Dartmoor prison was built between 1806 and 1809, mainly to confine thousands of prisoners of war. It was built in Princetown, a bleak part of Dartmoor and an ideal location because of its remoteness. It was designed by Daniel Asher Alexander, with buildings arranged like the spokes in a wheel, surrounded by a high perimeter wall. It was one of Britain’s first purpose-built prisons designed for 6,000 prisoners, and still remains a prison today, though now with a maximum capacity of just 659.

Prisoners of war (POWs) are people captured by the opposite side during war time. They can be members of the armed forces or civilians, and restrained for a number of different reasons, from a demonstration of victory or power, to being used as labourers. Between 1793 and 1815, with France at war with Britain almost continually in what became known as the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, Britain rapidly gained a vast number of prisoners of war and urgently needed a solution to avoid adding to already dangerously overcrowded facilities.

At first, old naval ships – ‘hulks’ – were used, as so many of them were readily available in the naval dockyards and ports around Britain through which POWs arrived. Ancient castles were also quickly converted to accommodate more prisoners, such as Porchester and Edinburgh. But the fear of mass prison break-outs close to the naval dockyards, which were vital to Britain’s defence, forced the government to find a new solution. The world’s first purpose-built prison opened at Norman Cross in 1797 and others followed with Dartmoor opening in 1809.

By the end of the year, the prison was full, holding over 6,000 French prisoners. American prisoners arrived from early 1813 (as a result of the War of 1812) which worsened the already over-crowded conditions. Life for the prisoners was harsh. Outbreaks of contagious diseases, such as typhoid and smallpox, occurred regularly – usually brought in by newly arriving prisoners. Gambling was rife, with some prisoners betting even their food and clothing away and resorting to wearing their blanket with a hole cut out for their head. But prisoners also undertook creative activities to pass the time, such as carving intricate bone models to sell in the local markets, and even putting on plays.

After the Treaty of Ghent was signed with the USA to end the War of 1812 (24 December 1814), delays in ratifying the treaty across the Atlantic and in obtaining ships to transport the prisoners home led to a major riot at Dartmoor. The gates were forced and during the commotion, seven men were killed and some sixty wounded. The prison was virtually emptied during the spring of 1815, only to be rapidly refilled by some six thousand French prisoners captured at the Battle of Waterloo, who were then released in early 1816. The prison then lay empty until it was brought back into use in 1851.

Did you know?

The Dartmoor Jailbreak is a yearly charity event, where members of the public must ‘escape’ from the prison and travel as far as possible in their allotted time.


Use our Classroom resources to investigate this object, and the themes of the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars and  The Arts in the Age of Revolution further.


And much more…

Sources & acknowledgements

This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above.