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Crime and Punishment

Dartmoor Prison Records

Dartmoor prison

French and American prisoners of war

Dartmoor Prison was originally built at Princetown in Devon between 1806 and 1809 to house French captives during the Napoleonic Wars.  During the War of 1812 many American prisoners were also confined there.

French and American officers were eligible for parole under a system which developed at this time.  Under the terms of this system, those of higher rank were able to live within the community, in designated 'parole towns'.  

Between 1812 and 1816 about 1,500 American and French prisoners died in Dartmoor prison and were buried in a field beyond the prison walls.

The brutal mistreatment of American prisoners of war was investigated after the war by an Anglo-American commission, which awarded compensation to the families of those who had died there.  

For published material, which has drawn on a great variety of scattered sources, see the list of publications on the history of Dartmoor prison.

Devon Record Office holds very few records relating to the prisoners of war who were held at Dartmoor prison, or were living in Devon on parole.  Officers on parole were involved in the communities where they lived; they sometimes married local women, and had children, so they may appear in parish registers and other parish records.  However, most of the records relating to these prisoners of war which survive, are held at The National Archives in Kew.

The records held at Devon Record Office are as follows:

  • List of American prisoners of war killed by the military at Princetown Gaol, 1815 - in Devon County Quarter Sessions, Michaelmas 1815, Coroners' Bill
  • Copy of the Morning Chronicle newspaper, marked for the escape of six French Officers on parole at Okehampton, 1811 [DRO 903Z/Z21]
  • Copy of marriage entry of Pierre Leon Serph alias Loumeau, French Prisoner of war, and Ann Moore of Crediton, 1810 [DRO 4930B/F3/4]
  • Marriage settlement of Pierre Leon Serph alias Loumeau of Civray, de la Vienne, France, surgeon - now a prisoner of war in Crediton, 1810 [DRO 4930B/TC17]
  • Conveyance of two dwelling houses in Court Street, Moretonhampstead, formerly occupied by French prisoners of war, 1811 [DRO 4930B/TM29-30]

There is a list of all the French prisoners in Moretonhampstead in the Westcountry Studies Library  in Exeter, giving their dates of capture and repatriation departure. The original records are in The National Archives in London.

See below for Dartmoor Prison Records held at The National Archives .

The Society of the War of 1812 in the State of Illinois & Wisconsin have published an on-line list of American Prisoners of War who died at Dartmoor Prison from 1813 to 1815, and who were buried in the cemetery there.

There is also on-line information about the project for restoration of the American Cemetery at Dartmoor Prison.

For extracts from documents and publications relating to American prisoners of war in Dartmoor Prison, see the relevant web-page of the Navy Department Library  in Washington D.C., U.S.A.

For more about French prisoners of war in Devon in Napoleonic Times, and a list of related  publications, see the Moretonhampstead History Society webpage: www.moretonhampstead.org.uk/

For other publications on Dartmoor Prison, see the Genuki Devon webpage:  www.cs.ncl.ac.uk/genuki/DEV/Lydford/

Except where otherwise noted, the above publications do not include the names of all of the individual craftsmen who worked on the prison's construction and repair -  nor the names of all the individual prison warders or inmates, unless they were particularly notable.   In fact unless records of prison inmates are among those held at The National Archives at Kew, it is not likely that such prisoner records still survive.


There are a series of helpful research guides available on-line which describe the types of records relating to crime and punishment, and prisoners of war, held at The National Archives.  

See the index at www.catalogue.nationalarchives.gov.uk/researchguidesindex.asp

For information about surviving records of French and American prisoners-of-war held in England from the late 18th to the early 19th century, look at the on-line research guide on Prisoners of War in British Hands: 1698-1949 (Military Records Information 29).

For information on records of convicts, look first at the on-line research guide on Sources for Convicts and Prisoners, 1100-1986 (Domestic Records Information 88).

Quarterly Prison Records from 1824 to 1876 are held in document series HO8. The piece numbers go up to 207 which is the March 1876 return. It includes all Dartmoor inmates and is quite easy to use.

There are a number of other document series that are related (HO27 - Criminal Registers by County; HO140 - After Trial calendars 1868 to 1971; PCOM3 - men on licence 1853 to 1887; PCOM6 - indices to PCOM3; MEPO6 - Habitual Criminal Register 1834 to 1959)  but none that have direct relevance to Dartmoor Prison in particular.

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Dartmoor prison remained unoccupied for more than 30 years, before it was reopened in 1850 as a civilian prison for convicts sentenced to long terms of imprisonment, or to hard labour.

