Building begins of Dartmoor Prison
Dartmoor Prison has been through many phases in the time since it was opened in 1809, work having begun three years previously. It has been used most famously as a high security establishment to house some of the most infamous criminals of their day - Mad Axeman Frank Mitchell, murdered when he became dangerous to his liberators after being sprung from the jail; and 1940s acid-bath killer John George Haigh , hanged in 1949. It was used to accommodate conscientious objectors in WWI . Today it is a category 'C' prison. But it was built to keep prisoners of war.
For the British government prisoners taken during the Napoleonic Wars were becoming a headache. They were mainly kept in prison hulks, the shells of rotting ships, in appalling conditions. But it seems to have been the danger of their proximity to Plymouth and the naval dockyards there, for those kept in the South West, which was of greatest concern to the authorities.
The solution was a purpose built facility inland. A site high on Dartmoor , near the village of Princetown, was chosen, and the architect Daniel Alexander given the commission to design the place. Alexander's design was for the formidable granite walls that to this day mark the place with an air of brooding menace.
These days some 600 or so prisoners are kept at Dartmoor. At the height of its use as a P.O.W. camp it held 6,000 or more. The cramped conditions, hellish sanitary provisions, and the ease with which disease could spread among inmates is easy to imagine, and must have been impossible to endure.
When Britain and America went to War in 1812 U.S. prisoners were kept in the new building. Between that year and 1816 when repatriations had been completed after both conflicts ended, 1,500 American and French soldiers and sailors died at Dartmoor. It is one of those stains on our military history which Britain generally chooses to forget.
There is a museum at the facility these days, in the old dairy block, where the history of the place can be explored more fully.
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