Governor of Wandsworth Prison - Major Benjamin Dixon Grew

Benjamin Dixon Grew was born on 25 June, 1892, in Shoreditch, London. His parents were card maker Benjamin Grew and Minnie Jane Moore who were married in 1886. Benjamin had several older and younger siblings but, in 1904, the large brood of children lost their mother when Minnie Jane passed away.

Military Service
Benjamin joined the Scots Guards as soon as he was of age and by 1911 (age 18) had risen to the rank of Lance Corporal while stationed at Chelsea Barracks in Pimlico, London. On August 12, 1914, after the start of World War I, Corporal Benjamin Grew disembarked in Europe with the 1st Battalion of the Scots Guards.

Royal Northumberland Fusiliers at Battle of St. Eloi
Royal Northumberland Fusiliers at the Battle of St. Eloi

Benjamin fought in many of the major battles of World War I including Mons, Ypres and the Sommes. He ended up a Lieutenant with the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. After he was wounded at the Sommes and recovered, Benjamin was seconded to the Egyptian Army and served in Sudan. After the war, Benjamin stayed in the Middle East serving first as Deputy Military Governor in Palestine and finally as Administrative Inspector in Palestine. Some time during this period, Benjamin married his wife, Eleanor Flora Enid Swift, originally from Wales. Eleanor accompanied Benjamin to Palestine.

Prison Service
Having contracted malaria during his time in the Middle East and Africa, Benjamin was advised to live in a colder climate and reluctantly decided to quit the military, being released from duty on August 24, 1921. He applied to His Majesty's Prison Service and, after being interviewed, was appointed Deputy Governor of Borstal Prison at Rochester, a detention centre for young men aged 16 to 21. He started his prison service on St. George's Day (April 23), 1923.

Entrance to Dartmoor Prison
Entrance to Dartmoor Prison - photograph by Brian Henley.
Benjamin spent three years at the Borstal Prison in Rochester and thoroughly enjoyed his time there. He was keen to support the young men at Borstal in turning their lives around. His next appointment, in 1926 was the polar opposite of Borstal as Benjamin was transferred to Dartmoor Prison as Deputy Governor.

Located on the high moors of County Devon, Dartmoor Prison was a forbidding place. It was originally constructed to house French prisoners of war during the Napoleonic wars, followed by American prisoners of war durign the War of 1812. After the last prisoners were repatriated in 1816, the prison sat empty until 1850 when it was reopened. Benjamin called the prison a "grim and forbidding monstrosity" with a "pervading atmosphere of gloom and abandonment". Dartmoor housed some of the nation's most hardened criminals and was a stark contrast to Borstal Prison where Benjamin had cut his teeth on prison service. Yet even at Dartmoor, Benjamin tried to bring in small prison reforms which were, by and large, successful.

In 1929, Benjamin was appointed Governor of a small provincial prison at Shrewsbury whose prisoners were convicted of minor felonies and misdemeanors. One prison officer remarked that it must have been rather like going from taming lions to dealing with kittens. Benjamin spent about a year in Shrewsbury before being appointed Governor of Maidstone Prison in Kent in July 1930.

Benjamin spent seven years at Maidstone Prison during which his daughter Shelagh was born in June 1933. In the spring of 1937, Benjamin was appointed Governor of Durham Prison where he faced his first hanging. Benjamin knew the procedure to be followed for a hanging but was a bit apprehensive about the possible effects upon himself. His fears were groundless and he found that most condemned men accepted the situation with stoicism and retained that air of calmness until the end.

With the advent of the war, many prisoners who had less than three months remaining on their sentences were released and called into the military. In mid-1940, after Dunkirk, Benjamin was appointed Governor of Wandsworth Prison in London. Some of London's toughest criminals were housed in Wandsworth, but the fact that many of them were native Londoners, and received visits from their families, meant that morale was high in the prison. As younger prison officers were called up into the military, the remaining guards were often older and less fit. Wandsworth Prison received a direct hit from a bomb during the Blitz of late 1940. No one was injured but the Roman Catholic Chapel was destroyed. In spite of the air raids and bombings, executions still took place.