Devon Record Office does not hold any records relating to the Dartmoor prison inmates or employees. We do not have any records relating to the building of Dartmoor prison, nor do we have records of any of the personnel who built or repaired it.  They have never been transferred to us.  Any surviving records relating to Dartmoor prison which were held in-situ at the prison are still held there, where they have their own prison museum.

However, most of the records held in-situ at the prison were destroyed in a prison riot in the 1930s, when the prison administration block was burnt out.

A survey of records held at the prison in 1977 found that the following records were held there:

  • Governors' Letter Books for some (but not all) dates between August 1852 and 1875.
  • Farm Bailiff's Letter Book, May 1933 - May 1953
  • Miscellaneous small account books, dating from the late 19th to the mid 20th century, mainly relating to food supplies to the prison, weights of wool fleeces, and stone carted for the Works Department between 1928 and 1946.

There may be other records held at the Museum which are not listed in the survey.  Contact details for Dartmoor Prison Museum are:

H.M. Prison Dartmoor Museum
Princetown, Yelverton, Devon PL20 6RR
Telephone/fax: +44 (0)1822 322130

Museum Curator: Brian Dingle

Location: ¼ mile from Princetown village, 150 yards up the road from H.M.P. Dartmoor

Visiting the Museum: The museum is normally open Tuesday - Saturday 9.30-16.30.
Admission: Adults £3.00, Children £2.00, Over 60's £2.00, Families £9.00 (with up to 3 under 18's).

The museum has a display on prison history and sells gifts and garden products, made by the prisoners.

The museum also provides tours to the Memorial grounds for the French and American prisoners of war (1809 to 1816) as well as tours to St Michael and All Angel's Church, both for a small charge and by arrangement with the prison museum curator.

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Published Works

Basil Thomson. The story of Dartmoor prison. London: William Heinemann, 1907. Available for study in the Westcountry Studies Library  in Exeter.

Louis A. W. Woollcombe, Princetown and its Prison, 1926.  Available in Devon Record Office (ref: DRO 5947).  The second edition, published by James Townsend, Exeter, 1935, is available in the Westcountry Studies Library [s365/PRI/WOO]

Elisabeth Stanbrook, Dartmoor's War Prison and Church, 1805-1817.
Uses sources in the Public Record Office to describe the actual development of the complex, the workmen, the staff, the supplies of food and materials; subjects not covered before in any great detail by other authors. There is also an appendix of names (many local).  Price £6.50.  Postal copies: £7.25 in UK  and £8.50 overseas (£ sterling only).  It can be ordered on-line through the website www.dartmoormagazine.co.uk/dartmoor-books.htm

Trevor James, Prisoners of War in Dartmoor Towns: French and American Officers on Parole, 1803-1815, Orchard Publications, 2000.

There are also several other booklets which have been written about the history of the prison, by Trevor James, an ex-warder, and a more substantial two-volume history by Ron Joy.  You can buy the booklets by Trevor James through the Prison Museum, or direct from the author, or order them from other bookshops.

Ron Joy's history of  Dartmoor Prison, available from Halsgrove Books, is as follows:

Joy, Ron. Dartmoor Prison, Vol 1, Tiverton, Halsgrove Press 160 p. [ISBN 184114200X]
Joy, Ron. Dartmoor Prison, Vol 2, Tiverton, Halsgrove Press 160 p. [ISBN 1841142018].

Each volume costs £19.95; the second book covers the period from 1850.  These can be ordered on-line through the Halsgrove Press Books web-page: www.halsgrove.com/SHOP/sections/counties/devon_titles_2001_2002.html

A. J. Rhodes, ed., Dartmoor Prison: a Record of 126 Years of Prisoner of War and Convict Life, 1806–1932 , London: John Lane Bodley Head (1933).

Charles Andrews, The prisoners' memoirs, or Dartmoor Prison: containing a complete and impartial history of the entire captivity of the Americans. New York: published by the author, 1852.  Available in the Westcountry Studies Library  [s365.64/PRI/AND]

Susan Laithwaite, A Dutch Officer in Moretonhampstead, c. 1807, in Devon Documents, ed. Todd Gray, publ. Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries, 1996,  pp. 116-119.  This is a  partial transcript and commentary by one of the Devon Record Office archivists, on some letters in the Devon Record Office from a Dutch prisoner of war, who wrote to his English friends 30 years later.  It gives quite a different view of how the parole regulations were interpreted.

Francis Abell, French Prisoners of War in Britain, 1756-1815, Oxford University Press,  1914.

For more about French prisoners of war in Devon in Napoleonic Times, and a list of related  publications, see the Moretonhampstead History Society webpage: