From the Dartmoor Prison Museum

In this second part of our ‘stories from the prison archives’ feature, which gives you a flavour of the rich history that can be found in the documents held at Dartmoor Prison Museum, we take a look a three more interesting characters who found themselves incarcerated at this famous prison in the nineteenth and early-twentieth century.

 

George Bidwell

George Bidwell was born in New York State, USA on 25 January 1833. In 1872, he travelled to England with his brother Austin, George McDonald and a forger named George Engle. After travelling to France, South Africa and The Netherlands, where he committed acts of fraud upon various banks, he returned to England prompted by McDonald’s plan to defraud the Bank of England.

Utilising forged bills of exchange, Bidwell and his accomplices managed to accrue more than $300,000 in bonds and cash (which is approximately £5,250,000.00 in today’s money) before carelessness exposed their scam.

On 27 February 1873, Bidwell sent £25,000 of forged bills to the Bank of England but omitted a signature, which was duly noticed by a bank employee. With the fraud exposed a sting operation was put in place to catch the perpetrators, and although one accomplice was arrested, Bidwell escaped.

After hiding out in Ireland he moved to Edinburgh where he was recognised by a newspaper vendor and arrested on 3 April 1873. Bidwell stood trial at the Old Bailey with his three accomplices and was sentenced to life imprisonment. He was sent to Pentonville Prison to serve his first nine months solitary confinement.

Bidwell states that he was transferred to Dartmoor on 20 February 1873 but this date cannot be correct as he was still at large on this date. His book Forging his Chains describes his time at Dartmoor including his solitary confinement, being bound in chains and working the crank handle. He describes how he had to complete 1,875 turns of the handle before he could have breakfast; 5,000 before his dinner; and a further 4,000 before supper. Anything less than the required 10,875 turns and he was reported for idleness.

He tried to commit suicide by cutting his neck with a knife, an offence for which he was bound in manacles for three days.

Bidwell was transferred from Dartmoor Prison to Woking Prison on 3 November 1881 and finally released from on 18 July 1887 on the grounds of ill health and returned to the USA. He died of natural causes on 25 March 1899 in Butte, Montana.

 

John Henry Gooding

Born in Davenport in 1868, John Henry Gooding used a series of aliases throughout his life, including Frank Digby Harding, Digby Harding, Frank Hall, AG Saville and Hall Frankland. His father served in the Royal Navy and enrolled John in the Royal Hospital School in Greenwich. After leaving school he worked at The Royal Observatory before returning to Devonport in 1884.

On 23 March 1885, he married his first wife, Eliza Willcocks, in Stonehouse, Devon but a year later he found himself at Exeter Assizes where he was imprisoned for six weeks on a charge of forgery.

After his release he joined the Royal Navy and for the first two years of service his character was described as ‘very good’. However, in July 1888 he was imprisoned for 59 days in Bodmin Jail for ‘misappropriation of money’ and was in trouble again in 1890 when he was sentenced to three months for larceny at Devonport.

Following his release, he moved to Surrey where he assumed the alias Frank Hall. It was under this alias that he bigamously married Sarah Shires on 6 August 1891 at Guildford Register Office. Together they had three children, the youngest being Dorothy, who was baptized in April 1898.

Prior to this, Gooding had received a 12 months’ prison sentence at Winchester Assizes for larceny and forgery, and then on 14 July 1897, he received 18 months at South London sessions for fraud.

Only two years later, he was tried at Surrey Assizes and details of his bigamy became public. He was charged for fraudulently cashing a cheque for £30 in Croydon but also for his bigamous marriage and entering a false statement in the marriage register. For these crimes he was sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude. After initially being sent to Holloway he was subsequently transferred to Dartmoor.

After his release, he assumed the name Hall Frankland, and in 1910 was back at the Surrey Assizes, receiving another sentence of penal servitude for forgery and larceny. Again, he was to Dartmoor via Portland Prison.

He had a trade while serving his sentence at Dartmoor, listed in the 1911 census as ‘bookbinder’. He is also mentioned in the Medical Officer’s journal on 5 January 1912 as ‘depressed at present owing to his family affairs.’ He was released from Dartmoor in March 1915.

In 1918 he married for the third time, to Annie Parker in Wolverhampton, this time using the name Frank Digby Hardy. It must be assumed that this marriage was also bigamous as his second wife, Sarah did not die until 1964 and she classed herself as widowed in the 1939 register. They travelled to Ireland together but he was in trouble again and was charged with deceitfully obtaining a cheque for £48 from Winifred Dooley. He was sentenced to five years’ penal servitude.

