Dartmoor Prison – Grief Tourism in Devonshire

The beautiful countryside of Devon County in England surrounds quaint, peaceful villages, but isolated behind stone walls and mostly forgotten is Dartmoor Prison. It is true, perhaps, that grief tourism and visits to prisons don’t attract the same types of people as those who seek fun and pleasure on their vacation. Yet, there are always tourists who remain intrigued by old prisons, the inmates, and their stories.

Located on 28 acres of the moors high above the village of Princetown, the prison is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall and managed by HM prison system. It first opened its doors in 1809 to prisoners taken in the Napoleonic Wars and later to American POWs from the War of 1812. When space on abandoned ships in Plymouth harbor became a problem, prisoners were forced to walk 17 miles to Dartmoor Prison, which housed 1,000 inmates in each of five wings. Although the 1814 Treaty of Ghent ended the war, not all were released, attempts to escape were unsuccessful, and many died and were buried on prison grounds.

Rebuilt as a single cell prison in the 1850’s, it operated in part as a type of work center primarily for conscientious objectors to war until 1917. Cells were unlocked; prison clothing discarded, and men were free to visit the village when off duty. By 1920, Dartmoor had been converted to a higher risk prison for some of the most incorrigible offenders. With this type of prison population, conditions deteriorated rapidly through a lack of food, outbreaks of smallpox, frequent riots, inmate violence, and mutinies resulting in considerable property damage. After government reviews and various inspections in early 2000, Dartmoor’s image improved and it was redesigned as a low-risk Category C prison for non-violent offenders and high profile members of society. Progress in the prison system here is evident with university courses, vocational training, and full-time employment in several occupations made available.

Here’s a bit of history on two of the prison’s former infamous inmates including Frank Mitchell, the Mad Axeman, sentenced to life at Dartmoor (probably in the 1950’s), but managed to escape in December 1966. The Kray twins, notorious members of London’s East End organized crime, actually planned it, but it was relatively easy for Mitchell to just walk out. He was a huge man with limited intelligence, but the guards were not able to control him. He stayed with friends while they advertised his case in the newspapers and tried to get an early release. Word got around, a contract was out; and Frank was killed on the street. Éamon de Valera, born in NYC, was a well-known Irish political figure who served Ireland’s government until 1973 in several capacities. Moving to Ireland at the age of two, Valera received an excellent education, held several professorships, became a political activist, and joined the Irish Volunteers. Arrested and sentenced to death for fighting in the Easter Rising of 1916, he received an official pardon after spending only one year at Dartmoor, and then led a long, active life with an impressive career in Ireland’s politics.

While researching for this article, I discovered an ebook available online from the archives of the NY Public Library. The Journal of Charles Andrews is an interesting history of his memoirs and the other Americans confined at Dartmoor Prison during the War of 1812. It offers some fascinating insight into the reality and extent of their grief as prisoners in “the depot of living death.” They had no laws to protect their rights against the cruel treatment ordered by Captain Shortland, Commander of the Guard. Each man was given a hammock and a thin blanket, which offered little warmth from the cold. Weekly rations consisted of 1 1/2 lbs of bread, ½ lb of beef, and 2 turnips for each of 5 days, and 1 lb salt fish and 1 lb potatoes on the other two. Andrews describes the horrible Massacre on the 6th of April 1815 that began with a change in bread rations, followed by a systematic slaughtering of prison inmates. When Shortland discovered a hole in the prison wall, he believed an escape was planned and ordered the soldiers to attack the prisoners gathered in the yard. Almost immediately, an alarm bell was sounded to turn in, but many could not hear it in the confusion. Others were shot at their cell doors which had been purposely locked. Andrews writes that at least 67 of the 200+ prisoners were killed on that terrible day. (Note: In 1928, the United States Daughters of 1812 erected a plaque and memorial gate at the American cemetery near the prison. Public access is not available.)

Dartmoor Prison has attracted its share of visitors through tales of ghosts and legends in books and movies where one can imagine the sound of a prison siren, the baying of the hounds, and feel the damp, dismal fog drifting across the moors through the grates and crevices in the old stone walls. The Museum on the main road through town to the prison opened in 1996 and is now a main attraction for over 30,000 visitors a year. Brian Dingle, the Curator, worked as the prison shepherd for over 20 years, so he is very familiar with Dartmoor and eager to share its history. Cement gnomes, toadstools, and dogs on display outside are sold for garden/yard ornaments. Two guard mannequins greet visitors, a sign advertises cell doors for sale at $80, and another designates Dartmoor as a Category C prison, with about 600 residents in 2009. Visitors can have a mug shot taken for $6.00, explore the exhibits of weaponry, crafts, and memorabilia, and listen to a 1/2-hour video of the typical daily routine of prisoners and staff.

Open year round. Mon, Tues, Wed, Thurs, Sat – 9:30-12:30pm, 1:30-4:30pm.

Fri & Sun, 9:30-12:30pm, 1:30-4:00pm. Admission: Adults – $4, under 18 and over 60 – $2. Gift shop onsite sells items hand made by the prisoners. Free parking.

The Dartmoor Jailbreak in spring is an annual fund-raising event where civilians in convict clothing must go as far as possible from the prison on pre-set routes and number of days. All proceeds go to the Vranch House School in Exeter for children with physical disabilities.

Most visitors to Dartmoor Prison, lured by morbid curiosity, are excited but somewhat apprehensive as they envision a dark, dispiriting place of tragedy and grief where empathy and human dignity were non existent. Perhaps there will be a few in the crowd, however, who possess that rare optimism of the poet Richard Lovelace who said,…”Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage…” It is there that the mind is still free to wander and contemplate a brighter future.

Sharon L Slayton

(Note: There are several hotels, B&Bs, and campsites nearby for visitors to Dartmoor.)

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  1. […] is in Devon County. This means its an excellent companion to a travel plan that would also cover Dartmoor Prison in Devon. Let’s see if we can start working on a travel […]

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