HM Prison Dartmoor is a Category C men's prison, located in Princetown, high on Dartmoor in the English county of Devon. Its high granite walls dominate this area of the moor. The prison is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, and is operated by Her Majesty's Prison Service.

Early history

Designed by Daniel Asher Alexander and constructed originally between 1806 and 1809 by local labour, to hold prisoners of the Napoleonic Wars, it was also used to hold American prisoners from the War of 1812. Although the war ended with the Treaty of Ghent in December 1814, many American prisoners of war still remained in Dartmoor. On April 6, 1815, 7 of them were killed and 31 wounded when guards opened fire at the behest of the allegedly drunk British officer in charge, who thought that they were attempting to escape. A memorial to the 271 POWs (mostly seamen) who are buried in the prison grounds has been erected.

Dartmoor Prison was reopened in 1851 as a civilian prison, but was closed again in 1917 to be converted into a Home Office Work Centre for certain conscientious objectors granted release from prison; cells were unlocked, inmates wore their own clothes, and could visit the village in their off-duty time. It was again reopened as a prison in 1920, and then contained some of Britain's most serious offenders.

Dartmoor mutiny

On January 24, 1932, there was a major disturbance at the prison. The cause of the riots is generally attributed to the food, not generally but just on specific days when it was suspected it had been tampered with prior to the disturbance. There had also been other instances of disobedience prior to this, according to the official Du Parcq report into the incident such as a model prisoner attacking a popular guard with a razor blade and rough treatment of a prisoner being removed to solitary. At the parade later that day, 50 prisoners refused orders, and the rest were marched back to their cells but refused to enter. At this point, the prison governor and his staff fled to an unused part of the prison and secured themselves in there. The prisoners then released those held in solitary. There was extensive damage to property, but no prison staff were injured, although a prisoner was shot by one of the staff. According to Fitzgerald (1977) "Reinforcements arrived, and within fifteen minutes these 'vicious brutes', who for some two hours had terrorized well-armed prison staff, and effectively controlled the prison, had surrendered and been locked up again".

Recent history

In 2001 a Board of Visitors report condemned sanitation at Dartmoor as well as highlighting a list of urgent repairs needed at the prison. A year later Dartmoor was converted to a Category C prison for less violent offenders.

In 2002 the Prison Reform Trust warned that Dartmoor Prison may be breaching the Human Rights Act 1998 due to severe overcrowding at the jail. A year later however the Chief Inspector of Prisons declared that Dartmoor had made substantial improvements to its management and regime.

In March 2008 staff at the prison passed a vote of no confidence in the governor Serena Watts, claiming they felt bullied by managers and unsafe.

Serena Watts has recently left her post as governor and has been replaced by Tony Corcoran.

The prison today

Dartmoor still has a misplaced reputation for being a high-security prison that is escape-proof. Now a Category C prison, Dartmoor houses mainly non-violent offenders and white-collar criminals.

Dartmoor offers cellular accommodation on 6 wings. Education is available at the prison (full and part time), and ranges from basic educational skills to Open University courses. Vocational training includes electronics, brickwork and carpentry courses up to City & Guilds and NVQ level, Painting and Decorating courses, industrial cleaning and Desk Top Publishing. Full time employment is also available in catering, farming, gardening, laundry, textiles, Braille, contract services, furniture manufacturing and polishing. Employment is supported with NVQ or City & Guilds vocational qualifications. All courses and qualifications at Dartmoor are operated by Stroud College and Cornwall College.

The 'Dartmoor Jailbreak' is a yearly charity event, where civilians (not prisoners) 'escape' from the prison and must travel as far as possible in 4 days, whilst in convict clothing and without directly paying for transport.

Dartmoor Prison Museum

The Dartmoor Prison Museum, located in the old dairy buildings, focuses on the history of HMP Dartmoor. Exhibits include the prison's role in housing prisoners of war from the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812, manacles and weapons, memorabilia, clothing and uniforms, famous prisoners, and the changed focus of the prison. It also sells (2010) garden ornaments, plus postcards and fridge magnets, and similar mementoes.

Notable former inmates
  • Michael Davitt
  • Peter Hammond, founder of Hammond, Louisiana, USA
  • Fred Longden
  • John Rodker
  • Moondyne Joe
  • Thomas William Jones, Baron Maelor
  • Arthur Owens
  • Selden
  • Éamon de Valera
  • John Williams
  • Frank Mitchell
  • Reginald Horace Blyth
In popular culture
  • Decline and Fall, a novel by Evelyn Waugh, first published in 1928 makes thinly disguised references to Dartmoor Prison.
  • Dartmoor Prison is mentioned in The Thirteen Problems, a short story collection written by Agatha Christie, and first published in 1932.
  • Arthur Conan Doyle made reference to 'Princetown Prison' in four stories that he wrote between 1890 and 1903.
  • Dressed to Kill, A 1946 Sherlock Holmes film uses Dartmoor Prison in the plot as the supposed location where three music boxes were made that contain a secret code for a criminal gang.
  • Referenced in Bob Miller's song, Twenty-One Years.
  • The Goon Show episode, Tales of Old Dartmoor has the prison put to sea for a holiday in France, visiting the Chateau D'Ief, and replaced by a cardboard replica after it goes down with all hands after Moriarty and Grytpype-Thinne attempt to find a clue to the Treasure of Monte-Christo.
  • In an episode of The Saint television series entitled 'Escape Route' (1966), Simon Templar (Roger Moore) is sent to Dartmoor to uncover an planned escape.
  • Comedy Band The Barron Knights' 1978 UK #3 hit single A Taste Of Aggro, a medley of parodies, included a version of The Smurf Song featuring, in place of the Smurfs, a group of bank robbers from Catford who have escaped from Dartmoor Prison.
  • In 1988, the prison played host to a storyline in EastEnders, where Den Watts (played by Leslie Grantham) was being held on remand for arson. He was also joined for some of the storyline by Nick Cotton (played by John Altman), who was imprisoned for a different offence. The prison was called Dickens Hill.
  • Dartmoor is frequently mentioned in the Agent Z series of comical children’s books written by Mark Haddon.
  • Dartmoor prison is implicated in the local Dartmoor 'Hairy hands' ghost story/legend.
  • Dartmoor prison plays a central role in "The Lively Lady," American author Kenneth Roberts' 1931 historical novel taking place during The War of 1812


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