Dartmoor Prison Through the Regency

Today, HM Prison Dartmoor houses male convicts who have been tried, convicted and sentenced within the British judicial system. However, what many people do not realize is that Dartmoor Prison was not originally built as a convict prison. It was actually built during the Napoleonic Wars, with the cooperation of the Prince of Wales, to house French prisoners of war. While in use for that purpose, in the first half of the Regency, it would house not only French, but also American, prisoners of war. Yet, in the last years of the Regency, it lay empty and abandoned. Whether during the period it was in use, or after it was abandoned, Dartmoor Prison might make an interesting setting for at least a few scenes in a Regency romance.

A confined history of the Dartmoor Prison through the Regency . . .

Britain became entangled in war with Revolutionary France in the early 1790s. It was not long before they were capturing prisoners of war, and, by custom, it was their responsibility to house and care for those prisoners for the period of their incarceration. Part of that custom forbid any those prisoners being transported to distant lands, as was often done with native-born convicts. Initially, those French prisoners of war were housed in prison ships, since government officials believed this would reduce the risk of escape and/or any attempt at sabotage ashore. Typically, prison ships were old hulks which were no longer seaworthy and were in generally poor condition. These prison ships were anchored off-shore at Chatham, Weymouth, Portsmouth and Plymouth and were crammed with foreign prisoners of war. Such practices had been common for at least two hundred years when the nineteenth century opened.

After 1803, when Britain once again became involved in the Napoleonic Wars, many more prisoners of war were captured and eventually, the prison hulks could no longer contain them. Some of the French prisoners of war were incarcerated on land, in Portchester Castle, which was located at the mouth of Portsmouth Harbor. However, as the fear of an invasion of Britain by Napoleon increased, military and government officials grew increasingly concerned about the risks of having French prisoners housed in a commanding position at the mouth of one of the most important Royal Navy ports on the English Channel. It was decided that a new prison should be built inland, far from the southern coast and any of the crucial ports of Britain. At about the same time, an enterprising Member of Parliament saw a way to improve not only his fortunes, but those of his district as well.

Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt was educated at Eton and Oxford College, after which he served for a time as the private secretary to the Prince of Wales. Tyrwhitt was later elected as a Member of Parliament for the borough of Okehampton, in Devonshire, in 1796. Devonshire, in southwest England, is one of the least populated and most rural counties in all Britain, even today. Located in Devonshire is the largest open space in southern England, Dartmoor. It is still one of the most desolate areas in the country today, and was even more so in the early nineteenth century. Tyrwhitt had hoped to help improve the lives of his constituents by encouraging agriculture in his district, but the harsh and unpredictable weather conditions there were against him. He had established the village of Prince Town, now known as Princetown, about 1785. The village was named for his patron and friend, the Prince of Wales. There, some of his tenants were eventually successful in raising a small flock of sheep. However, by the turn of the nineteenth century, Tyrwhitt had finally accepted that Dartmoor would never support large-scale agriculture. Some other commercial or industrial activity was needed to sustain those who lived in the Dartmoor area, particularly in his village of Princetown.

Early in 1805, in an apparent burst of patriotism and generosity, the Prince of Wales, who controlled the Duchy of Devon and Cornwall, granted the Transport Board permission to lease as many acres of the land as they needed within his holdings for the construction of a new prison. The Transport Office was the department of the government which was responsible not only for transporting, but also arranging housing, for the flood of incoming prisoners of war. Soon after the Transport Board accepted the Prince’s offer, Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt suggested that the Board members would like to view a site on Dartmoor. Early in the summer of 1805, some of the members of the Transport Board, an agent of the Admiralty and an architect made up a committee which accepted Tyrwhitt’s invitation to Princetown. There, he entertained them lavishly and took his visitors on a tour of the surrounding area. By the time the visit was over, the committee was convinced that the site which Tyrwhitt had shown them was the best possible location for the new prison. The committee returned to London early in July to prepare their report.

