Notorious prison able to boast of historic and literary fame
If Dartmoor Prison did not exist, novelists would have made it up.
That might seem like an odd thing to say, but there have been so many literary references to the austere and forbidding gaol in the middle of the mist-draped, mire-filled, moors that the place has become an icon of international repute.
No other prison – save for Alcatraz or the Black Hole of Calcutta – could boast such historic or literary fame. Not that such notoriety, of course, has ever given the slightest sense of satisfaction to the hapless inmates within.
It was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who got the grim, granite, prison-ball rolling. In The Hound of the Baskervilles – often said to be the most widely-read crime thriller in literary history – an escaped prisoner from Princetown serves as a red herring for Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson.
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The face of the convict, who is lurking menacingly somewhere out in the boggy moors, is described as "all seamed and scored with vile passions".
After Conan Doyle succeeded so brilliantly in borrowing the prison to add a sense of foreboding to his tale, other writers – from Agatha Christie to Evelyn Waugh and Neville Shute – included the place in various tales. Screen appearances followed – apart from various Sherlock Holmes reincarnations, the gaol has been featured in TV programmes as diverse as The Saint and EastEnders...
The great granite edifice was built in the days when this country was at war with France and many thousands of prisoners were taken and held in derelict prison ships. This was considered unsafe and unsatisfactory, so a prisoner of war "depot" was proposed on remote and inaccessible Dartmoor.
Building began in 1806 and took three years to complete. The first French inmates were later joined by American POWs, taken in the war of 1813.
In its heyday – if you can call it that – the prison held a cramped 9,000-plus prisoners, many of whom died in the unhealthy overcrowded conditions. They were buried out on the moor but were later exhumed and re-interred in two cemeteries behind the prison.
After the French and American wars ended, the place lay vacant until 1850, when it was rebuilt as a gaol for the incarceration of criminals.
It was generally believed to be the toughest and most severe prison in Britain and over the years it has held some of the most dangerous and notorious felons the nation has ever produced.
In later years HMP Dartmoor was downgraded to a Category C training prison with cellular accommodation.
A retired prison officer who had spent a quarter of a century working in the place was once asked by the WMN what he thought of the modern gaol. Ron Joy was not impressed: "To be honest, I feel a bit disappointed. Why? Well, how easy it all seems. We had it hard – we never had to flog anyone twice. It's too softly, softly today – a bit too feminine if you ask me."