Dartmoor Prison Heritage Centre Princetown        For all prisoner enquiries call 01822 322000 for the Museum 01822 322130
History of Dartmoor Prison
prison hulks plymouthIn 1805, Great Britain was at war with Napoleonic France; a conflict during which thousands of prisoners were taken and confined in prison “hulks” or derelict ships. This was considered unsafe, partially due to the proximity of the Royal Naval dockyard at Plymouth and as living conditions were appalling in the extreme, a prisoner of war depot was planned in the remote isolation of Dartmoor.

In 1806 construction started, taking three years to complete.

In 1809 the first French prisoners arrived, and were joined by American POWs taken in the war of 1812. At one time the prison population numbered almost 6,000. Many prisoners died and were buried on the moor. Both French and American wars were concluded in 1815, and repatriations began.

main entrance to Dartmoor prisonThe prison then lay empty until 1850, when it was largely rebuilt and commissioned as a convict gaol.

With the establishment of the prison farm in about 1852, all the prisoners remains were exhumed and re-interred in two cemeteries behind the prison.

Dartmoor Prison, reckoned in Victorian times to be the hardest and most severe in England, has been in constant use from 1850 to the present day.

conscientious objectors dartmoor prisonIn 1917 all convicts were withdrawn from Dartmoor, which was then used to confine 1100 conscientious objectors who refused military service.

Until recently, Dartmoor Prison's inmates have been some of the most dangerous and notorious in English penal history.

Picture courtesy of M. Chamberlain

Construction of Dartmoor Prison

Construction of Dartmoor Prison - 1806
Pencil and wash picture by Samuel Prout
Courtesy of Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery©

Prisoners' Dartmoor Trek

1809 to 1815 Prisoners of War march from Plymouth to Dartmoor Prisoner of War Depot and are confined in appalling conditions.


Amongst several mutinies, in 1932 foul food led to an explosive uprising. Surprisingly there were no deaths but much of the prison was seriously damaged and many records destroyed

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