D is for ….

19 October 2013

…. a world of discoveries in family and local history! It could have been for dressmaker, DNA, death, descendant, denomination (of the religious kind) or Devon but today, D is for Dartmoor.

Dartmoor is known for many things – mining, its tors and HM Prison Dartmoor. When I began my own personal family history quest many years ago, all I knew about my paternal great-grandfather was that he was a prison warder in Princetown. Over time, I have gathered documents, books and information about the prison to find out more about what life would have been like for those living and working on Dartmoor.

Construction of Dartmoor Prison in Princetown began in 1806 and took three years to complete. In 1809, the first French prisoners of the war with Napoleonic France arrived and they were joined by American POWs taken in the war of 1812. At one point, history records that the population of the prison was almost 6,000. Many prisoners died and were buried on the moor. When the wars were concluded in 1815, the prisoners were repatriated and the prison then lay empty until 1850, when it was largely rebuilt and commissioned as a convict gaol. With the establishment of the prison farm in about 1852, all the prisoners’ remains were exhumed and re-interred in two cemeteries behind the prison.

Dartmoor Prison, reckoned in Victorian times to be the hardest and most severe in England, has been in constant use from 1850 to the present day. The Prison is a Category C men’s prison and it is hardly surprising that it is made of granite with its high walls dominating this area of the moor.

In 1917, all convicts were withdrawn from Dartmoor, which was then used to confine 1100 conscientious objectors who refused military service. Until recently, Dartmoor Prison’s inmates have been some of the most dangerous and notorious in English penal history.

Life in Princetown would have been very isolated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There was a passenger railway line between 1883 and 1956 which was a picturesque ride up from Yelverton with the line twisting around giant curves as it climbed up the side of the many Dartmoor hills and tors to reach Princetown. However, the village generally housed people who worked in the prison in some way. The families were often very large in Princetown as it was said that there was little else to do due to remoteness of the village and lack of readily available transportation to local villages and towns. My family was no different with my great-grandparents having sixteen children in all.

Princetown Warders

© 2024 Family Wise | Privacy Policy | Website created by: stellasoft