The committee issued their report to the Transport Office on 20 July 1805. According to their findings, the area they had toured on Dartmoor near Princetown had a reliable supply of clean water, the ground was fit for building a prison complex, with a large supply of peat nearby for fuel. It was located near the turnpike, which would facilitate communications as well as delivery of provisions. It was recommended that the nearby towns could be a source of those provisions, which would reduce their costs further by the shorter transport distances. Since the Prince would allow the Board as much land there as they needed, a garden could be included in the complex, to be cultivated by the prisoners, thus further reducing the cost of provisions. There was a large quarry nearby, from which the stone needed to construct the prison could be acquired, so a large and commodious prison could be built at a minimal cost. Just as important, the site was more than seventeen miles from Plymouth, on the southern coast of England, thereby ensuring the French prisoners would be too far away to provide any aid for an attempt by Bonaparte to invade Britain via any of the southern ports. All in all, the committee was certain there was no other site as perfectly appropriate for a new prison as that on Dartmoor, near Princetown.

There were some opponents to this plan who pointed out that the turnpike road on Dartmoor was nearly impassible in the winter, thus limiting both communication and the delivery of provisions during those months. Nor would the prison garden be able to produce anything during the harsh Dartmoor winters. They also objected to the fact that the quarry from which the stone to build the prison would be purchased belonged to Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt, thus ensuring him a significant profit on the project. However, with the backing of the Prince of Wales and the Transport Board, the plans for the new prison near Princetown went ahead. Tyrwhitt was very pleased with that turn of events and he, himself officiated at the laying of the foundation stone on the first day of construction, on Thursday, 20 March 1806.

Some of the stone used to build the prison was obtained by breaking up the majority of the enormous boulders which littered the site. The remainder of the material was dressed stone which came from Tyrwhitt’s Herne Hole granite quarry. It was initially anticipated that it would take about eighteen months to complete the new prison. However, numerous problems delayed the work so long that the planned construction time more than doubled. The delays were caused by a series of labor disputes, primarily by multiple demands for higher pay from the Cornish masons who did the bulk of the work. There was also a lumber shortage, largely due to Napoleon’s blockade of the Prussian ports, from which Britain had once imported a large volume of timber. The harsh and unpredictable Dartmoor weather routinely caused construction delays as well. The increased construction schedule also increased the cost. It is estimated that the final total for building the prison on Dartmoor was at least £135,000. One contemporary writer described the new prison as " . . . probably the finest thing of its kind and worthy of the humanity and renown of Great Britain."

The completed Dartmoor Prison complex covered just over thirty acres. The site was encircled by a double stone wall. The outer wall was nearly a mile in circumference and over eighteen feet in height. The inner wall was set several feet back from the outer wall, and, at its top was a narrow walkway which was regularly patrolled by sentries. The space between the two walls was strung with a series of wires which ran between each sentry box. Multiple bells were suspended from all those wires, making an effort at escape not only difficult, but potentially quite noisy. Five large rectangular barracks blocks, placed like spokes in half a wheel, stood within the circular double perimeter walls, at the farthest distance from the only gate. It was in these spartan and bare-bones barracks that the prisoners were to be housed. Some described the buildings as stone barns. Each was about eighty feet long and forty feet wide, with a single door. These barracks had multiple window openings, about two feet square, set at a height of about seventy feet above ground level. However, there was no glazing in any of the barracks windows, they were completely open to the elements. Nor did any of the barracks include fireplaces and chimneys, or any other provision for heating the rooms in which the prisoners lived. One French prisoner, who had spent some time in Russia, latter wrote that Dartmoor Prison was like "little Siberia" for at least seven months of the year. In addition, there were no beds in the prisoner barracks. Rather, prisoners had to sleep in rows of hammocks which were hung in three to four tiers from lines of cast iron columns which ran the length of the barracks buildings. The top floor, or attic space, of each barracks building was left open and unfurnished, intended as an exercise area for the prisoners when the weather was inclement.