He was released early in 1919 and it is here that his story takes a strange turn. Gooding (or Hardy) was recruited by Special Branch to the Combined Intelligence Service to work against the IRA. It is believed that he was recruited directly by Sir Basil Thomson, who had been Governor of Dartmoor Prison during Hardy’s previous incarceration. The purpose of Hardy’s recruitment was to work undercover in an attempt to capture IRA leader Michael Collins.

Due to a security lapse, Hardy’s communications with British Intelligence were intercepted by the IRA and Hardy was lured to a meeting with Sinn Fein leader Arthur Griffith on the pretext that he was going to betray Basil Thomson. Griffith filled the meeting with journalists and the meeting discussed Hardy’s long criminal career, Hardy using this to justify his betrayal of Thomson while trying to find details of Collins’ whereabouts. He had been exposed as a British spy and ordered to leave Ireland which he did so directly after the meeting.

Hardy and his wife returned to England but this was not the end of his criminal activities. On 4 January 1922, he was convicted at Usk County Sessions of fraud, sentenced to another five years’ penal servitude and sent to Parkhurst Prison. He was released in 1925 and it is assumed he then lived a quiet life until his death on 28 October 1930 in Wolverhampton.

 

Richard Hutton

Richard Hutton was born in 1849 and his story is one of redemption.

He joined the Navy after a troubled childhood and travelled to Quebec, Bombay, Shanghai and Calcutta, but he was never far from trouble. He was court-martialed twice and once had been loaded in chains and locked in a dark cell for two days.

After leaving the Navy, Hutton formed a partnership with Charles Peace, already an emerging figure in the underworld. What is less known is that Peace was a renowned violin player and they formed a music hall duo in Manchester. After assuming a disguise, Peace would play violin whilst Hutton performed escapology routine involving ropes and chains.

The story goes that Hutton, already a known burglar, was tricked into pawning a stolen gold watch. For this he was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment.

Upon his release, he was invited for a drink by a stranger, which he accepted. Hutton was drugged and upon waking found himself in a candlelit room occupied by four men. These were the men who had set him up for the stealing of the watch and wanted Hutton to join their gang. Under threat of being framed again, this time for the theft of a wallet, Hutton agreed and so it was he became a member of The Brotherhood of the Red Hand.

Following a failed burglary in Reading, Hutton was captured by police with a parcel containing around £20,000 of jewellery. He was tried, found guilty and sent to Dartmoor Prison. Allegedly his harsh treatment at Dartmoor led to him developing a desire for revenge against society for the perceived injustices it had dealt him. On his release from Dartmoor he rejoined the Brotherhood, this time as their leader.

Hutton and the Brotherhood went on to commit various robberies, one time hiding their loot in a coffin and acting as a funeral party to throw off the attentions of the investigating authorities. He was eventually arrested in London, sent to the assizes in Leeds and sentenced to ten years’ penal servitude, this time at Portland Prison. After an attempted escape another three and a half years were added to his sentence.

While at Portland, Hutton’ fortunes began to change. On discovering a prisoner and a warder fighting over a dropped tobacco pouch, Hutton intervened, preventing the prisoner attacking the warder with a pickaxe. For this act of ‘bravery’ the Home Secretary granted him a remission of the rest of his sentence. On release he moved to Yorkshire where he did his best to stay out of trouble but also became a heavy drinker.

A chance meeting with Ernie Field was to transform Hutton’s life. Ernie was known to Hutton through his father Joe Field and Ernie thought Hutton could do with some ‘spiritual’ guidance. He arranged for a Salvation Army captain named Tom Watts to visit Hutton and his wife and they were invited to the next meeting. The Huttons were expecting to be preached at but were surprised to find that Captain Watts let the congregation talk, explaining how their lives had changed by turning to God. Eventually attention turned to Hutton and he felt that after spending over twenty-three years in prisons he was prepared to give anything a try.

It is said that Hutton’s conversion took just seven days. At one of the meetings the town mayor was in attendance and he obtained permission from Herbert Gladstone, the Home Secretary, for Hutton to address meetings in his prison dress and chains to create more resonance.

Hutton eventually toured the country to speak at Salvation Army meetings, always dressed in his broad arrow suit and chains. He used his past as an example of how low somebody could fall but could still be saved.

Hutton died in 1921.

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For more information about the Dartmoor prison museum and archives, visit the museum website or email the curator directly with your research enquiries at paul.finegan@justice.gov.uk.

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