The Dartmoor Prison Museum
Following the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, Dartmoor Prison Museum has reopened to the public and is once again giving visitors the opportunity to learn more about the varied 200-year history of one of Britain’s most famous buildings.
As well as a museum, the site in Princetown, Devon is also a learning resource and holds an increasing number of archives relating to prisoners, prison staff and the day-to-day occurrences at the prison. Supervised access to view these fascinating documents may be available, or, alternatively, research can be undertaken on your behalf by museum staff.
To give you a flavour of the rich history that can be found in these Dartmoor Prison documents, we present three stories from the archives, revealing some of the interesting characters who passed through the doors of this famous prison.
‘The Tichborne Claimant’ – Arthur Orton
Arthur Orton (aka. Thomas Castro) was the central figure in a legal case from the 1870s, which in 1998 was the subject of a film starring Stephen Fry, Robert Hardy and Sir John Gielgud.
Orton was born on 20 March 1834 in Wapping. In 1848, he joined the Merchant Navy from which he deserted while in South America. He is said to have returned to England to join his father’s business as a butcher before emigrating to Australia. Here he opened his own butcher’s shop under the name Thomas Castro.
In 1854, off the coast of South America, Sir Roger Tichborne, heir to the Tichborne baronetcy, an aristocratic family from Hampshire, was assumed drowned when his ship, The Bella, sank. His mother refused to accept his apparent death and advertised worldwide for news of her son.
In 1865, Orton responded to this advert claiming to be Tichborne and remarkably was accepted by Lady Tichborne as her son. The phrase ‘remarkably’ is used given that Tichborne had been of slim build with sloped shoulders and a beaked nose, whereas Orton was around 24 stone with a round face and was unable to converse in French, unlike Tichborne. This convinced other members of the family that Orton was an imposter and they managed to find evidence to his true identity.
A civil action was brought in 1871 rejecting Orton’s claim to be Tichborne and he was subsequently charged with perjury. His trial at The Old Bailey lasted from 21 April 1873 to 28 February 1874, when he was found guilty on two counts and sentenced to 14 years’ penal servitude. He was tried under the name Thomas Castro as this was his last uncontested alias and it is under this name he was committed to Dartmoor.
From Dartmoor Orton was moved to Portsmouth Prison (this is where he is found in the 1881 census). Orton was released from prison on licence in October 1884 and continued to claim he was Tichborne. However, in 1895 he confessed that he was an imposter although almost immediately recanted his statement.
Ironically, given the nature of his crime he died on 1 April 1898 and is buried in Paddington Old Cemetery in London. In a final twist to the story, his coffin carried the plate ‘Sir Roger Charles Doughty Tichborne’ by permission of the Tichborne family.
John Boyle O’Reilly
John Boyle O’Reilly was born in 1844 in Meath, Ireland, the son of William David O’Reilly and Eliza Boyle. In 1855, he found himself apprenticed at the offices of the Argus newspaper in Drogheda and in 1859 he moved to Preston to work on The Guardian, returning to Ireland in 1863 where he enlisted in the Prince of Wales’ Own 10th Hussars.
O’Reilly had become involved in the Irish Republican Brotherhood and had joined the Army as a vehicle for recruiting likeminded individuals to the cause. He served with the British Army and was by all accounts a model soldier. However, on 27 June 1866 he was arrested and the following month was sentenced to 20 years’ transportation for ‘mutinous conduct’.
He was initially sent to Dartmoor Prison to await his transport, and it is alleged that while at Dartmoor, as well as a failed escape attempt, he helped re-inter the bones of the French and American troops who had died between 1809 and 1816. They were initially buried in shallow graves outside of the prison walls until the work was ordered by Governor Stopford in 1865. The cemeteries that were created still stand at the back of the prison today.
From Dartmoor he was sent to London where he boarded the ship, Hougoumont, sailing for Western Australia on 12 October 1867 and arriving in Perth on 9 January 1868. While out on a working party in March 1869, he managed to escape and hid on the US whaler Gazelle, which took him to the United States.
In 1872, he is recorded as marrying Mary Murphy in Boston and on 8 December 1875 became an American citizen. O’Reilly became editor of The Pilot where he advocated the rights of African-Americans and Irish Home Rule, working closely with a fellow Dartmoor inmate, Michael Davitt.
In 1876, he planned the ‘Catalpa Rescue’, when a whaling ship of that name sailed to Australia and on March 27 1876, picked up six escaped Fenian sympathisers and returned to the United States.
In 1879, he wrote the novel Moondyne, loosely based on the character Moondyne Joe an Australian bushranger. His real name was Joseph Bolitho Johns who, like O’Reilly, had spent time at Dartmoor before being transported to Australia.
O’Reilly died on 10 August 1890 and is buried in Holyhood Cemetery, Massachusetts, USA. Since his death his work is still remembered. John F Kennedy quoted his work when addressing the Irish parliament in 1963, and a track is dedicated to him by U2 on their 1988 album Rattle and Hum. The image of O’Reilly above, taken following his arrest in 1866, can be found today adorning bottles of ’19 Crimes’ wine.
The man who broke in to Dartmoor Prison – Joseph Denny
Joseph ‘Joe’ Denny (aka. George Adolphus Gordon) was born in Barbados in the West Indies sometime between 1846 and 1851.
Denny served in a number of prisons before his stay at Dartmoor, including Carmarthen, Liverpool where he had been sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude for burglary, and Pentonville. From Pentonville, it is assumed that he was transferred to Dartmoor and was released on 8 January 1889.
Following his release, it is reported that he spent nine months at sea before returning to England. In the early hours of 17 August 1890, the alarm bells at Dartmoor Prison were triggered by someone walking into an alarm wire mounted on the prison walls. These were to detect prisoners trying to break out – it was never considered that they could be used to detect anyone attempting to break in.
A search of the prison grounds was conducted, and Denny was found hiding in a toilet adjacent to the carpenters shop. As he could offer no explanation as to his presence, Denny was handcuffed and taken to the local lock-up in Princetown. While in the lock-up, Denny revealed to the constable his reasons for breaking into the prison. He stated that he had come to set fire to the prison and murder ‘Flash Hardy’, referring to Chief Warder Augustus Hardy.
On Tuesday 19 August 1890, he appeared before Tavistock Magistrates Court charged with breaking into Dartmoor Prison for an unlawful purpose; being on prison premises with the intention of setting fire to the building; and stealing and killing a sheep, which was the property of the prison authorities.
During his trial, Denny revealed a number of grievances relating to his time at Dartmoor and why his ire was directed at Hardy. He stated he had been ‘put in irons and confined to a dark cell’ and treated ‘worse than a dog’. His plan was to set fire to the prison and when the Chief Warder arrived, Denny declared that he ‘could not leave until I put him in his grave’.
Denny was sent to Exeter Assizes in 1890 under the Larceny Act, where he was sentenced to 12 months’ hard labour. He was admitted to Broadmoor on 23 March 1891 and released on 28 August 1891, as it was deemed that he had ‘recovered’. Denny found himself in trouble again soon after and was sentenced to nine months for Larceny at Winchester Court.
It is not known what happened to Denny after this, or when he died. Many accounts state he died in prison, but no evidence has been found to support this claim.