In the other half of the prison complex, closer to the main gate, a number of other buildings were constructed. In addition to several storehouses, a hospital and a house for the prison governor, houses were built for the warden, his staff and guards. A large barracks building was constructed to house a permanent garrison of five hundred soldiers. Unlike the spartan barracks built for the prisoners, these staff and garrison buildings were much more completely finished, with many more amenities. All of these buildings were fitted with fully glazed windows and all had fireplaces and chimneys which ensured they could be heated for the comfort of their residents. The area where the staff and garrison buildings stood was separated from the prison barracks area by another stone wall which bisected the circular prison complex roughly at its center. This internal stone wall was at least sixteen feet high. Located in the center of the internal wall was a wide opening that gave onto a walled compound which protruded into the front half of the prison complex. This walled compound was then crossed, at about the halfway point, by a wooden stockade fence. This configuration required that anyone entering or leaving the portion of the prison yard where the prisoners barracks were located had to pass through a series of three gates, each separated by a distance of several feet and under the view of multiple guard houses. In addition, each gate would only be opened by the gate-keeper if the person wishing to pass through could provide the correct countersign.

The first 2,500 French prisoners of war to enter the new Dartmoor Prison were finally marched up from Plymouth in the spring of 1809, arriving on 24 May, more than three years after construction began. Within a month, more than 5,000 prisoners were incarcerated in the remote complex, with at least one thousand prisoners housed in each barracks block. The prison was full to capacity by the end of the year, became overcrowded in the following year, and would remain in that state until only shortly before it was closed, more than five years later. The open areas in the attics of the barracks buildings, once intended for indoor exercise, were soon converted to additional sleeping areas. In 1812, two more stone barracks blocks were constructed, providing more housing, but significantly reducing the outdoor exercise area, known as airing grounds, which had been available to the prisoners. In 1813, still more prisoners of war continued to arrive at the prison. These new prisoners were Americans who had been captured at sea by Royal Navy ships during the War of 1812. Many more American prisoners were sent to the Dartmoor Prison in the years that followed as the War of 1812 continued and the overcrowding grew even worse. It is estimated that after the Battle of Waterloo, when many French prisoners of war were sent to Britain, there were at least 1,500 prisoners of war crammed into each barracks block in the prison.

When several conflicts arose between the French and American prisoners of war, it became necessary to segregate the two populations by housing them in separate barracks blocks. By the beginning of 1814, there were nearly twice as many American prisoners as French prisoners in Dartmoor Prison, and that proportion continued during the years the complex housed prisoners of war. The two groups of prisoners were also kept apart when exercising or working. The French and the Americans had to take turns using the airing grounds around the barracks, the two groups were not allowed to mix even while they were taking their exercise. Eventually, the airing grounds were divided by a tall fence so that the groups could be kept separate but could exercise at the same time. In addition, many of the prisoners were assigned to work crews for various projects in and outside the prison. Each of those crews were strictly segregated to either French or American prisoners. One ongoing project was to try to make the land on the moor suitable for agricultural cultivation. Another was to cut and dry peat for use as fuel. The French and American prisoners were formed into separate crews who worked on different tracts of land at some distance from one another. Other crews were put to work on construction projects in the nearby village of Princetown, for example, the new St. Michael & All Angles Parish Church. The French prisoners dug the foundations and erected the outer stone walls. American prisoner crews then constructed the roof and completed the interior. Over time, increasing friction between the black and white American prisoners of war resulted in a request from the American officers that the two groups be separated. The prison governor agreed and the black and white American prisoners were kept apart.

It must be noted that only rank and file French soldiers and sailors were typically incarcerated at Dartmoor Prison, just as had been the case in the prison hulks. As was the standard practice in that era, most foreign officers who had been taken prisoner were either paroled or exchanged for prisoners of war of similar rank held by the opposing side. Unfortunately for the Americans officers, that same practice was not applied to them. The British government did not recognize them as American citizens, but rather, saw them as traitors to Britain. After they were captured, most of the American prisoners, whether officers or of the rank and file, were offered the option to serve in the British army or navy. If they refused, regardless of their rank, they were sent to Dartmoor Prison. The American government also would not negotiate any prisoner exchanges, since, by so doing, they felt they were essentially recognizing the right of the British to take their citizens prisoner. Therefore, both officers and rank and file sailors and soldiers could be found among the American prisoners of war held in Dartmoor Prison.

