Mention Dartmoor Prison, and an image of a stark, forbidding building comes to mind, standing in the midst of endless uninhabited moors.
That’s actually not far from the truth. However, somewhat surprisingly, despite its menacing reputation, HMP Dartmoor has never been higher than a category B prison (nowadays, it’s a category C). Here’s some fascinating information about this iconic establishment.
French Prisoners of War
Many people mistakenly believe that HMP Dartmoor has always been used to house some of the UK’s most dangerous criminals. This isn’t the case at all. Two hundred years ago, back in 1809, it was used to detain French prisoners of war. Initially, these unfortunate men had been locked away on prison hulks (boats) in Plymouth, and Dartmoor Prison was built specifically to provide them with better living conditions.
The remote location of Dartmoor was considered ideal for a prison. Apart from the neighbouring town of Princetown, there was nothing for miles, only treacherous moors, complete with dangerous bogs and unpredictable mists. The prison itself was built for £132,000, with five wings, housing a total of 1,000 inmates. These days, it holds just over 600.
Infamous Inmates at Dartmoor Prison
Dartmoor prison’s reputation is largely built on its previous inmates, not to mention the number of prisoners who dared to try to escape across the moors. Here’s just a few of the most fascinating tales.
- Frank Mitchell (The Mad Axeman). Perhaps the most notorious inmate was Frank Mitchell, who was sent to Dartmoor prison in 1962, after holding a married couple hostage with an axe. Mitchell was a well-behaved inmate, and was eventually allowed to roam around the local area with minimal supervision, even to visit the local pubs. However, in 1965, the Kray brothers assisted his escape, driving him from Dartmoor to East Ham in London, where he hid for several months. Eventually seeing Mitchell as something of a liability, the Krays murdered him in December 1966.
- Eamon de Valera. Eamon de Valera was one of Ireland’s most famous politicians, and is best known for his involvement with the Easter Rising in 1916. De Valera was the only commandant of the battalion who was not executed. After a brief imprisonment in HMP Dartmoor, de Valera was released, and went on to eventually become President of Ireland.
- Joseph Bolitho Johns (Moondyne Joe). Moondyne Joe is perhaps known as one of the world’s most effective prison-breakers – and escaped imprisonment on numerous occasions. Born in Cornwall, he was arrested at the age of 22 for stealing food, and was eventually imprisoned in Dartmoor, where his bad behaviour saw him moved to a Woolwich prison hulk. This anti-establishment attitude continued even after he’d been deported to Australia, where he was imprisoned (and escaped) several more times.
Visiting HMP Dartmoor
Dartmoor Prison is a fascinating place, and the museum offers insight into its rich history and striking location. Included in the exhibition is a half-hour long video, in which prison staff and inmates alike talk about HMP Dartmoor, and their hopes (and fears) for the future. Although it’s in one of the UK’s most remote locations, it’s well worth a visit.