours each day. The Home Office Inquiry under Herbert Du Parcq was called to look into the riots and established that there were 16 instances of inappropriate actions by prison staff contrary to regulations. The recently appointed Governor, Captain S.N. Roberts was transferred on 22nd February to Cardiff and an acting Governor, Major Charles Pannell DSO MC previously Governor of Camp Hill Preventive Detention Centre IOW took over the control of Dartmoor prison. The government impressed with Du Parcq's investigation promoted him to become a judge. Later he was to become a Privy Councillor and Lord Justice of Appeal followed by a Baronetcy.

The mutiny followed a couple weeks of unrest and on the Saturday of the weekend when the riot started Captain Roberts had telephoned the Chief Constables of Plymouth Police and Devon County Police HQ at Exeter to give notice that assistance would be required. The Home Office also alerted the CO of the army based at Crownhill [Plymouth].

A Home Office statement gave a summary of the action: ' Police from Plymouth* in the charge of the Chief Constable of Plymouth, Mr. A. K. Wilson, and Deputy Chief Constable Lee were assembled at the prison. When they reached the prison gates the situation was looking very serious. A howling mob of convicts was gathered in the grounds shouting to the warders to "Come in and get it." The police were armed only with truncheons, but without hesitation the Chief Constable led a charge into the mutineers, the police laid about them with such energy that within a short time over a dozen convicts were lying unconscious. One convict came forward with his hands up and said that some of them wanted to surrender, and about a dozen then gave in.'

*The Western National bus driver who had rushed his passenger load of policemen from Plymouth at great speed was preparing to return his bus to Plymouth but a wooden stake was thrust into his hand and he was ordered to join in the charge at the prison gates. No doubt a story to later tell his grandchildren.

A few attempts at escape were made but rifle fire from the warders on the parapet wounded one of perpetrators and another on the roof came under fire. There were no fatalities but many of the convicts had to receive hospital treatment for their wounds. The clock tower was set on fire, there was extensive damage and the governor fled from his office into a wing where the prisoners had not supported the riot. Prison records were destroyed making it difficult to accurately establish whether there had been any successful escapes. The Plymouth Fire Brigade arrived but the intensity of the flames made their entry virtually impossible and they remained outside of the prison.

There was a concern that a mass breakout was intended and intelligence that a lorry loaded with granite would force the gates and a second lorry would run out full of escapees. Soldiers and police blocked off nearby approach roads and machine guns were mounted at strategic points. The Metropolitan Police believed that underworld gangs were behind the plan for a mass escape and checks were made for several days on any vehicles approaching Princetown. Pathé News chartered a plane and the newsreel showing aerial shots of the prison on fire can be viewed on the internet on the Pathé site. Another film cameraman approached the check point and was asked "What was his business?" "Taking pictures for the newsreel" was his reply. "Taking pictures? That is no business, off you go".

Meanwhile in London the police went searching for several days for known gang leaders in an attempt to seek out those behind the planned breakout but in the end no charges were laid.



snowfall Southampton Old Cemetery courtesy FoSOCSeamen's strike at Southampton 1966Royal Blues at Bournemouth c 1949 photo by Derek Amey local historians Jim Brown and John Avery deep in thought. Image Ann MacGillivray Veronica Tippetts addressing Court Leet Oct 2nd 2012. Image Will TempleJohn Melody Southampton Town Crier at Court Leet 2012. Image Will Temple