Though there were few amenities in the prisoners’ barracks in Dartmoor Prison, the living conditions there were an improvement over those in the prison hulks. The prisoners had access to a regular supply of clean, running water. Their rations were not plentiful, but simple and nourishing, if lacking any imagination or sophistication of preparation. Basic medical care was available, and, for the most part, the prisoners were treated strictly by their guards, but seldom with extreme cruelty. The usual schedule was that when a signal blown on a horn sounded, the men were required to be in their barracks, by sunset in the winter, and within an hour after sunset in the summer. All the barracks doors were then locked and the doors would not be unlocked and opened again until just after sunrise the following morning. With the severe overcrowding, there were occasional outbreaks of disease which spread through the population, but that was not a chronic problem. Modern scholars have discovered that both France and America misrepresented the conditions in British prisons for their own propaganda purposes. In addition, a number of individual prisoners later wrote memoirs in which they significantly exaggerated the sufferings they endured as prisoners of war, primarily to enhance their own image and stimulate book sales. Life for prisoners of war in Dartmoor Prison was not pleasant, but the conditions were not as bad as those in London area prisons like Fleet, Newgate, Marshalsea or King’s Bench.

Though prisoners in Dartmoor were required to work, they did have some leisure time. Some men passed their time engaging in or watching boxing and wrestling matches, on which wagering was usually heavy. Prisoners indulged in other forms of gambling as well, from the length of a straw pulled from a pile on the floor to the precise moment a bird perched on a prison wall would fly away. A few prisoners, desperate for some ready cash, surreptitiously removed lead from the roof of their prison block and used it to make counterfeit coins. However, prisoners also engaged in more benign activities as well. Singing was popular, and a few men, who had been able to get hold of a musical instrument, would accompany the singers. Despite the lack of women, some prisoners also amused themselves with dancing whenever music might be had. There were a few prisoners who had books, and, since not all the prisoners could read, those who could would read passages in the books aloud. Others simply told stories they knew for the amusement of their fellows. Quite a few prisoners tried their hand at various crafts, making things from a selection of cast-off materials which were available to them. The men were allowed to sell their craft work at the marketplace which had been set up in the front area of the yard beyond the barracks blocks.

Most attempts at escape from Dartmoor Prison ended in failure, due to the watchfulness of the guards, the desolate landscape in which the prison was set, and the harsh weather to which the area was frequently subject. There were multiple attempts to tunnel out of the prison by hiding the beginning of the tunnels inside the barracks buildings and employing clever methods to conceal the resulting dirt. Those participating in the tunnelling efforts were sworn to secrecy, but in nearly every case, a prisoner who learned of the escape attempt would inform on his fellows. The men involved were severely punished, typically sent to solitary confinement and put on reduced rations for days or even weeks. Since the informant would have been torn limb from limb by the other prisoners if he had remained in the prison, most informants were released and sent home. Several American prisoners were able to escape in the last months of 1814, when the French prisoners of war were repatriated after Napoleon’s first abdication. Though the French and Americans had been kept apart at Dartmoor, a number of the Americans who spoke fluent French seem to have struck up friendships with some of the French prisoners. These French-speaking Americans managed to join in with the French prisoners of war without being betrayed by the Frenchmen, when they were released and thus, were able to make good their escape. Most of the Americans, under the eyes of the regiments which escorted the French prisoners to the ships which would carry them away from England, had to travel to France before they were free to seek a ship back to their home port.

