SHEDNOTES 108: West Dartmoor Notes 1

The Shed introduces a new occasional column, West Dartmoor Notes, written by A Correspondent.

Not quite inside Dartmoor Prison

A Shed reporter joined a guided stroll around the outside of Dartmoor Prison and a visit to the prison museum.
The museum is run by Brian Dingle, who used to manage the farm, before prison farms were abolished, a couple of governments back, on grounds which the prison service is obliged to keep defending, although there are grounds for suspecting that they agree with us that it was a crying shame.
The farmland and farm buildings around the prison are all now all sold or rented off. The quarry shut back in the 90s. Among the remaining practical activities are pottery and woodwork and the museum shop sells a range of garden ornaments and so on, made by the prisoners. Some of it is quite nice but a lot displays that tendency to kitschy sentimentality which is often a characteristic of dangerous men. The prisoners of war who were the prison’s first tenants, a little over 200 years ago, did much finer work with their scraps of bone and improvised instruments. But as tour guide Pip Barker reminds us, they were a different breed to an extent. Most were captured seamen who had done nothing wrong except be French or American, although they included a lot of desperados, like all the navies of the time.
The French had just been through a revolution and there was fundamentalist class warfare still going on amongst them when they came to Dartmoor, Pip tells us. The ones at the bottom of the heap formed a sort of punk tribe they called The Romans, which took a pride in being reckless without fear. They gloried in risking everything they had on chance and so were often naked because they had staked their clothes on a rat race, or were dangerously starving because they had gambled their food allowance on which crow would fly first.
Some of the American sailors were black and some of those were probably former slaves pressed into service and racial tensions added to the stew.
One day, 200 years to the day before our tour in April, the Americans kicked a football into the prison arsenal and the guards would not let them have it back. When a prisoner crawled through a fence to get it, the guards panicked and opened fire and the Princetown Massacre threw petrol on the flames of anti-Brit sentiment across the Atlantic. Dartmoor Prison is still infamous in American history and tour parties visit the memorial garden outside the prison walls all the time. The French, having been dying all over the world for a lot longer, are less interested, says our guide.
It is interesting to note that almost all the names on the memorial stones sound British. Some were men who had fought with Nelson but then emigrated and suddenly found themselves enemies of the king, condemned to indefinite custody with hard labour in a cold corner of a wilderness. The villains who came in later had slightly better conditions but there was no heating in the cells until the 1980s and the whole place bears jagged scars from riots down the years. The Home Office has said it will close in eight years.
Tours can be organised via the prison museum – 01822 322130.

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