During its lifetime, Dartmoor Prison has housed both French and American prisoners of war and wartime conscientious objectors, as well as the general prison population. It has also been known by more than a few names. These days it is home to Category-C prisoners – those who are unlikely to make determined escape attempts due to lack of desire, resources or skills, but who still cannot be trusted to remain in an open prison.
It has to be said that the amount of escape equipment that has been confiscated from prisoners over the years does seem to make a mockery of this. Records show that three prisoners managed to escape from Dartmoor in the year between April 2003 and April 2004, although out of a population generally around 600, perhaps this is a low enough statistic for the prison to retain its categorization. Hundreds of others have escaped in the previous 150 years. Those who are brave enough to attempt to escape not only the prison itself, but the emptiness and coldness of the hundreds of square miles of Dartmoor that surround it, perhaps deserve their freedom. And who can say whether those who were recaptured weren't glad to escape the bleakness and mist of the moors?
Built between 1806 and 1809 to house POWs from the Napoleonic War and named Dartmoor Depot, it became a prison for criminals in 1850. Situated in the middle of Dartmoor in Princetown1, the prison is a lonely, bleak, forbidding grey stone building from the outside. But nowadays the inside is as warm and welcoming as a prison can be, with all but one of the six wings now having integral sanitation. Some of the wings have different uses, including one resettlement wing, where prisoners live as close to 'normal' life as possible while working on projects outside the prison. In this respect, it is unique among category-C prisons.
When it was first operating as a POW prison in the early nineteenth century, it housed French prisoners - taking over from the hulks (broken old ships used as floating prisons) in Plymouth where they had previously been held. More blocks were built in 1811, by French prisoners who volunteered and were paid, to make room for more POWs. In 1813, the French were joined by American POWs from the War of 1812. Between 6,000 and 10,000 POWs were kept here, in very crowded conditions. Those who died - around 1,500, mostly from disease - were buried on the moor. Some of these remains became exposed decades later due to harsh weather and wild animals, and were reburied in the new prison cemetery, along with remains dug up at the same time to make way for a prison farm. The wars ended in 1814, and by 1815 the POWs began to be sent home, French prisoners first, with Americans later. But then Napoleon made a comeback, and French POWs were again sent to Dartmoor, many for a second time. The Battle of Waterloo, on 18 June, 1815, finally put an end to Napoleon's ambitions, and the POWs left for the final time in 1816.
Dartmoor Prison was not used again until 1846 when efforts were made to produce gas and oil from the local peat. This venture was unsuccessful and was soon discontinued. In 1850, rebuilding took place so that the centre, now a prison once again, could house criminals.
Once the criminals arrived, they were set to work - quarrying, cultivating and draining the moor, mainly, but also clearing fields and building walls and paths. Life was hard for the prison officers and their families as well, due to the isolation of the area (it was compulsory for them to live in until the 1950s). Pubs were their only respite, although eventually a school, a recreation hall and a church were built, and a branch of Great Western Railways was opened.
When the Great War broke out, most of the British soldiers were volunteers. After two years the numbers of new soldiers dwindled and conscription began. Those who refused conscription for religious or moral reasons were rated as conscientious objectors and could not be pressed into service. However, they were able to serve in non-combat roles and many did; those who refused even this were sentenced to hard labour for the remainder of the war. Many of those (1,100 in total) were sent to Dartmoor Prison from 1917, the criminal population having been moved out and the prison renamed Princetown Work Centre. The 'Conchies' were branded cowards, treated appallingly and made to do hard labour. They were moved out at the end of the war and the criminal population returned.
The small museum close to the prison (in fact it used to be the prison dairy) is well worth a visit. Among exhibits from times past, it sells products made by prisoners. These are mostly garden gnomes, but also include signs such as 'Keep off the grass' and 'Beware of the dog' which may make visitors smile. Other creative work includes the religious paintings that were painted straight on to slate slabs in the floor of the prison chapel and later removed – these are not for sale, although you can buy original cell doors.
Also included are items from the 'Black Museum', objects which prisoners made in order to tattoo or stab each other, or to escape from the prison - either literally with sheet ropes (yes, they really do make ropes out of sheets) and home-made keys, or metaphorically with drug-taking equipment.