“Moments of sheer terror; then hours of boredom”

Ben Fox
Ben Fox

Sat across from Denis Sutton, in his quaint little ‘mancave’, as he calls it, at the back of his charming Tavistock home, you’d find it difficult to believe that he had once been at the heart of one of the most imposing prisons in the country. For almost four decades, as well.

During his time serving in the British Prison Service, the inmates he had to oversee is a ‘who’s who’ of British crime history. Men like Frank Mitchell, Jack ‘the Hat’ McVitie and ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser, all served time At Her Majesty’s Pleasure and were overseen at one point or another by Denis.

He had been involved in the prison service since the 1950s,
starting out in the first instance as a Trade Assistant, before
eventually finishing his career as Deputy Governor at HMP Dartmoor. Across almost four decades, he worked in one capacity or another in Lewes, Gloucester and Reading prisons. However, having been born in Torrington, the West Country is where his heart was. By the time he finished his career, he had completed three separate stints at HMP Dartmoor.

As with many of his generation, his working life started with National Service, spending some of his formative years in postwar Germany. I asked him what stuck in his mind about his time there.

“When we were in Hanover, in north Germany, they didn’t take much to us because there were still remnants of the Hitler Youth. You always had to go out as a gang because they were still indoctrinated by all that.

‘I remember going through Hamm, and there were railway engines all stood-up on end, the rails all twisted around. Dortmund was just all empty shells – there was nothing. It was a real catastrophe.”

Following the end of his national service, the next and final job would be as part of the prison service. Starting as a Trade Assistant, Denis would oversee some of the most imposing institutions and dangerous prisoners the country had to offer.

“For a lot of these people, crime was their profession. I knew half a dozen of the  Train Robbers. To them, getting nicked was an ‘occupational hazard’.”

I couldn’t help but smirk at the laissez-faire attitude Denis described these men as having.

But to talk of imposing, there was none more so than the person we discussed first: Frank Mitchell – a staple of the London crime scene and associate of the Kray twins.

“I had personal experience of Frank Mitchell for about two years. I read all these things about what was supposed to have happened in Dartmoor with Frank and all I think is ‘Who has told them this? How would they know?’.”

Denis went on to tell me that gangsters like Frank were old-school gentlemen, at least when they were locked-up.

“Frank Mitchell was brute force. He was a powerful man. But he had no understanding of the world because he had been in institutions.
‘I used to unlock him in the mornings – he used to call me Mr S. I remember one morning when I opened him up, I asked why he was looking a bit hot under the collar.

‘And he said: “That radio. That’s got to go”.

“What do you mean it’s got to go?”.

‘ “Whenever I turn it on, all you hear is them Beatles. I love you ya ya ya.” He even got up and did the motions!

‘I went on and unlocked the rest and I heard a bit of a bang. I went back: “What have you done?”

‘ “I told you Gov what would happen if they came on again!”. This nice transistor radio was all over the floor!”

In the dog-eat-dog world of the crime underworld, as well as in prison, it was wise to stay as imposing a figure as possible. Something that Mitchell was naturally gifted to do.

“He used to stand his bed up, so he could make room to do his press-ups. He used to do them with one hand, and then hold his body so his feet would come off the floor.

‘I remember one time he had these chest expanders and they must have been an inch and a half across. He said: “Here ya’ go Gov, have a go”.
‘I said: “You’ll need to take about two of those off before I could ever do it”. He was an absolute exhibitionist.”

Denis would recall how one day the Trade Assistants had taken a door off its hinges and then concreted up the hole. There had been a tip-off that people had been plotting to use the door as an escape route.  It was a big, heavy oak door – as you would expect in a prison – which two of the prison officers struggled to carry back to the workshop. Mitchell saw them struggling and picked it up with one hand like it was a suitcase.

More infamous than Mitchell’s incarceration, was his escape. Organised by the Krays, on 12th December, 1966, while with a small work party on the moors, Mitchell asked the sole guard for permission to feed some nearby Dartmoor ponies. His request was granted, he walked over to a quiet road where a getaway car containing associates of the Krays – Albert Donoghue, “Mad” Teddy Smith and Billy Exley – were waiting for him.

A large manhunt ensued, with 200 policemen, 100 Royal Marines and a Royal Air Force helicopter searching the moors.

