HMP Dartmoor: A Deep Dive into Its History and Operations

The Origins of HMP Dartmoor

HMP Dartmoor, located in Princetown, Devon, is one of the UK’s most iconic prisons. The foundation stone was laid on 20th March 1806 by Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt, a close associate of the Prince of Wales. Initially built to house prisoners of war from the Napoleonic Wars, its first inmates arrived on 22nd May 1809. By the end of that year, the prison was already overcrowded with over 6,000 French prisoners, soon to be joined by American prisoners during the War of 1812

HMP Dartmoor

Conversion to a Civilian Penal Establishment

After serving its initial purpose, HMP Dartmoor was temporarily closed but reopened in 1850 as a convict prison. This period saw the prison accommodating some of the most hardened criminals in the UK, including invalids and those with serious health conditions, who were thought to benefit from the fresh Dartmoor air​​.


World War I and Conscientious Objectors

During World War I, HMP Dartmoor was repurposed to house conscientious objectors, known as “Conchies”. These men, who refused military service on moral or religious grounds, replaced the convicts and undertook various forms of labour. This era is notable for the removal of cell locks, granting these inmates a degree of freedom not typically afforded to prisoners​​​​.

The Infamous Dartmoor Massacre

One of the darkest chapters in HMP Dartmoor’s history is the Dartmoor Massacre of 1815. Following the end of the War of 1812, a delay in repatriating American prisoners led to unrest. On 6th April 1815, a riot broke out, resulting in British guards firing upon the prisoners, killing seven and wounding many more​​​​.

Modern-Day Operations and Capacity

Today, HMP Dartmoor operates as a Category C men’s prison with a capacity of approximately 640 inmates. The prison focuses on housing offenders who are not considered to be at high risk of escape and offers various educational and vocational programs aimed at rehabilitation​​​​.

Recent Developments and Future Plans

In recent years, there have been several discussions regarding the future of HMP Dartmoor. Although there were plans to close the prison in 2023, it was later announced that it would remain open for the foreseeable future following negotiations with the Duchy of Cornwall​​.

Notable Inmates and Cultural Impact

HMP Dartmoor has housed many notable inmates over the years and has been referenced in various cultural works. For example, John Boyle O’Reilly, an Irish poet and journalist, was imprisoned here before being transported to Australia​​.

The Dartmoor Prison Museum

For those interested in exploring the rich history of HMP Dartmoor, the Dartmoor Prison Museum offers a fascinating glimpse into the past. The museum showcases artefacts from the prison’s early days, including manacles, weapons, and memorabilia from its time as a POW camp

FAQs about HMP Dartmoor

What is the history of HMP Dartmoor?

HMP Dartmoor was built in 1809 to house prisoners of war. It later became a civilian prison in 1850 and has since housed various categories of inmates.

How many inmates can HMP Dartmoor accommodate?

HMP Dartmoor has a capacity of approximately 640 inmates.

Is HMP Dartmoor still operational?

Yes, despite plans to close it in 2023, HMP Dartmoor will remain operational following negotiations with the Duchy of Cornwall.

What type of prison is HMP Dartmoor?

HMP Dartmoor is a Category C men’s prison, focusing on housing inmates who are not deemed high-risk escapees.

Can the public visit HMP Dartmoor?

The public cannot visit the prison itself, but they can explore the Dartmoor Prison Museum to learn more about its history.

What was the Dartmoor Massacre?

The Dartmoor Massacre occurred on 6th April 1815 when British guards fired on American prisoners, killing seven and wounding many others.

Has HMP Dartmoor been featured in popular culture?

Yes, HMP Dartmoor has been referenced in various books and films, including the James Bond film “From Russia with Love.”

What educational programs does HMP Dartmoor offer?

HMP Dartmoor offers various educational and vocational programs aimed at rehabilitating inmates.

Where is HMP Dartmoor located?

HMP Dartmoor is located in Princetown, Devon, England.

How can I learn more about the history of HMP Dartmoor?

To learn more, you can visit the Dartmoor Prison Museum or explore various online resources and historical archives.

Summary and Conclusion

HMP Dartmoor, with its storied past and ongoing operations, remains a significant part of the UK’s penal history. From its early days housing prisoners of war to its current role as a Category C prison, Dartmoor continues to evolve while maintaining its historical legacy. Whether through the Dartmoor Prison Museum or the extensive historical records available, the rich tapestry of Dartmoor’s history is available for all to explore. you can visit our other prison pages such as HMP Cookham Wood 


Additionally, for more detailed information, you can visit Prison Guide – Dartmoor.