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Gangster's Paradise

Gangster's Paradise? HMP Dartmoor
A Gangster's Paradise? HMP Dartmoor

Reggie Kray's Letter

Some of the things you're about to read have, I believe, never been published anywhere else before.

Not in print, not online.

They consist of eye witness accounts shared with me when I worked as a sales rep for Dartmoor Partnership and at the bar of The Royal Standard public house.

But to kick things off, let me first tell you about a framed letter that used to be displayed in the porch of the Peter Tavy Inn on the edge of Dartmoor National Park. Anyone visiting that lovely moorland pub around the turn of the century saw a signed letter from Reggie Kray just inside its front door.

Addressed to Mrs Roberts, a landlady during the 1960's, it thanked her for the hospitality shown to Reggie and his brother Ronnie Kray whilst they stayed overnight. Particular gratitude was expressed for her refusing to allow media representations of the twins' activities to colour the way she treated them.

By 2014 the letter was gone and the landlord at that time claimed to have no knowledge of its existence. Furthermore, he told me he thought it would've been in very bad taste to display such a note, given the Kray twins' career of violence.

I disagree, for the events of December 1966 are etched into Dartmoor's unique heritage and folklore. They are as much a part of its story as the witches, pixies and notorious Hairy Hands.

Dartmoor Prison, Princetown
Dartmoor Prison, Princetown

The Max Axeman

Known as The Mad Axeman, Frank Mitchell was a 37-year-old career criminal from the East End of London. His life of crime starting early, he was first before a judge at the tender age of nine. By the time Frank was a fully grown man, he possessed incredible physical strength. His party tricks involved lifting grand pianos or picking up two men, one in each hand, and carrying them around.

Frank Mitchell was handsome and he had a reputation for being a sharp dresser. He was also, allegedly, very well-endowed! On the other hand, mentally he was extremely feeble. Described as having the mind of a child younger than 13, he allowed wanton appetites to govern his behaviour. His nickname was thus earnt by a lightning quick temper and acts of terrible violence.

Much like Ronnie Kray then, whom Frank met in Broadmoor, and who organised his flight from Dartmoor Prison. Ronnie believed his friend was the victim of a miscarriage of justice, and that escaping would bring his plight into the public conscious. Reggie wasn't so sure but he went along with the plan. He knew the impact such a bold move would have on their underworld reputations.

Hence the Kray twins' holiday at the Peter Tavy Inn. They plotted Frank's prison break!

The Latin inscription on Dartmoor Prison's gate translates as ‘Spare The Vanquished’
‘Spare The Vanquished’

A Jailbird Flees Its Cage

Not that being in gaol had proved all that onerous to The Mad Axeman, as a customer at the bar of the nearby Royal Standard told me one day. Then nearing retirement, Mary Tavy resident Clifford Down owned a coach company in the heart of the village. Back in 1966, his business activities were limited to using his car to run a taxi service. One day, he was surprised to receive a telephone call, telling him to pick up a fare at Lane End near Horndon.

Lane End, as the name suggests, is where a narrow road finishes and the wild moor begins. There is nothing there save a handful of small cottages. Yet when Clifford arrived, he found a tall, well dressed man waiting to be ferried to a pet shop in Tavistock. The man said he wanted to buy a budgerigar.

You can find this story online, with the suggestion Frank loved owning such pets when a child in London. However, it was a very different sort of bird he was after that day!

When Clifford drew up outside the shop, he was asked to wait outside with the engine running. In Frank popped and the shop door was locked, the sign saying OPEN flipped around to CLOSED, the blinds pulled down in the windows of the flat above.

After half an hour, Frank exited empty-handed. When Clifford jokingly asked him what became of his budgerigar, his fare told him he'd changed his mind about buying one.

Whilst an illicit tryst was apparent, Clifford hadn't known he was driving a convict to and from Tavistock. It was only when he dropped Frank back at Lane End, and asked conversationally where he lived, that he realised he was in the presence of one of Britain's most dangerous men.

"Prison, of course!" Frank said, before changing back into the works outfit he'd left stashed behind a pile of rocks.

One week later and the news headlines spoke of a violent gangster's daring escape from justice. Clifford switched on the television and saw a photograph of the fugitive involved.

He told me he recognised Frank Mitchell immediately, so telephoned the village constable to share his tale of Dartmoor Prison's laughable security. Whether he wasn't believed, or there was a concerted effort to cover matters up, I couldn't say. But Clifford was told he was lying and not to repeat his story to anyone else.

Dartmoor Prison Entrance

More Lax Security, More Prison Breaks

Clifford Down shared this tale when standing at the bar of The Royal Standard one Sunday afternoon. He said he heard from other people in the area that his experience wasn't as unusual as you might think, for Frank Mitchell often absconded from prison works' parties to enjoy the company of local women.

He was apparently very popular with bored farmers' wives, who welcomed him into their beds whilst their husbands worked on the moor. A combination of his legendary, let's say natural attributes, flashy London ways and handsome looks won him many a female admirer.

A year earlier, the then-owner of Tor Royal told me another tale contradicting Dartmoor Prison's reputation for being escape proof. I cannot recall the man's name but he was a moorlander through and through, someone who'd farmed the region for years. By the time I met him, he was in his fifties or sixties and leasing Thomas Tyrwhitt's old Regency home, which his wife managed as a Bed and Breakfast. His story related to another remote farm, where he'd lived a number of years before.

An escaped convict once turned up at his kitchen door, asking to be taken back to prison. The desperate fugitive had been on the lam for a week but couldn't find a way off the moor. He'd traveled in circles as though pixie-led, unable to forage sufficient food amongst his desolate surroundings. After seven days of misery, the convict found the experience so disheartening he gave up trying to make it to civilisation.

Far more controversial escapes were, Tor Royal's tenant assured me, commonplace during the Swinging Sixties. An inmate receiving a visit from an underworld figure was sometimes told a family member transgressed against their society's unique code of honour. Perhaps a crime was committed on another gangster's territory, an important man's wife or girlfriend romanced, or a gambling debt required paying. Whatever the offence, the inmate needed to make restitution in cash. If he didn't, the family member would suffer violent consequences.

An escape was thus made, a post office van robbed. The threatening visitor then paid what he was owed, the inmate handed himself back in at Dartmoor Prison's gates. Pleased to see him return, its authorities asked no questions about what he did whilst away. They even covered up his ever being absent, to ensure their own negligence in allowing such escapes remained hidden.

Of course, no one was ever brought to account for such robberies, for those responsible boasted perfect alibis. Eyewitnesses might finger them, Met detectives ask questions, but to no possible avail.

How, those involved would ask, could they possibly have committed the crime they were accused of? The accusations made against them were ridiculous!

After all, for the past five years, they'd been locked safely behind the high walls of Britain's most notorious prison.

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Hello. My late uncle Janner Huron was a constable of Devon Constabulary & had a posting to either Mary or Peter Tavy. Either way, it was the 60s & very different back then. He knew about these prison breaks & it became so frightening for his poor wife, my mother’s sister, who was often alone in the police house at night, that they had to relocate for her health because her nerves were shattered.

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Thank you for sharing your tale. It sounds like a horrible experience for your poor aunt. Lawrence (I don't know why my own website is describing me as an "Unknown member" 🙄)

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