24th May 1809. Banged-Up!

1890 view of Dartmoor Prison.

‘Stone walls do not a prison make; nor iron bars a cage’: To Althea by Richard Lovelace imprisoned in the Gate-House Prison outside Westminster Abbey for petitioning to have the Clergy Act 1640 annulled. 

It was Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt who laid the foundation stone in 1806 of Dartmoor Prison, when as an enthusiastic town planner, he had the idea of building Princetown or Prince’s Town, originally in honour of his friend the Prince Regent, later George IV. 

Using the cheap labour of French Prisoners’ of War,  the building when completed received its first inmates: the POW.s 

Mutiny at Dartmoor 1932.

It was Today in 1809, in the period of the Napoleonic Wars, that Dartmoor was originally opened to take French POW.s), but when the conflict ended in 1815, the prisoners went home, leaving Princetown for home-grown criminals.

The first prison in Britain was established in Shepton Mallet, Somerset, as a House of Correction, when James I in 1609 stipulated such an institution for every county.

In 1791 the philosopher Jeremy Bentham produced prison designs of a circular shape, with cells built round, and fully exposed towards a central ‘well’ where the warders would at all times observe prisoners.

The penitentiary at Millbank was constructed to this plan, known as a ‘panopticon’, with Bentham explaining: ‘there ought not to be a single foot square, on which man or boy shall be able to plant himself…under any assurance of not being observed’.


The 19thc saw new prisons, built often using ideas of penology borrowed from America, which included the ‘silent’ and ‘solitary’ systems, and an increasingly commercial nation saw the introduction of Debtors’ Prisons.

As the century progressed many campaigned for prison reform including Francis Burdett who urged the abolition of the treadmill and the regime of silence at Coldbath Fields, also known as Clerkenwell; the treadmill was not abolished until 1902.(2)

At a time when Transportation was ending, with Australia increasingly declining to take our trouble-makers, prison populations grew here, with the main occupation for inmates being picking oakum (rope) to fill gaps in ships’ planking, later making mailbags, and breaking rock at Dartmoor!

Population growth and increasing efficiency of the police led to a rise in crime and imprisonment up to 1914, by which time a more humane system saw less severe and shorter sentences. Then war intervened taking many malefactors with it.

The Crank Handle punishment which could be made harder to turn by vindictive warders.

In the 18thc pub cellars were used as lock-ups bringing in useful income, at an average per prisoner of one shilling a night: a sale notice in the Derby Mercury for the old Bowling Green in Burton-on-Trent in 1735 said. ‘Inn including profits of gaol’.

In the 19thc prison hulks (old ships) were used for the containment of prisoners, such as Magwitch in Dicken’s Great Expectations: they were reintroduced in the 1970.s Northern Ireland troubles.  

In October 2009 Brixton and Pentonville Prisons moved troublesome inmates, prior to an inspection [as in schools where recalcitrant pupils posed a problem], at a time when the now drug-ridden and violent prison population was over 80,000.

In 2010 the Government gave the royal Duchy of Cornwall £¾ m rent for Dartmoor.

(1) On 20th March 1806.

(2)  In the 1870.s a youth could be put on the treadmill for twenty minutes, a penalty suffered by a man interviewed in the 1920.s whose crime was falling asleep, as a lad, whilst crow scaring.



Illustrated Public London 1884/Pic of Crank.

Francis Frith Post Card/1890 Pic.




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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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