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TRAVEL: by Eric Mackenzie Lamb
All images by the Author

Located in the rolling green hills of southern Devon, Dartmoor National Park is one of Britain’s most scenic and best preserved nature conservancies. Almost every bend in the road reveals a spectacular panorama of rocky outcrops, grass-covered moorlands, or deep, densely-forested valleys. It’s not difficult to understand  why Sir Arthur Conan Doyle chose Dartmoor as the backdrop to his legendary Sherlock Holmes story Hound of the Baskervilles.

In fact, Dartmoor, at an average elevation of over  one thousand feet above sea level, even has its own unique climate. There can be bright sunlight one minute, and dense rolling fog with almost zero visibility the next-which is why road signs warning drivers about loose animals on the road are so plentiful.

But, just like those bleak, fogbound days, Dartmoor also has a darker side to it, one that you’d least expect to find in such a pastoral setting: its infamous prison.

Initially built in 1809 as a depot to hold French prisoners of war during Britain’s conflict with Napoleon, it didn’t take long for Dartmoor Prison to become synonymous with death, disease, and despair. It would also go on to serve another purpose-the relocation and confinement of Americans, mostly sailors, captured during the War of 1812. Britain found itself mired in two wars, one on each side of the Atlantic, and,  as these conflicts dragged on, more and more prisoners arrived until it became a virtual flood.  It wasn’t long before the authorities were overwhelmed and, as a consequence, began to impose increasingly draconian punishments on inmates who flouted the rules. One of the worst was solitary confinement-usually for ten days and with reduced rations-in the notorious “Black Hole”, a crude stone hut which had no light, heat, bedding, or windows, and from where many prisoners emerged with hypothermia, sometimes fatal. Nevertheless, even this did little to dissuade those determined to escape,  particularly the Americans.

And there were ample reasons for wanting to flee. To say that living conditions for Dartmoor’s inmates were nothing short of abominable would be an understatement. Even though freezing temperatures, gale force winds, and occasional deep snowfalls were the norm over the moors during winter months, there was no heating in the cell blocks. Most prisoners survived only by sleeping next to their neighbors and benefiting from each other’s body warmth. Cell blocks originally built to house 500 prisoners on each floor sometimes held more than 650. Nor was it unusual for an inmate to wake up the next morning only to discover that the man next to him was no longer asleep, but a corpse. Suicides were also common.

To make matters even worse, food was  in perpetual shortage and fish and meat often rotten. The quality of bread was so poor that many prisoners refused to eat it and went on collective hunger strikes in protest. Proper medical attention was scarce, hygiene virtually nonexistent. Infestations of bedbugs and lice were an everyday reality, made even worse by the fact that there were few, if any,  opportunities for prisoners to wash their own clothing. Many wore used garments which had been bartered for with illegal liquor or tobacco, even gambling, or had previously belonged to a fellow inmate who had since died and had his body stripped within seconds of his last breath. Outbreaks of measles and even smallpox were a regular occurrence, all of which claimed hundreds of lives. Altogether around 1500 prisoners perished  in Dartmoor between 1809 and 1815, mostly from disease. Those who died were buried outside the prison walls, either in cheap wooden coffins, or simply wrapped in a shroud, without mourners or even a religious ceremony. In the years which followed, their bones, exposed to weather and wild animals, began to emerge and litter the landscape. Finally, In 1866, the governor of the prison ordered them to be collected and divided into two heaps which were designated either French or American remains, and which were then interred in separate cemeteries at the rear of the prison and marked with an appropriate obelisk. There are also rows of headstones inscribed only with initials and dates, many faded beyond recognition. The true number of those who perished at Dartmoor, or their identities,  will probably never be known.

But for the privileged officer class, the majority of them French,  captivity was a very different story. By a mutual gentlemen’s agreement  between the warring parties, they were allowed to live under parole status  in private lodgings outside the prison on the condition that they gave their solemn word that they would not attempt to escape, as well as to report to prison authorities once a week. They were also permitted to receive money from friends and family overseas, which, especially for those from aristocratic or wealthy backgrounds, enabled them to live in relative comfort.

After Napoleon’s final defeat at the battle of Waterloo, the process of repatriating French prisoners of war began in earnest. However, as the war in North America was still ongoing, those freed were quickly replaced by their American counterparts who were transferred from other prisons throughout Britain. Many had been kept in infamous hulk ships at nearby ports like Plymouth, where conditions were even more horrific than those at Dartmoor.

This was the pattern of life-and death-at Dartmoor during the early 1800s. And well beyond.

This was the pattern of life-and death-at Dartmoor during the early 1800s. And well beyond.

As mentioned previously, there have been numerous escape attempts- many involving astonishing ingenuity on the part of the prisoners-during Dartmoor’s two hundred years of history. But, in the end, less than a handful succeeded. Much of this was due to the fact that, even after a prisoner had managed to flee, there was almost nowhere to go. No food, no shelter, no relief from driving rain and biting winds, and all the while running the risk of being spotted by his pursuers (or a local farmer eager to collect a £5 reward) while trying to make his way across open stretches of moorland-which is one reason that the present site for Dartmoor prison was chosen in the first place. With few exceptions, most escapees were recaptured within forty eight hours. Others, exhausted after having realized the futility of continuing  into the unknown, simply turned around, stumbled back toward the prison gates, and gave themselves up.

The entrance to Dartmoor prison.
The Latin inscription Parcere subjectus,
(barely visible in this image of the arch) translates to Spare the Vanquished.

Dartmoor is also the site of another important legacy from that turbulent era: the only church in Britain built by American prisoners of war.


Today, more than two hundred years on, Dartmoor still serves as a prison. But things couldn’t be more different. No prisoners of war, no violent criminals, and very few repeat offenders. Convicted murderers and other serious criminals were long ago transferred to modern, high-tech security prisons in other parts of Britain. Generally, no inmates at Dartmoor  have  been convicted of serious violent crimes, nor, for the most part,  are they considered flight risks. Many are participants  in a government-sponsored rehabilitation program through which they learn skills to help improve their chances of employment  after their release back into society. They also receive expert psychological counseling when needed. Good hygiene, dedicated medical services, healthy food, hot showers, a library, access to visiting family members-these are now the norm for everyone, not just for Napoleon’s elite officers.  Unlike their Nineteenth century predecessors, prison staff in today’s Dartmoor are polite, well trained, and professional. Much of their relationship with the inmates is based on mutual trust, as well as instinct and past experience. Many prisoners pass through the gates each morning to perform outside tasks, like tending to the prison farm and collecting its fruits and vegetables. There are also talented artists and craftsmen among them, and a gift shop where visitors can purchase their hand-made items . There are even bird cages for sale.

Wry humor? One can’t help but wonder.


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