Widecombe History Group Talk on the History of Dartmoor Prison

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by Trevor James

Trevor James has researched the history of Dartmoor Prison over a long period and having worked there, has been able to get access to many historical documents. He has written four paperback books about the Prison, how it was built, its inmates, those who have worked on its construction and the running of the Prison since the first block was laid in 1803.

Trevor gave us a plan of the Prison to look at, built on a principle of a wheel, the circular outer wall, one mile in length, with the buildings radiating out from the centre like its spokes. There was an inner wall with platforms for the guards to stand on and metal palings to prevent prisons fraternising with the guards. Above the main entrance is written “Parce subjectis” - Spare the Vanquished.

As a result of military activity from 1803 to 1814 when Britain was at war with France, there were 122,000 prisoners spread through the U.K. During the same period the French took 60,000 prisoners mainly privateers. Many of the French P.O.Ws. were held in terrible conditions in the rusting and rotting hulks of captured ‘Men o’ War’ ships anchored in Plymouth Sound. Due to terrible sanitation the annual death rate was 4 to 5 per cent and some prisoners were held ashore. Sir Thomas Terwhitt of Tor Royal thought he would like to create a settlement at Princetown and dreamt of building a Prison there. He was a very influential men and this was done and the first prisoners arrived there in 1809. By 1810 there were more than 9,000 prisoners held in Dartmoor Prison. In 1812, America declared war on Britain and two extra blocks were added to the Prison. Many of these prisoners had been ‘press ganged’ into serving their Country and by 1813 the first American P.O.Ws. were at Princetown. The French and the Americans did not get on well. By 1814 the War with France had ended and 5,000 American prisoners were at Princetown. On Christmas Eve in 1814 the war with American ended and in May 1815 the re-patriation of American prisoners began.

From 1816 to 1850 the Prison was closed and many British criminals were transported to the Colonies, particularly Australia. The Australians resented this and by 1850 penal institutions in the U.K. were needed and Dartmoor was re-opened as a Convict Prison. The Prison was guarded by the Militia (these were the lowest of men and included many ruffians etc.) Farmers or other people with money could buy themselves out of the Militia, therefore the regime within the prisons was of great cruelty, hardship and very degrading. Flogging and torture was commonplace. The windows had no glass and were covered by wooden shutters, the cold and damp caused much illness, particularly smallpox and chest complaints. With 1000 men in a block, disease was easily spread, sometimes as many as 1500 - 2000 were packed together in each of the large buildings. There was a Prison Hospital manned by a surgeon and two helpers (conscripts who were given extra clothing and 6d per week). One building referred to as the ‘dead house’ where bodies were stored before burial. Due to over-crowding 500 died from measles, 1250 from typhoid and disease, suicide and some even shot in duels. The dead were dumped in pits outside the prison and after many years their bones began coming to the surface. It was then that the two ‘Memorial Gardens’ were constructed and the two granite monoliths erected, in memory of those French and American prisoners that perished at Princetown. The Agent or Governor was often a Royal Naval Captain and discipline was harsh. Most inmates had yellow uniforms of canvas which was very rough on their skin with canvas and wooden shoes. A market was held within the prison six days a week for three hours. The French would barter with the traders, some money circulated, generally through gambling. Rations were recorded as one and a half pounds of bread, half a pound of beef, half a pound of vegetables, one ounce of barley and a third of an ounce of salt per day per prisoner. On Wednesdays and Fridays one pound of potatoes and one pound of fish were made available. Many meals were brought into the prison by contract and were cooked in copper cauldrons. Cachot, was the name for punishment block where prisoners lived on two-thirds of normal rations after they were sentenced to ten days in cachot (the black hole). For murder they were taken to Truro and hanged. Prisoners all over the country had to work, at Portland they worked in the quarries, in Dartmoor they worked in quarries and helped to cultivate the farm. Punishment some times consisted of flogging, with the cat-of-ninetails, the birch was used as recently as 1950, and bread and water for three days was the norm.

Outside workers were guarded by armed guards and they were used to re-claim the bog area into agricultural land, clear the stones, build walls and tend the horses, cattle and sheep.

When Dartmoor Prison was used as a Category A and B prison, it held several notorious prisoners and Trevor is at present working on a book about them. Today, as a Category C prison, it holds 615 prisoners, several in single cells. Their welfare is entirely different to that of one hundred years ago, food, comfort, various religions are catered for, television and radio, all making life more bearable. The real punishment is the loss of liberty and it is not until they are locked away that they find that they have time to consider the folly of their ways.

The talk was extremely interesting and we shall no doubt be inviting Trevor to visit our Group again. His books can be obtained from the Dartmoor Prison Museum, The High Moorland Centre and other bookshops in the area. They make for fascinating reading.

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