The Dartmoor Prison shepherd - the making of a model inmate

Torbay Weekly

As I drove home from one of my Dartmoor excursions last week, in another Dartmoor fog, glancing to my right, I could see the lights of the prison piercing the gloom, and I was reminded of the tale of its farm shepherd, who became a model prisoner!

Over the years, I’ve told my version of this story many times, but for the purposes of this article I wanted to gen up on some of the finer details.

Imagine my surprise when a Google search failed to find it, at least not the one I tell!

It made me wonder if it was another one I’d made up, or was I welding two different stories together to make mine?

In either case it’s a great ghost story, and I’d like to share it with you...

Once there was a career criminal who had spent most of his adult life in and out of prison for petty thefts.

Once he was banged up, yet again, he spent his days planning his escape.

Sometimes successfully, sometimes not, but all this achieved was to extend his sentence, once the law caught up with him.

Finally, the judge, overseeing his latest court appearance, lost patience with him, sending him to the bleak and remote Dartmoor Prison for a long stretch, in the hope he would at last see the error of his ways.

The prisoner didn’t mind this, he had a great love of nature and the outdoors, so saw this as a refreshing change from his usual places of captivity.

Once he had gotten used to his new routine, he seemed to settle down and had finally come to terms with his fate.

His reputation had preceded him, and this apparent change wasn’t lost on the prison governor, so much so that he rewarded the prisoner with the role of becoming the prison shepherd, tending to their flock that roamed the surrounding hillsides.

He jumped at the opportunity, and, along with the guard overseeing him - for all his show of compliance, he still wasn’t trusted - he set about his duties with great diligence and gusto, being found out on the hills in all weathers.

To the governor, it seemed that this once troublesome inmate had turned a corner but, unbeknownst to him, during all his long stints sitting on the hillside watching, said prisoner was indeed planning his next escape.

Although he wasn’t allowed too free a rein to explore his surroundings, the shepherd had seen enough to judge his best route away from the prison, and so, one evening, just before dusk, as his shift was about to end, he asked his guard, who was fairly new to this task and friendly with it, also enjoying the chance of some fresh air away from his normal prison duties, if he could relieve himself.

Permission granted, he slipped into a nearby gully.

Unbeknown to his escort, this particular gully had a steep incline, affording the prisoner a great deal of cover as he made his escape.

Allowing his charge a modicum of privacy, the guard had turned his back, realising too late this had been a mistake, when he finally glanced into the gully finding it empty! In haste, he returned to the prison to raise the alarm.

Having easily deceived his overseer, the prisoner was feeling quite pleased with himself but what he hadn’t bargained on was the unpredictable Dartmoor climate.

He hadn’t gone far outside the prison boundary, when he found himself surrounded by the notorious fog.

It wasn’t long before he became completely disorientated, so he decided to secrete himself among a large pile of rocks and wait for conditions to improve.

As he waited, he found himself getting colder and colder, becoming unsure exactly how long he could wait.

Just then he heard the sound of footsteps on the gravel path nearby, the one that he had been trying to follow himself.

As he listened, the footsteps sounded more like marching, and as he peeked out from his hiding place among the rocks, he could make out the silhouettes of two soldiers in the gloom.

Their uniforms looked a bit old fashioned, but that didn’t bother him at the time, his main concern was following them until he recognised a better route that he could take to make good his escape.

He assumed they were heading towards the prison, but before reaching there he had plenty of opportunities to slip away on a more main road and hope the fog would conceal him from any search parties.

He was just beginning to feel smug again with his plan, when he suddenly noticed that the figures that he had been following had completely vanished in front of him!

No figures, and no longer any sounds of marching! Running forward in panic, he began shouting out to anyone who could hear him, worried in case he was starting to go mad!

Just then, he saw lights ahead of him.

No longer bothered if it meant him being returned to prison again, he threw himself willingly into the arms of his rescuers/captors...gibbering from cold and fear, he tried to explain what he had just witnessed.

One of the older guards laughed and said: “You’ve seen a ghost, my friend!”

He then went on to tell the story of a group of soldiers, who had bravely struggled to return to their barracks at the prison, one harsh Winter, but had sadly got lost in a snowdrift.

Their bodies had been found once the snow had thawed.

“They don’t call this area Soldier’s Pond for nothing!” the guard concluded.

As he was escorted back to his cell, the prisoner felt very grateful to his spectral rescuers, vowing that henceforth he would become a model prisoner, serving the rest of his time without causing any trouble, in the hope that he could retain the privilege of being the prison shepherd.