“I was out on the escape post . Looking back now, I realise how useless it was. We went up to Postbridge and Dartmeet but we had no idea. He was gone. It was definitely the Krays that organised it.”

Around the same time, Denis had the luxury of meeting another one of the Krays’ associates when he got called into the Governor’s office, who told him he had earmarked a prisoner for him to work with – Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie.

“He told me to read his file which was about a foot thick! In the end he was one of the best prisoners I had work with me. He used to carry my tool bag around!

‘He was a really excitable character but absolutely no problem at all as a prisoner. He had jumped the Governor at Exeter and was earmarked to be trouble, but he wasn’t. ‘He used to talk about his two mates, Ronnie and Reggie. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but now you realise who the Krays were! They were some kind of mates, though – stabbed him to death!”
He had acted as an enforcer and hitman with links to the Krays’ gang, The Firm, and was murdered by Reggie Kray in 1967.

Kray was arrested the following year for the murder, being found guilty and received life imprisonment at his trial in March 1969.
“The worst I ever came across was Frank Fraser – Mad Frankie. He did 42 years in prison. After he started the Parkhurst Riots in 1969, they used to move him around every two months.”

Denis described how, while he was at Exeter prison, Fraser was in transit there while waiting to be moved on. The Governor called Denis up and told him he had a job. It was quite a job, as well. He was told: “You’re taking Fraser to Durham tomorrow”. “I tell you what”, Denis continued, “what a bloody nightmare that was!

We had to take a  taxi from Exeter and they turned-up in a battered old Ford Zephyr.”

This didn’t sound very British Cinema, or Hollywood, to me while Denis was telling me the story! “I was able to select two officers to go with me and I chose two former Merchants – because they looked like they could look after themselves!

‘We got up near the Gordano  and  said: “Hey Gov – can we go in the Gordano?”. I said ‘Where do you think you are? On an outing?’.

‘He absolutely played up hell.”

Fraser’s 42 years served in over 20 different prisons in the UK were often coloured by violence. He was involved in riots and frequently fought with prison officers and fellow inmates. He also attacked various governors.

Whilst in Strangeways, Manchester, in 1980, Fraser was ‘excused boots’ as he claimed he had problems with his feet because another prisoner had dropped a bucket of boiling water on them after Fraser had hit him; he was allowed to wear slippers. He was released from prison in 1985. Not everything during Denis’ time was violent,

While serving at Lewes prison, he described how he had to put away a drunk prisoner called Harper, who had managed to get his hands on some ‘Hooch’ – illicitly distilled alcohol. About a dozen of them were discovered to be ‘canned-up’.

“Turns out the Hooch had been brewed in the fire extinguishers! They had taken yeast, apples and oranges from the kitchen.

‘An officer came in and said: “I’ve just been around to do my annual test  and they were all bloody empty! They’re all stinking of hooch.”.”

During our interview, Denis had some notes jotted down. Two or three pages of A4 of all the people that he had come across during his time as a prison officer up and down the country. An encyclopaedia of postwar British crime folklore. What I’ve managed to tell you in this interview is just a snippet.

I asked him what he thought of his career, having to spend all of it guarding some of the country’s most barbaric and morally bankrupt delinquents this country has ever seen. The answer may surprise you:

“I wouldn’t change a thing. I had to retire at 60 but I would have loved to have gone on until I was 65. Some of the characters you worked with amazed me, including the officers.

‘One of the officers I worked with on the Landing was part of the Long-Range Desert Group. If you got talking to him – God, some of the things that came out!

“All these  were old-fashioned gentlemen. They were just there to, as they said, get their ‘bird’ done. The Krays couldn’t do that – they were just spoiled brats. The Richardson Gang was far worse. I didn’t know the Krays, never met them, but I knew all their henchmen.”

This could quite possibly be the first time anyone has described the Kray Twins as brats. But if there was anyone that would know – it was Denis.

Indeed, what was obvious to me was that many of these men were locked-up for significant portions of their lives. People like Mad Frankie Fraser spent almost half his life in prison. So Denis, and his fellow prison officers, would have known these men more intimately than anyone else. As they all came and went, like Dartmoor Prison itself, the one consant was Denis.

The future of this iconic moorland building is now uncertain. But what is for sure is that it is already a museum to the infamous criminals of the past.

Photographs by Lucy Fisher & Ben Fox

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