The Ghost of a Georgian Prison

I was in Devon recently and, crossing Dartmoor, stopped outside Princetown to look at the gloomy bulk of Dartmoor prison. It isn’t easy to stop and look at the place, let alone take photographs, for obvious security reasons, but these were taken from a legitimate parking space beyond the town.

It is often assumed, possibly because of its looming presence in Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, that it is a Victorian  prison and, as a prison for convicted criminals, it is certainly that. The first arrived in 1850, transferred from the rotting prison hulks on the Thames, and the buildings we can see today were built by, and for, those men and their successors.

However, the first stones were laid on the site in March 1806 on land owned by the Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent). There was no village there, merely farms and an inn. The government had realized that the prison hulks at Portsmouth and other harbours could no longer cope with the flood of prisoners of war from the Napoleonic Wars. Prisoners were dying in large numbers from disease and it became clear that a new land-based prison was necessary. Britain was at war with France from 1793 to 1815 and it is estimated that over 100,000 prisoners, mainly naval, were landed in England during that period.

Officers were easy to deal with. By definition they were ‘gentlemen’ and could therefore be relied upon to keep their word of honour. If they gave their parole, a promise in writing not to escape, they were allowed to live in lodgings in one of the numerous parole towns, mainly near the coast. There were eleven in Hampshire alone.

Ordinary soldiers and sailors and non-commissioned officers were not trusted and had to be confined. Norman Cross prison near Peterborough had been established as early as 1797, but that was not enough and the hulks had proved an inadequate, lethal, alternative.

The new prison at what became known as Princetown, built at a cost or £200,000, received its first prisoners on 22nd May 1809. In September 1810 Ackermann’s Repository published a plan of Dartmoor Prison & English Barracks.

The vast majority of the structures seen in the plan were demolished from 1850 onwards as ‘modern’ cell blocks were built, but, extraordinarily, the basic shape and some features remain in the present prison. If you look at the satellite view of the prison you will see the circular shape has been retained, that the old barracks have gone, but Barrack Road still runs through the site and the entrance gates and the outlet for the aqueduct remain. It is even possible to trace the shape of the entrance yards and the line of the wall that cuts across the circle is still visible. Even the layout of the blocks, radiating outwards, preserves the footprint of the original structures. Presumably one was demolished and rebuilt at a time.

The Repository provides a helpful key. Starting from the bottom of the picture, outside the gates, is Aqueduct to supply prison with water and Pond of water. Opposite is The Grand entrance; with the inscription ‘Parcere subjectis’ cut in the stone arch. [‘Spare the vanquished’ ie be kind to the prisoners!]. If you use Streetview you can read the inscription, still in place, and behind it see a second gate with a bell over it, as seen in the print.

On either side of the main entrance were the Agent’s and Surgeon’s houses with clerks’ houses making up the rest of the little Agent’s square for market, etc. – a reminder that prisoners were allowed to craft items from straw, bone and wood and sell them to the public. This wonderfully intricate box was shown on the Antiques Roadshow in 2020 and valued at £4-6000. It was not only innocent workboxes and ship models that the prisoners sold. An embarrassed and indignant  local member of the Society For the Suppression of Vice posted two of his purchases to the London Headquarters. They appear, from the difficulty he had in wrapping them and his euphemism-laden remarks, to have been sex toys carved from bone.

Once through the next set of gates one was in the Detached space for prisoners to receive their allowance from [the cooking-house], also public market. the cooking-house and bath were at the bottom left of that space. The large building to the left of the space was the hospital with the Matron’s house and dispensary facing it. On the other side was the Petty-officers’ prison, a reminder that most of the prisoners were sailors.

Through the next set of gates one is in the Prison yard with five prison blocks radiating around it. In the outer circle are four Sheds for drying clothes. A large pond was fed from the aqueduct head outside the gates and what are presumably drainage ditches serving privies run around from low sheds at the end of each prison block. These appear to be open, which must have been both smelly and insanitary, although presumably they were flushed from the pond.  On the outside of the military way (coloured green) and walls are the North and South Guard rooms. The detached enclosed area was a Barracks for 500 men.

The Repository positively gushes with admiration for the new prison and its management: Here, under the humane arrangement and control of the Transport Board, ably seconded by the resident agent, Isaac Cotgrave, Esq. an old post-captain, every comfort is administered to alleviate the prisoners’ unhappy lot, as far as the nature of circumstances will allow. Unbiassed by motives foreign to their duty, and the innate liberality and feeling of their hearts, these gentlemen (some of whom are well acquainted with French prisons, and have personally experienced what they are) pursue an undeviating system of philanthropy, honourable to themselves, and beneficial to the objects of their care and exertions.

Efforts were made to maintain hygiene. Every morning, bedding is immediately exposed to the air, and the rooms properly ventilated… The hospital is kept in the most exact state of cleanliness and order…medicines, wine, etc are furnished unsparingly.

The prisoners, who were clothed in yellow uniforms with occasional blue stripes, elected representatives to discuss grievances with the Agent and to inspect the rations issued. A daily market was held so that the prisoners could sell their work and buy additional food and many trifling luxuries.

Whether or not conditions were ever so good in reality, things rapidly went downhill as the prison grew more and more crowded. It was full by the end of 1809 but prisoners still kept arriving. War broke out with America in 1812 and  from April 1813 until April 1815 about 6,500 American sailors were held at Dartmoor, some of which were American seamen who were serving on British ships. It is estimated that about 1,000 of the prisoners were black.

Recurrent outbreaks of typhoid, pneumonia and smallpox swept through the prison population. 271 American died and over 11,000 Frenchmen. When the  Treaty of Ghent between the Americans and British was signed in December 1814, the American prisoners expected immediate release, but the British government refused to let them go on parole or take any steps until the treaty was ratified by the Senate on 17 February 1815. On April 16 the men’s impatience finally snapped and they rioted. Guards opened fire and 60 were injured and seven killed. After an enquiry jointly by the US and British, the survivors and bereaved families received pensions.

The prison stayed in use until the end of the war when the survivors were repatriated. The last Frenchman left in early 1816.

The Repository had noted that, it is said to be in contemplation to convert this vast, and then useless building, into a receptacle for convicts, whose labour on the moor will prove highly important and beneficial to the nation, and an incredible saving in the expense incurred both at home and in transportation. In the event the prison closed in 1816 and only reopened in 1850.

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Filed under Architecture, Buildings, Crime, Military, Riots

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