A fascinating insight into prison life
Opening Times:
Monday to Thursday and Saturdays
- 9:30am to 4:30pm
Friday and Sunday
- 9:30am to 4:00pm
Last entries
- 30 minutes before advertised closing time
We are dog friendly
- Non commercial photography allowed


Napoleonic Prisoners of War at Dartmoor Prison
Napoleonic Prisoners of War at Dartmoor Prison
French Prisoners of War at Dartmoor

• Britain had been at war with France on and off since 1789.
• French prisoners of war were first held on ‘Prison Hulks’, old de-commissioned warships in what is today Devonport in Plymouth. There were initially 6 hulks and 2 hospital ships, holding between 800 to 1000 men.
• Overcrowding and disease was a problem on the hulks, as was security as Napoleon had plans to invade Britain and this would target ports such as Plymouth.
• The Admiralty decided to move prisoners from the hulks to inland war prisons. This is the reason Dartmoor Prison was built between 1806 and 1809.
• On 17th May 1809 the Agent for Dartmoor, Captain Isaac Cotgrave was told to expect the first batch of 2500 French prisoners from Plymouth.
• It was originally intended to ferry them to Lopwell Quay and then march them to Princetown. This idea proved unsatisfactory and so the prisoners marched all the way from Plymouth, arriving on 24th May 1809.
• The 18 mile walk was said to have taken 1 day to complete.
• All prisoners would have marched under the Prison Arch bearing the inscription ‘Parcere Subjectis’ or ‘Spare the Vanquished’.
• Although the prisoners had all been fighting for Napoleon, not all of them were French. There were reports that prisoners were Spanish, Portugese, Polish, Russian, Swiss, German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, American and African.

• Among prisoners taken from French ships were a number of women and children. They were held on the hulks with the men but after arrival at Dartmoor, they were given 1 guinea (£1.05) and sent back to Plymouth for repatriation to France.
• Prisoners were housed in the five, two storey prison blocks at Dartmoor. Each floor would have housed 500 men, each block housed 1000 men. The prison was built to accommodate 5000 men.
• There were no individual cells, prisoners would have slept in large open plan dormitories in hammocks slung between metal posts, probably about four or five high.
• Windows were small and ventilation very poor. Water was supplied to each block through culverts from the reservoir located just outside the main gate. This is still in existence today although the prison is now connected to mains water.

The Militia
• At the same time that the prison was built, barracks were constructed next to the prison to accommodate the militia who were to guard them.
• Militia were a military force raised from the civil population which supplemented the regular army whilst they were fighting the French abroad.
• Militia were alternated between Dartmoor and Plymouth to prevent fraternisation with prisoners.
• Militia Regiments who served at Dartmoor were:

- The Second Royal Veteran Battalion
- The Royal Marines
- The Second Battalion, Third Regiment of Foot (The Buffs)
- The West Essex Regiment of Militia
- The First Somerset Regiment of Militia
- The First Devon Regiment of Militia
- The Shropshire Regiment of Militia
- The Nottingham Regiment of Militia
- The Roscommon Regiment of Militia
- The South Gloucester Regiment of Militia
- The Hereford and Norfolk Regiment of Militia
- The Edinburgh Regiment of Militia

