Dartmoor: The Prison That Broke the Body and then the Soul

May 16, 2010 - by Robert Walsh

May 16, 2010

Dartmoor Prison

Dartmoor Prison

   Opened in 1809 to hold French soldiers captured during the Napoleonic Wars, Dartmoor Prison became Great Britain’s version of Devil’s Island for the most hardened of British convicts.
by Robert Walsh

“There are two ways to enter Dartmoor Prison, and it is far, far preferable to work there.” – Anonymous

Her Majesty’s Prison, Dartmoor (known simply as “The Moor” to prisoners and guards alike) is the oldest, and by far the most notorious prison still in use in the Great Britain. Located in the middle of the Dartmoor National Park, it is also considered the most difficult prison to visit. It’s reputation as being a punishment prison for intractable  repeat offenders, coupled with various riots, murders, spectacular escapes and notorious inmates, make the word “Dartmoor” synonymous with brutality, harsh living conditions, even harsher discipline and a long-established (and well-deserved) reputation as the hardest time a British convict could do.

Dartmoor was designed by well-known architect Daniel Asher Alexander and constructed using local labor and local materials, especially the Dartmoor granite used in building the cell blocks. It was opened in 1809 and intended to hold French prisoners taken during the long-running Napoleonic Wars and as a replacement for their previous accommodation, the filthy disease-and-rat infested prison ship (known as ‘hulks’) then anchored 17 miles away in Plymouth Sound. Along with French prisoners, it also held U.S. prisoners taken during the War of 1812.

After the end of hostilities with America and France, the prison was closed down in 1816. During it’s time as a military prison it held between six and 10 thousand prisoners of which over 1,500 were to die, mostly from cramped conditions, harsh treatment, malnutrition, and disease.

The first event of note was the infamous “Dartmoor Massacre” on April 6, 1815. The atmosphere in the prison had been growing increasingly tense, both on the part of the inmates and the prison administration. The inmates were making increasingly vociferous complaints about the poor quality of their rations. In turn, the prison staff became increasingly concerned that there would be some form of disturbance among the inmates. It came to a head when the guards discovered a small hole carved in an internal wall which led, not outside the prison, but merely to another yard within the prison walls. The prison’s commander, a Royal Navy captain who was regarded by many inmates as a perpetual drunk and common sadist, ordered the guards on the walls to open fire into the prison compound. Seven prisoners were killed and 31 were wounded. The youngest inmate to die was just 14 years old.

The prison was closed down in 1816 and lay unused until 1850. During the intervening time, many of Britain’s convicts were sentenced to penal colonies in faraway places such as Tasmania or Australia. Not surprisingly, the Australians, in particular, began to greatly resent the British simply dumping their criminals in their country and made it increasingly clear that they were highly unwelcome. This led to an increased demand for prison space back in the UK and so Dartmoor was extensively rebuilt and upgraded. It reopened as a prison for civilian convicts in 1850, two years before the French opened Devil’s Island in French Guiana at Kourou.

The regime at Dartmoor was an especially harsh, cruel and degrading, with flogging and birching. Birching is a punishment administered to the back by bundled, leafless twigs. Like the desolate moorland that surrounded it, the prison was usually cold, misty, wind-blown and wet for most of the year.

Severe overcrowding was a particular problem at Dartmoor, with up to 2,000 inmates sharing a single cell block at one time, with the prison’s three other blocks in a similar state. The overcrowding, coupled with the poor food and the constant bad weather, allowed disease to swiftly spread throughout the prison. In total, a staggering number of inmates have died at Dartmoor since it was first opened. Some 500 inmates died of measles and at least another 1250 from typhoid, smallpox, suicide, the “Dartmoor Massacre.”  Some inmates were killed in convict-on-convict duels.


Dartmoor Prison in 1815

Dartmoor Prison in 1815

One reason for the high death rate, and a considerable amount of unrest among inmates at the time, was the variety and quality of the inmate food rations. Prisoners at this time were issued daily with one and a half pounds of bread, half a pound of beef, half a pound of vegetable, one ounce of barley and one third of an ounce of salt. On Wednesdays and Fridays, one pound of potatoes and one pound of fish were also issued. This may seem like a generous daily ration to some, but it must be remembered that the variety of the food on offer would have done little to maintain an inmate’s health and that the quality of the food was invariably highly suspect and usually varied between the poor and the inedible.

This did not encourage good behavior on the part of the inmates, so discipline was harsh and often brutal at Dartmoor. Inmates were routinely flogged with a cat’o’nine tails or birched for even slight infractions of the rules. They would also be confined to what was then known as the “cachot” (the punishment block) for up to 10 days and be fed only two-thirds of their normal daily ration as well. The birch rod, far from being a throwback to a more primitive age, was still used at Dartmoor as recently as 1950, and at that time a recalcitrant prisoner was still given the most minor prison punishment of three days in solitary confinement on nothing but bread and water.