Supposedly, there was one other successful escape from Dartmoor Prison during the time it housed French and American prisoners of war. This tale may be apocryphal, but it is such a good story it is worth retelling here. This daring escapee was an American, known to us today only as Lieutenant R. G. He was reported to be the second lieutenant aboard the privateer brig USS Rattlesnake, which was captured by a Royal Navy ship in June of 1814. According to the story, he was a brave and determined young man who resolved to find a way to escape Dartmoor Prison. It seems he had some cash and probably gambled for more. He slowly purchased or bartered for all the lengths of rope yarn he could. In secret, he slowly twisted that yarn into a sturdy rope of eighty feet. He either bought or bartered for a uniform which resembled the uniforms worn by the guards. He also managed to acquire an old great coat which was similar in color to the great coats worn by many of the guards. The guards all carried a musket under their coats, especially at night. He could not get hold of a musket, so Lt. R. G. substituted an umbrella of the same general length, which he would carry under his coat as did the guards.

Once he had assembled his disguise, Lt. R. G. then used some of his hard cash to bribe one of the sentries who was posted at the gate between the prison area and the staff housing area to give him the current countersign. It is reported Lt. R. G. paid the sentry six guineas for this crucial information. The lieutenant knew the sentry he had bribed would be relieved at midnight, so just before that hour, he used his rope to lower himself to the ground from one of the unglazed windows in his barracks. He had donned his sentry uniform and great coat and slipped his umbrella under his coat. Then he proceeded to the gate, which opened at midnight so the new sentry could take up his position. Lt. R. G. stepped forward and was challenged by both sentries. He gave the correct countersign and the new sentry was ready to pass him through the gate, assuming he was a fellow guard. But the bribed sentry betrayed the lieutenant and insisted he was a prisoner, despite the fact he had given the correct countersign. Furious at the betrayal, Lt. R. G. drew a small dagger he had concealed in his clothes and sprang at the sentry. At that point, the second sentry came to the aid of the first and Lt. R. G. was subdued and taken to the warden, Captain T. G. Shortland.

The warden sentenced Lt. R. G. to ten days of solitary confinement in what the prisoners called the black hole. This was a small cell constructed of stone which was set apart from the prison blocks. It had no windows nor furnishings of any kind. It was a tiny cell of stone on all sides, measuring about six feet square. The prisoner was given only bread and water for the duration of his solitary confinement. When the lieutenant was released, he was brought to Captain Shortland, who demanded to know how he had gotten the countersign. Furious with the deceitful guard, Lt. R. G. felt no compunction in giving his name to the warden, along with the names of some of his fellow prisoners who knew what had happened. Convinced of the guard’s guilt, Shortland ordered that he be given three hundred lashes. The Captain then asked Lt. R. G. to give his word that he would not attempt another escape. In return, Shortland gave him his word of honor that he should be sent home in the first cartel (group) of Americans to be repatriated when the war was over. Lt. R. G. is said to have replied that he had seen too much of what passed for honor among British officers ever to take their word. He then informed Captain Shortland that he intended to escape that very night. Shortland said it was impossible and warned the lieutenant the guards would be doubled and he would be shot in the attempt. Lt. R. G. told Shortland that death would be preferable to spending even another night in Dartmoor Prison. Shortland laughed and sent the young man back to his prison block, little realizing he himself was aiding the prisoner to escape.

Somehow, using his last three guineas, Lt. R. G. bribed another guard to give him the new countersign. That night, he once again slipped out a window and down his rope just before midnight. He went to the same gate where he had been caught ten days before, gave the new countersign and was passed through without question. The doubling of the guard had created some confusion among the sentries, which facilitated the lieutenant’s progress. He had to pass at least dozen more checkpoints before he made it to the main gate, but he was successful at each one, and eventually walked out of that last gate and onto the moor. Having no cash left, the lieutenant made his way on foot to the coast, avoiding people and scavenging in the fields for food as he traveled. When he reached the coast, he found a small boat beached on a quiet stretch of shore of the English Channel. Hungry and tired, but determined, he rowed himself out into the Channel. When a wind blew up, he used his clothes as a sail, which significantly increased his pace. In the night, he saw the outline of a Royal Navy brig, so he pulled down his makeshift sail and lay quietly in the bottom of his small boat. The brig passed him by and when it was out of sight, he again raised his unusual sail and, after a crossing of thirty-six hours, he made the coast of France and freedom.

