CaP Collections of the Month

August 2022: Dartmoor Prison Museum

Situated in the old dairy building, once part of the prison farm, Dartmoor Prison Museum sits some 250 yards from the famous convict establishment. The museum has been at its present site since 1997 having previously been set up to showcase prisoner’s arts and crafts such as matchstick models. As the collection grew, the museum sought larger premises and when the dairy building became available, the museum moved in.

The Museum seeks to present over 200 years of the history of the prison and indeed explode some long-held misconceptions about the prison itself. Chief amongst these is that it was not initially conceived as a convict prison at all but as a prisoner of war depot to hold men who had been captured whilst fighting for Napoleon. When the prison opened in 1809 it was designed to hold 5000 prisoners who were marched up from Devonport, some thirteen miles away. In 1812 Britain found itself at war with the United States so from April 1813 the prison served as a home to some 6500 men who had been fighting for the US which resulted in an expansion of the prison from five prison blocks to seven.

When the wars with France and the US concluded, Dartmoor Prison closed and remained empty for thirty years until November 1850 when it reopened as a convict prison. The prison housed men sentenced to Penal Servitude which was a form of hard labour so convicts would work in the stone quarry, repair roads, walls, manufacture boots, basket weaving and more tedious tasks such as picking oakum. Dartmoor Prison which was the first prison to have its own farm, which opened in 1852, and convicts would grow crops and tend to livestock. On display visitors can see an original ‘broad arrow’ prison suit dating back to the 1850s along with a range of manacles and handcuffs.

Visitors can also see what life is like for prisoners today via a reconstructed prison cell, equipped as cells are today.

The darker side of prison life is reflected in the display of contraband seized from prisoners which includes mobile phones, tattoo equipment, smoking paraphernalia, and a wide range of ‘chivs’ or improvised weapons.

Contraband

The museum has been home to many well-known prisoners in the past, such as ‘Acid Bath Murderer, John George Haigh and visitors can learn about these. Stories of famous escapes are also told, the most notorious of these being in December 1966 when Frank ‘The Mad Axeman’ Mitchell whose disappearance from a Dartmoor working party was organised by the Kray Twins.

The Museum holds an extensive archive and offers a research and Family History service for anybody with a link to the prison or an academic interest in prison history or prison history in general. It is open every day from mid-February until the end of December. Further information can be found on the website www.dartmoor-prison.co.uk or by emailing curator Paul Finegan at paul.finegan@justice.gov.uk

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