Panoramic view of Wandsworth Prison
Panoramic view of Wandsworth Prison - from Wikimedia Commons.

Benjamin supervised the hangings of several German spies including Karel Richter and Johann Dronkers. He also traveled to Pentonville Prison to witness the hanging of five Nazi soldiers who had murdered a fellow prisoner-of-war (an anti-Nazi). Benjamin even had custody of William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw) for several days but was unimpressed by the man. There was one German spy whose conditions were slightly different than the others.

Josef Jakobs
The arrival of German spy Josef Jakobs at Wandsworth Prison on 23 July, 1941, was not without some complications. In order to conform to the military requirements surrounding his impending court martial, Jakobs needed to be kept within military custody, ideally a military prison. As none of the other likely locations were convenient to London or discrete enough, a condemned cell within Wandsworth Prison was temporarily designated as a military prison, complete with a squad of military police.

Jakobs was held at Wandsworth from 23 July until 15 August. Major Grew wrote at some length about an encounter he had with Jakobs on the morning of 15 August.

Of all the spies who faced execution I shall remember one for his soldierly manner, his courtesy and his quiet courage.

Joseph Jacobs was a German Officer dropped from an aeroplane but who injured his ankle on landing and was picked up within in a few hours. As a soldier of the German army he was tried by general court martial and sentenced to death by shooting. He spent his last night at Wandsworth before being taken to the Tower to face the firing squad.

As dawn came I stood at the entrance to my office as he approached, still limping from his injury, with the stalwart British military policemen escorting him. He must have seen me silhouetted against the electric light in my office, for he walked the few paces towards me with his outstretched hand, and said a few words of thanks. As well as he could, he clicked his heels and walked on.

I watched him walk go down the steps, and into a military police car with its outrider escort alongside and escort cars in front and behind.

As the massive doors of Wandsworth Prison swung slowly open the coming dawn was lighting the field in front, and touching the trees and barrage balloons with its cold light.

The procession of cars with its central figure passed quickly through the gateway into the deserted streets on its way to the Tower.

I remember I felt disinclined to return immediately to my office, and walked on for a short way still thinking of that firm handshake and the fast-approaching end of a brave soldier.

Having seen so many criminals in his career, Benjamin was an exceedingly good judge of character. His encounter with Jakobs speaks for itself.

Wormwood Scrubs
In February 1945, Benjamin was transferred to Wormwood Scrubs Prison as Governor. Located just west of London, Wormwood Scrubs gave Benjamin another avenue whereby he could try bolder experiments in prison reform.

Major Benjamin Dixon Grew at Wormwood Scrubs Prison.
Major Benjamin Dixon Grew (at right) at Wormwood Scrubs Prison.
Picture from The Prison Governor by Benjamin D. Grew.

He spent the next 11 years at Wormwood Scrubs before finally retiring in 1956.

On 1 January 1, 1954, Queen Elizabeth announced the New Years Honours, an annual event in which she appointed various orders and honours to reward and highlight the good works of citizens of the Commonwealth.

Benjamin Dixon Grew was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (civilian division) for his many years of exemplary service in the Prison Service.

Civilian medal of an Officer of the Order of the British Empire
Civilian medal for Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE)
(from Bigbury Mint)

Benjamin Grew passed away in Hampshire (New Forest District) in the spring of 1977. His wife Eleanor passed away on 3 January, 1983 in the same area.

Benjamin Grew was a remarkable man. He was a pioneer in implementing prison reforms and seemed to genuinely care for the prisoners in his charge. His encounter with Josef Jakobs, briefly described in his book, is a testament to Benjamin's ability to see into the heart of a man.

Grew, Benjamin Dixon. The Prison Governor. Herbert Jenkins Ltd. 1958. - birth, marriage, death indices, census records, WWI Medal Index cards. 

© Copyright 2014 G.K. Jakobs


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