The most brutal single day for the American prisoners of war in Dartmoor Prison was Thursday, 6 April 1815. On 24 December 1814, negotiations for the end of the War of 1812 were concluded by the British and American delegations in the neutral city of Ghent. However, the war would not be officially over until that treaty was ratified by both the British Parliament and the American Congress. Parliament ratified the treaty three days later, but there was a substantial delay as the American delegates had to sail back to the United States to put the treaty before Congress. That did not happen until mid-February of 1815. Even after Congress ratified the peace treaty, on 18 February 1815, that news still had to be relayed to British authorities before any steps could be taken to repatriate prisoners of war from both sides. That information reached Britain on 20 March 1815. There were some squabbles between the British and the Americans on who would bear the costs of transporting the prisoners. This went on for several days.

Captain T. G. Shortland, the warden and commandant of Dartmoor Prison, was well aware of the Treaty of Ghent in December of 1814. But he chose to withhold that information from the prisoners, ostensibly to prevent them from demanding their freedom immediately. Though some have accused Captain Shortland of calculated cruelty in denying the prisoners any knowledge of the war’s end, most scholars today believe he may have done so more out of stupidity and/or thoughtlessness than deliberate malice. On 4 April 1815, Captain Shortland was away from the prison, at Plymouth, when one of the contractors who provided food to the prisoners tried to foist off hardtack on them, rather than the soft bread which was a regular part of their rations. The Americans refused to accept the hardtack and swarmed the contractor. The officer on duty, who had only 300 men under his command that day, saw it was useless to attempt to control the large mob of angry prisoners, and demanded the contractor provide the prisoners with the soft bread to which they were entitled. Once they received their expected soft bread rations, the prisoners settled down and there was no further trouble. The incident was reported to Captain Shortland when he returned from Plymouth, who was said to have become enraged at the account. By that time, Shortland was aware that news of the war’s end had reached the prison. He was fearful that was the real cause of the uprising, not the attempt by the contractor to cheat the prisoners of their soft bread.

Two days later, on 6 April 1815, some of the young boys who were held as prisoners were playing with a ball in one of the airing grounds. When the ball was accidentally thrown over the wall into another airing ground, the sentry there refused to throw it back. Angry and annoyed, a couple of the boys made a small hole in the wall and one crept into the adjoining airing ground to retrieve their ball. About six o’clock that evening, Captain Shortland spied the hole and leapt to the conclusion that it was yet another escape attempt. The alarm bell was sounded, which brought all the prisoners out of their barracks to see what was going on. While the prisoners were milling about, Shortland ordered them to return to their barracks or he would charge them with his troops, who were stationed at the gates to the prison yard. In the confusion, many prisoners did not hear Shortland’s order. Those that did tried to re-enter their barracks, but were blocked by those still trying to come into the yard. Shortland then ordered his men to fire on the prisoners. Most hesitated, until the Captain grabbed a musket and began firing on the prisoners himself. In what became known as the Dartmoor Massacre, seven prisoners were killed and more than thirty were severely wounded, with many more suffering less severe wounds. Many people, both American and British, believed this unprovoked attack was an act of revenge by Captain Shortland, perhaps brought on by his fear of the prisoners’ anger over their continued incarceration. However, in the official inquest, Shortland was cleared, much to the ire of many of those who were present, not just the prisoners. The British government did eventually agree to pay some restitution to the families of the dead and wounded.

The Dartmoor Massacre did seem to have focused the attention of British authorities on the plight of the American prisoners of war. Within the next few weeks, more determined efforts were made to repatriate these men to their homeland. However, by that time, Napoleon had escaped the island of Elba and was once again menacing Europe. This resulted in a shortage of available ships, since most were in service ferrying British troops to the Continent and therefore, could not be spared to transport former American prisoners of war to the United States. America was able to send a few ships to carry some prisoners home, but in the end, most of the American prisoners of war had to wait until after the victory at the Battle of Waterloo to get a ship home. By then, prison authorities were happy to see them go, as they had an influx of French prisoners of war who had been captured during the Waterloo campaign. Most of them were incarcerated in Dartmoor Prison.