Dartmoor became infamous for its image as the hardest prison in the UK, an image it retains to this day. The typical image many people have when they think of Dartmoor, even today, is of sullen prisoners in arrowed suits, breaking rocks in the prison quarry from morning till night. Although breaking rocks was the principle of occupation of Dartmoor’s inmates, Dartmoor being the principle prison for inmates sentenced to hard labor, they were also employed reclaiming bog land and turning it into farmland, clearing rocks, building walls and tending livestock such as the famous Dartmoor ponies.

As one might expect, given the difficult living conditions and harsh discipline, escape attempts were common. Dartmoor at one time had a reputation, like Alcatraz and Devil’s Island, as being escape proof, but this was definitely not the case. Dartmoor Prison was located in the middle of Dartmoor National Park for a reason, that reason being that it is in the middle of 365 square miles of harsh terrain that is also mostly uninhabited. Even if an inmate escaped outside the prison, he still faced the huge problem of how to get off the moor while being hunted by prison guards, police officers, civilian search parties and, occasionally, the Army. Also, prior to the invention of motor vehicles, he would be faced with doing this on foot or, if he were lucky, he might be able to steal a horse.

Escapers who were caught faced, as usual, harsh and brutal punishments. They were birched, flogged, lodged in the solitary cells for long periods on reduced rations and were usually stripped of any time off for good behavior and given a lengthy extra sentence for escaping, on top of the original sentence they were already serving. The extra sentence would also be served consecutively, not concurrent, with their original sentence. Those who made it outside the prison rarely met with much success either. They were mostly recaptured. Of those who were not recaptured, some became lost on the moor and died of hypothermia, some became trapped in one of Dartmoor’s numerous bogs and were drowned and, in the days when Dartmoor had armed guards, some were shot while trying to escape.

Eventually there had to occur some kind of major disturbance, and there was. It became known as “The Great Dartmoor Mutiny,” and occurred on Jan. 24, 1932 and is commonly regarded, even today, as the single worst riot in British penal history. Again, poor food and the alleged mistreatment of inmates by guards were accepted as the cause. That morning, around 50 inmates 
refused en masse to obey orders and the rest of the inmates, having been marched back to their cells, refused to enter and be locked down. At this point the prison warden and his staff retreated to an unused part of the prison and locked themselves in, leaving the rest of the prison at the mercy of the rioters who were not slow to take full advantage of the opportunity for mayhem. The mutineers immediately went to the punishment block and released the inmates serving solitary confinement and extensively damaged much of the prison’s buildings, including the destruction by arson of the administration block where inmates’ personal files were kept. The mutiny was swiftly put down by a combination of prison guard, police officers and even soldiers drafted in to quell the uprising.  In the process, one inmate was shot to death by prison staff.  

A notorious prison would not be complete without some notorious inmates, and Dartmoor is no exception. Infamous alumni of Dartmoor Prison include John Haigh (the “Acid Bath Murderer”), Frank Mitchell (known nationwide as “The Mad Axeman” and who escaped, with the help of the equally notorious London gangsters the Kray Twins in 1966) and the now-legendary London gangster “Mad” Frankie Fraser (who spent no less than 42 years in various prisons and psychiatric hospitals for various crimes of violence, and was certified insane on no less than two separate occasions). Slightly more distinguished inmates include the Irish revolutionary Michael Davitt and Eamon De Valera, who was later to become the first president of the Irish Republic after Irish independence had been secured.

As a civilian prison, Dartmoor can be considered the equal of Alcatraz or Devil’s Island, ensuring its place among the most notorious prisons in the world. Like Alcatraz, Dartmoor was always intended as a punishment prison. It was designed to hold, and break, the worst convicts Britain had to offer and to provide a dumping ground where other prisons could send inmates that they couldn’t handle. The theory behind Dartmoor was simple. Take the worst inmates possible, hold them as far from civilization as possible, and keep them under as harsh a regime as possible. In short, out of sight and out of mind. In the same way that all prisons have a punishment block for unruly or disobedient inmates, Dartmoor was the punishment prison for the entire British penal system.

Even today, when Dartmoor is much improved, its name alone and its isolated, foreboding location gives pause.  The threat of transfer there is still used by guards in more lenient prisons as a means of cowing unruly inmates into obedience and submission.

Dartmoor, in the 21st century, has a new mission. Whereas it was once a “Category A” prison, dealing with the nation’s toughest and most intractable inmates, today it has been downgraded to a “Category C” prison for inmates who pose a low risk but are still not trusted enough to be sent to a “Category D” or ‘open’ prison. It is also used as a training prison for new prison officers to get their early experience of prison and prisoners before moving on to tougher prisons such as Whitemoor, Wakefield, Parkhurst and others. Both the disciplinary regime and the inmates living conditions have improved immeasurably from Dartmoor’s early days, but “Her Majesty’s Prison, Dartmoor” was still referred to, only a few years ago, by Judge Stephen Tumin (former Chief Inspector of Prisons) as “An offence against Nature” and by current Inspector of Prisons Anne Owens as “The prison that time forgot.”

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