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
- We are open as normal on Bank Holiday Monday


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.
Dartmoor Prisoner of War Cemeteries

At the rear of the prison are two identical cemeteries, one dedicated to the French and one to the American prisoners of war who died at Dartmoor.

The registers reveal that 1217 French and 271 American prisoners died whilst at Dartmoor. This was from a variety of causes, suicide, murder, shot whilst attempting to escape or more commonly disease.

During the 6 months between November 1809 and April 1810 400 French prisoners died, the main cause being listed a fever.

When a prisoner died his body was taken out of the prison through a gate at the left of the prison. They were buried in shallow graves in the area now occupied by modern farm buildings.

When Dartmoor reopened as a convict prison in 1850, it was decided to establish a prison farm, this opened in 1852. The effects of soil erosion and animals grazing on the land began to expose the bones and when exposed they became bleached by the sun.

Governor Walter Stopford (1865-1868) decided to act on the desecration as these men were not criminals or convicts and deserved to be remembered in a respectful way. He directed groups of prisoners to scour the area and exhume as many bones as they could.

After lying in the ground for fifty year it was not possible to identify which bones were from French and which bones were from American POWs. It was decided to divide the remains equally with one half being declared French and the other American.

Two identical cemeteries were constructed each with a cairn surmounted with an obelisk. Each obelisk was engraved the same with the only exception being the nationality.

Each obelisk carries the motto ‘Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori’ - It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.

The dates on the French obelisk are incorrect. They state 1809 to 1814 which does not cover the resumption of the war in 1815 when Napoleon escaped from Elba, culminating in the Battle of Waterloo on 18th June 1815.

During their second period at Dartmoor the register lists a further 88 French deaths the last being on 31st January 1816

Similarly the dates on the American obelisk are incorrect, reading the same as the French 1809 to 1814. The first American death was registered on 11th April 1813 and the last on 24th July 1815.

In 1928 a replica of the prison archway was constructed in the American cemetery, funded by the US Daughters of 1812.

In 1987, the same organisation paid for the American cemetery to be refurbished and two plinths of South African granite were installed on which are inscribed the names of the 271 American POs who perished at Dartmoor.

At the same time the star and anchor emblem of the US Daughters of 1812 was added to the obelisk.

In 1809, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the arrival of French prisoners at Dartmoor, a ceremony was held in the French cemetery and a commemorative plaque and Imperial Eagle were attached to the obelisk.

In 2019 the iron gates leading to the cemeteries were taken down and refurbished by present day Dartmoor prisoners. The gates were returned to the cemetery entrances in 2020.

Both cemeteries are designated war graves and ground held in perpetuity by the respective Governments.

Prisoner’s Arts and Crafts

It was common for men in military service to spend their leisure time making models or implements. These were whittled from wood, carved from bone or assembled using different materials such as straw. The French Army used conscription to fill its ranks so many men would have come from skilled backgrounds where making objects was their main employment.

This activity continued when they became prisoners of war although access to raw materials and tools became problematic.

The opening up of the market place at Dartmoor gave the prisoners an outlet for their wares. At first these would have been bartered with traders but eventually as they became popular, offered for sale.


This was the most common type of craft undertaken by prisoners. The simple reason for this is the availability of bones which came from prisoner’s meals or scrap from the prison kitchens.

Prisoners would use a knife or needle to carve and scratch out their designs. Detail was added by the use of dyes which could be purchased at the daily market.

We have examples of prisoner bone work in the museum and photographs of larger models. Prisoners would construct models of ships that they served on and surviving models are much sought after at auction houses and usually sell in excess of £5,000.

Straw work

Working with straw has been a key craft in France since the 17th century.

Straw was readily available to prisoners as it was used to fill their pillows. It was used decoratively as an inlay in wooden items.

More commonly it was used in weaving to make objects such as baskets, bonnets or hats although sale of these items at the daily market was forbidden by prison rules.

Wood work

There are less examples of woodworking, primarily due to the scarcity of material. Also woodworking was a staple of British cottage industries so demand for these goods would be lower.

We have evidence that woodworking did occur at Dartmoor as in his 1914 book on Dartmoor War Prison, Francis Abell included an illustration of a French trial scene with figures all carved from wood.

Social Classes of French Prisoner at Dartmoor.

As prisoners settled into their life at Dartmoor, a hierarchy developed. Some of this was based on their social standing in society but sometimes this would change within the prison itself depending on circumstance.

Officers were housed in the Petty Officers block, ordinary soldiers and sailors, or officers found guilty of a misdemeanour were housed in the main prison blocks.

There emerged 5 classification of prisoner:

Les lords – well to do men of wealth whose families kept them supplied with money. They often employed other prisoners as servants.

Les indifferents – prisoners who seemed resigned to their fate. They did not seek to supplement their allowance by manufacturing and selling goods or by gambling.

Les laborieux – men who would earn extra money by making and trading goods at the daily market.

Les minables – gamblers whose only interest was cards, dice and other games of chance.

Les romains – men whose passion for gambling exceeded les minables. They would sell their clothes, going naked, and food for money with which to gamble.

St Michael’s Church Princetown

Princetown came under the ecclesiastical parish of St Petrock in Lydford. Local services were first held at Sir Francis Buller’s estate at Prince Hall.

With the building of the prison and soldiers barracks there was a need for Princetown to have a church of its own. The Church was to be ‘executed upon the plainest and most economical style possible’. The design by John Walters was for a simple rectangular building holding 5 to 600 people. The final design included a bell tower.

Work commenced in 1810 using French prisoners of war who were paid sixpence a day. When the American prisoners arrived in April 1813 they were also employed on the church. Granite for the church was quarried at nearby Herne Hole.

The first service was held on 2nd January 1814 under the direction of Reverend JH Mason. At this point the church was still unfinished. With the abdication of Napoleon in April 1814, the French war ended and French prisoners were sent home. This left the American prisoners to finish the building work and interior furnishings.

The church bells were never installed as by the time they were completed, peace had been declared and the prison closed. With the closure the majority of the congregation left.

In 1850 the prison reopened and the church held occasional services conducted by the prison chaplain. In April 1860 the church became a separate ecclesiastical chapel under the Vicar of Widecombe.

In 1868 a fire at the church destroyed much of the interior work of the American prisoners of war.

Between 1850 and 1902, prisoners who died at Dartmoor were buried in the churchyard in unmarked graves. Today they are remembered by the large granite cross next to the church.

From 1902, prisoners were buried in marked graves and these can be found in the top right hand corner of the churchyard. There are 4 rows of granite stones, 75 in all bearing the initials and date of death.

The last prisoner burial was on 31st July 1973.

One Governor, Oswald Every is buried in the churchyard.

In 1994 the church was declared redundant and in 2000 it came under the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.

There are many memorials to Dartmoor prisoners within the church. The stained glass window in the east wall was installed in 1910 in memory of American prisoners. There is a memorial stone to the founder of Princetown, Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt in the north aisle. In the south aisle there is a memorial to 3 Royal Fusiliers who died in a snowstorm on the moor whilst trying to bring provisions to the prison.