Dartmoor Prison and Museum

About this route

Dartmoor Prison was built in 1806-9 to house French prisoners of war.  Its construction was partly prompted by the pressures on the overcrowded prison ships at Plymouth.  Originally called the Dartmoor Depot, the name was changed to Dartmoor Prison in 1808.  The first prisoners arrived in 1809 and by 1811 numbers had risen to nearly 10,000.  The prison was also to take prisoners of war from the American war of 1812.  The prison was severely overcrowded and outbreaks of disease claimed the lives of thousands of prisoners.  The surviving prisoners were repatriated at the end of the wars, the last leaving in 1816 and the prison was then left largely empty until 1850 when it became a convict prison.

Built of Dartmoor granite, the original prison comprised five prison blocks arranged like spokes of a wheel around a central courtyard known as the Market Place together with a separate block for officers and a hospital.  These were surrounded by two high, circular walls with a gateway on the south-western side.  The space between the walls was known as the ‘Military Walk’.  Two further cell blocks were added in 1811.  Most of the buildings were altered or rebuilt in the mid-late 19th century when the prison reopened with further additions and alterations made in the 20th century.

Two of the original cell blocks still stand.  The administrative buildings inside the inner gate also date from 1806-9 as do the two larger blocks behind them, which were originally the officers quarters and infirmary.

Adjacent to the prison are two matching, landscaped burial grounds created in the 1860s for the French and American prisoners of war who had died at the prison but who had been buried at the time with little or no ceremony.  The focal point of each cemetery is a commemorative granite obelisk made by the convicts.

Most of the prison buildings are statutorily protected, as are the cemeteries and the reservoir located opposite the entrance which was built in 1806-9 as an integral part of the prison’s water supply.

Dartmoor Prison is still operational, now holding low category prisoners.  However, the Dartmoor Prison Museum which is housed in the old prison dairy close by provides a vivid insight into the lives of the prisoners over the past 200 years and those who guarded them.  Contrast for example the beautiful models and paintings made by the prisoners with the lethal weapons they also made and the methods that were once used to restrain and punish them.

Escorted walks are also available of the French and American cemeteries which lie within the prison perimeter and there is also a walking path around the reservoir, which is due to reopen in 2023.

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Getting Around

Information on opening times, admission charges, facilities and access to the Dartmoor Prison Museum is available on their website at Dartmoor Prison Museum .

By bus: Princetown is served by the 98 and 113 from Tavistock and the 123 from Tavistock or Exeter.

Timetables are available at Travel Devon .

By road: Princetown is on Dartmoor.  It can be reached via the B3357 from Tavistock or the B3212 from Yelverton, both off the A386 between Plymouth and the A30, or via the B3212 from Moretonhampstead off the A382 between the A38 and the A30.