The Militia were also supplemented at times by a detachment of gunners from the Royal Artillery.
Conditions for the Prisoners
Daily Food Ration:
• 1 ½ lb of bread
• ¾ lb of fresh beef
• ¼ pint of peas
• 1/3 oz of salt
• 1 quart of beer
The beef ration was substituted for fish on a Friday for those who wanted it and butter or cheese on a Saturday.
In addition to this a daily market was held in the prison whereby prisoners could buy or trade goods for food. This daily trade encouraged prisoners to construct models and toys which were exchanged for goods.
• 1 hammock
• 1 palliase (mattress) filled with straw
• 1 bolster (pillow)
• 1 blanket
• 1 hat
• 1 jacket
• 1 waistcoat
• Trousers
• 1 Shirt
• Shoes
• Stockings
• 1 handkerchief
Prison Rules: By the Commissioners for conducting His Majesty’s Transport Service.
• All orders given by the Agent or any other Officer of the Prison shall be immediately attended to without dispute, reply or hesitation.
• Prisoners are forbidden to strike, menace or insult any person employed in the Prison under pain of losing their Turn of Exchange, confinement in the Black Hole (Cachot), losing one third of their ration or any other punishment as directed by the commissioners.
• Prisoners are forbidden to fight, quarrel or cause disorder in the Prison or exercise yard under pain of confinement to the Black Hole or losing one third of their ration.
• All prisoners shall answer their call at muster and if there is any error in the list they shall point out any mistake. Any prisoner who refuses to answer his call will be deprived of his ration until he submits.
• The Prison will be swept, scraped and washed by the prisoners in rotation as often and in such manner as the Agent shall order. Any prisoner who refuses to perform this service in his turn shall be deprived of his ration until he complies. One prisoner out of every six shall be employed each day in this service.
• If any damage should be done to the prison either in attempts to escape or by design, all the prisoners in the room where the damage occurred will be put on two thirds allowance until by such deduction the expense of repairing the damage is repaid.
• Any prisoner attempting to escape shall be put in the Black Hole for ten days and lose his turn of exchange.
• Any prisoner recaptured after escape which has caused expense, shall be put in the Black Hole, lose his turn of exchange and together with all prisoners from the same room, be reduced to two thirds of their ration until the expense has been repaid. If he is not recaptured, all prisoners within his room will be required to reimburse the expenses associated with the escape.
• A market is allowed in the prison each day from 9.00am until 12 noon excepting Sunday. Prisoners who have the means may purchase such articles or clothes they may wish for. The Agent or Officers of the Prison will take care that prisoners are forbidden to buy or introduce to the prison liquors, knives, or weapons of any kind under pain of being confined to the Black Hole and reduced to two thirds of their rations for ten days.
• Prisoners are allowed to sell articles of their own manufacture except mittens, woollen gloves, straw hats or bonnets, shoes, plaited straw, obscene pictures or images and articles from the prison stores. Any prisoner found selling or making these articles shall be confined to the Black Hole and reduced to two thirds of their rations for three days and the prohibited articles destroyed.
• Each prisoner shall receive a ticket from the Agent specifying the articles delivered to him and on failure to produce the ticket when asked will result in confinement to the Black Hole and reduced to two thirds rations for three days.
• If any prisoner shall steal, deliberately or by design damage, buy, sell or otherwise make away with hammocks or other articles of bedding belonging to the prison, all prisoners in the same room shall be reduced to two thirds their ration until the expense of the articles damaged or lost be replaced. The offender will also lose their turn of exchange.
• Any prisoner who has bought, sold or disposed of his ration by gambling, or sold or made away with any article of clothing shall be confined to the Black Hole and only receive two thirds his ration for such time as the Agent directs. He shall also lose his turn of exchange.
• Any prisoner who offers or proposes to buy the turn of exchange of a fellow prisoner, or shall sell or propose to sell his own turn of exchange shall lose his turn of exchange. In all cases the buyer and the seller will be held equally culpable.
• All letters sent by prisoners or addressed to them must pass through the Agent’s hands for examination. Any attempts to send or receive letters through another channel, upon discovery shall see them destroyed. The writer and any prisoner as may have attempted to pass them out of the prison shall be punished in such a way as the Agent shall direct.
• In each prison prisoners are to name three or five of their number to examine the provisions furnished by the contractor. For the purpose of giving their opinion whether goods are acceptable and whether they fulfil their regular allowances with a surplus of five pounds for each hundred and twelve pounds of beef, two pounds for every hundred and twelve pounds of bread each day over and above the quantity allowed for the rations. If there is any cause for complaint with regard to the said provisions, they are respectfully to inform the Agent who will remedy it if the complaint is well founded.
• Prisoners will receive their provisions in messes of six men each and every mess is to name a chief who shall be responsible for the bowl, wooden dish, the can, the pot and the spoons furnished to each mess. He is also required to be present when the ration of such mess are given out.
• If it is found that a prisoner has escaped and that others belonging to the same mess have received their full ration without having informed the Agent or one of the turnkeys of the escape, they shall have their rations reduced to two thirds for a period of ten days.
• A certain number of prisoners are to be nominated by the Agent as inspectors, for the preservation of good order, to see that the regulations of the prison are followed and at the same time to inform the Agent if any prisoners misbehave.
• Some prisoners shall be employed in the capacity of barbers to shave the prisoners. It is particularly recommended to the prisoners to pay every possible attention to personal cleanliness as this is of the greatest importance for the preservation of their health.

The Black Hole or Cachot

• Cachot translates from the French word meaning ‘dungeon’.
• The term ‘Black Hole’ is derived from soldier’s slang for a prison within a fort.
• The cachot can be seen on the drawings of the prison. It is located on the left hand side just inside the inner wall.
• The first cachot was a small building of rough masonry which gave prisoners no access to ventilation or light. It soon became too small for the large number of prisoners being consigned to it.
• In 1811 a new larger cachot was designed by the manager of works, Mr Walters. It would be built using French labour.
• The new cachot was 45 feet by 25 feet, the floor being of bare granite. Light and ventilation were provided by 6 inch openings in the roof. The entrance was a solid wooden door with a metal plate on both sides. Within the door was an 8 inch opening to allow food to be passed through.
• The cachot was unfurnished and prisoners had no bedding to either lie on or cover themselves.