The majority of the American prisoners of war had been released from Dartmoor Prison by the late autumn of 1815. All of them were gone by the end of the year. However, the French prisoners of war who had been captured during the Waterloo campaign were not repatriated until the beginning of the following year. The last of the French prisoners of war were released in early March of 1816. Once all of the prisoners of war had been released from Dartmoor Prison, the entire complex was closed. The staff and guards were relocated and the buildings were cleared out and all were shuttered. Dartmoor Prison stood empty and quiet until 1850, when it was re-opened as an additional prison for British convicts.

Dear Regency Authors, though a prison may not, at first blush, seem to be a place where romance could flourish, there were instances when it did, including at the Dartmoor Prison during the Regency. The crews of prisoners who worked outside the prison were not completely isolated from those in the surrounding community. The prison contracted with locals to supply those crews with food and water, as well as tools and materials to do their work. In addition, the prison authorities allowed some of the local merchants to come into the prison each day to sell their wares to the staff and the prisoners. The prison was not inhabited solely by the prisoners, their guards and the soldiers; the families of the warden and his senior staff were also provided with houses within the prison complex. Any of these situations might be turned to the purpose of romance in a story set in the first half of the Regency, the period during which the prison was occupied. In the second half of the Regency, after March of 1816, the prison was a deserted stone hulk set in the middle of the desolate moors. There were those who believed the spirits of the men who died there haunted the prison long after it was closed. Some people even claimed to hear strange sounds and/or see inexplicable lights flickering in the prison from time to time, though it was supposed to be empty and abandoned. How might such a remote, desolate and possibly frightening setting become a backdrop for true love?


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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9 Responses to Dartmoor Prison Through the Regency

  1. A comprehensive and captivating post, thank you so much! I had been toying with the idea of writing about the Dartmore prison during the Regency period myself, but could never have done so as brilliantly as you did.
    One question, slightly out-of-line: Do you happen to know who had to bear the cost for returning foreign prisoners of war to their home country?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you for your kind words. I am glad you liked the article.

      From what I learned, there is no cut-and-dried answer to your question. Though it was not enshrined in international law, according to the customs of the time, the country which had captured any prisoners of war was supposed to bear the cost of their care and their repatriation. But it seems that in some cases, the victorious country might require the defeated country to foot the bill for the return of their prisoners. Or, as in the case of the Americans, their government wanted to speed their return, so they sent any ships they could spare to bring as many of their men home as they could. I hope that helps.



  2. gordon759 says:

    There is already a classic ‘Regency’ tale incorporating an escape from Dartmoor’, ‘How the King Held the Brigadier’. One of the wonderful Brigadier Gerard tales by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in 1895.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      The Regency period ran from 1811 to 1820. Even stretched to the “Long Regency,” the period ended in 1837, with the death of William IV.

      Arthur Conan Doyle wrote during the Victorian period, at which time Dartmoor Prison no longer held prisoners of war. From 1850, Dartmoor Prison was used to incarcerate British convicts, just as it is today.



      • gordon759 says:

        You clearly don’t know the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
        He wrote a large number of stories set during the Napoleonic war and Regency. The Brigadier Gerard stories involve the exploits, frequently comic, of a brave but rather dim French officer throughout the Napoleonic war. I put the quotation marks around Regency as this tale is set in 1810 the year before the Regency officially began.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          Clearly, you do not have a clue what constitutes a true Regency. Regencies are a distinct sub-genre of historical romance, and did not appear until the early twentieth century. The very first Regency romance was Regency Buck, written by Georgette Heyer and published in 1935, five years after the death of Arthur Conan Doyle.

          Regencies are patterned on Heyer’s seminal novel. They are stories of romance set during the time the Prince of Wales was Regent of England, and are essentially novels of manners, characterized by witty, fast-paced dialog focused on the relationship between the heroine and the hero. Just because a novel is set in the early nineteenth century does not make it a Regency. Patrick O’Brien has set a number of his novels in that period, but they are certainly not considered Regencies.

  3. Pingback: Napoleonic Prisoner of War Crafts | The Regency Redingote

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