Camping on Dartmoor
It never occurred to me that wanting to visit Dartmoor would bring me face to face with the famous prison of the same name. I really never gave it a thought.
I mean, after all, the moors are vast, covering an area of some 368 sq miles.
And my main aim was to walk them – well a very small part of them.
But looking at the map Princetown seemed to be in the heart of the moorland, central enough to have a good explore.
No, I didn’t know it was the place where the prison was. That is until we drove by the huge walls behind which another world existed.
It’s history goes back to the early 1800’s.
From 1803 to 1815 Britain was at war with Napoleonic France and many prisoners were taken. Originally they were accommodated in Plymouth on redundant warships.
However, conditions were so bad – poor sanitary arrangements, little exercise, lack of fresh air, awful diet – that many died.
It was decided to make it land based. Princetown, being in the middle of the moors, was deemed a suitable location and that’s how Dartmoor Prison came to be built.
The foundation stone was laid on 20th March 1806 and building work began. The first prisons were constructed from stones obtained by breaking up the boulders lying around the site and supplemented by dressed stone from nearby Herne Hole quarry.
The planned completion of 18 months took twice as long due to labour disputes and the notorious Dartmoor weather.
On 22nd May 1809 the first prisoners arrived and the prison, full by the end of the year, soon became overcrowded.
The situation worsened when American prisoners came in April 1813, with outbreaks of diseases killing 11,000 Frenchmen and 271 Americans.
With the end of the wars the prisoners were repatriated, the last leaving in 1816, after which the prison closed, not opening again until 1850 as a penal establishment for criminals.
On Sunday 24th January 1932 around fifty men broke ranks and soon took control, attacking anyone in their way. Officers retreated to safety.
The bad old days are gone. Dartmoor now holds low category prisoners who are encouraged to undertake training programmes to help them on their release. Skilled advisors hold discussion sessions to make them aware of how unacceptable their crimes are. Single cell accommodation still applies and they eat in their cells. Showers and telephone communication with their families are freely available. They are not here to be punished; their punishment is loss of liberty tempered by help towards reform and rehabilitation.