hm prison dartmoor

HM Prison Dartmoor

Nestled in an isolated and misty corner of Dartmoor National Park in Devon lies HM Prison Dartmoor, one of England’s most notorious and foreboding correctional facilities. With its sweeping moorland backdrop and towering granite walls, Dartmoor has captured the public imagination for over 200 years. This high-security prison has a dark history matched only by its harsh, unforgiving environment.


Origins and Early Years as POW Depot

  • Dartmoor Prison first opened in 1809 as a prisoner of war depot intended to house French captives from the Napoleonic Wars.
  • Thousands of French soldiers as well as American sailors from the War of 1812 were imprisoned there in cramped, squalid conditions.
  • Many prisoners died from malnutrition, disease, and exposure to the elements. A prisoners’ graveyard with over 1,000 burials remains on site.

Notable Prisoner Populations

  • After sitting unused for decades, Dartmoor reopened in 1851 to house civilian prisoners and convicts from across Britain.
  • In the 20th century, it held some of England’s most notorious gangsters, murderers, and violent offenders.
  • Irish nationalist Éamon de Valera was famously jailed there in 1919.

Closures and Reopening

  • Dartmoor has gone through periods of closure over the years.
  • It was briefly converted into a work colony for conscientious objectors during WWI.
  • After a major rebuild, it reopened in 1929 to continue housing high-risk inmates.
See also  HMYOI Polmont

Facilities and Operations

Layout and Security

  • Dartmoor comprises six cell blocks surrounded by a high perimeter wall.
  • It was designed to be escape-proof, ringed by sentry towers and situated in an isolated moorland locale.
  • The prison still maintains a high level of security befitting its reputation.

Prisoner Categories and Regimes

  • Originally a maximum security facility, Dartmoor is now designated as Category C.
  • It mainly houses convicted non-violent and white-collar criminals.
  • Prisoners follow strict regimes but are offered educational courses and vocational training opportunities.

Education and Work Opportunities

  • Prisoners can take classes ranging from basic literacy up to Open University courses.
  • Vocational training is offered in trades like engineering, construction, and catering.
  • Prison jobs maintain the self-sufficient facility doing cooking, farming, textiles, and manufacturing.


Famous Inmates

  • Dartmoor has housed many of Britain’s most notorious criminals such as gangster Reggie Kray, “Acid Bath Murderer” John Haigh, Great Train Robber Bruce Reynolds, and double agent George Blake.
  • The harsh prison environment molded some equally famous inmates like boxer Sir Henry Cooper and politician Sir Oswald Mosley.

Riots and Disturbances

  • The tough conditions have sparked riots and disturbances over the years, including a major mutiny in 1932 over poor food.
  • Infamous incidents have involved prisoner violence against guards and even a siege situation where inmates took control of sections of the prison.

Escapes and Manhunts

  • Its remote location has made Dartmoor synonymous with daring prisoner escapes and frantic manhunts on the moor to recapture them.
  • Daring escapes inspired pop culture works like the 1963 James Bond film From Russia with Love.

Decline and Uncertain Future

Aging Infrastructure

  • After 200 years, Dartmoor suffers from antiquated facilities needing constant upgrades and repairs.
  • Modern standards of prisoner accommodation and safety are difficult to meet within its granite confines.
See also  HM Prison Leyhill

Staff and Prisoner Issues

  • The prison has faced significant unrest in recent decades due to perceived mistreatment and poor living conditions.
  • Staff morale and employment relations have suffered too from budget cuts and deteriorating facilities.

Potential Closure

  • Dartmoor’s future is uncertain due to the challenges and costs of operating a heritage prison.
  • However, its closure would deal an economic blow to the remote local community.
  • Negotiations continue around the fate of this notorious national landmark.

In Popular Culture

Depictions in Books, TV and Film

  • Dartmoor has appeared frequently in pop culture, often depicted as an bleak, foreboding prison.
  • It features in works like the Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles, the James Bond film From Russia with Love, and the BBC TV series Peaky Blinders.

Fictional Portrayals and References

  • The prison’s grim, gothic image has inspired fictionalized versions and cameos in many novels, movies, and TV shows over the decades.
  • Notable examples include the TV show Doctor Who, the novel Great Expectations, the indie film A Field in England, and the comic The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.


For over 200 years, Dartmoor Prison has captured the public’s imagination with its harsh conditions isolated on windswept moors. Once home to French and American prisoners of war, it later housed some of Britain’s most violent convicts and infamous inmates. While its future remains uncertain due to its aging infrastructure, Dartmoor’s sinister reputation endures thanks to iconic portrayals in literature and popular culture. This imposing granite institution remains an infamous part of England’s prison history.

See also  HM Prison Downview


What is the history of Dartmoor Prison?

Dartmoor Prison first opened in 1809 as a depot for French and American prisoners of war. It closed for decades before reopening in 1851 as a civilian prison. It has housed some of Britain’s most notorious and dangerous inmates over the past 150 years.

What facilities and activities are available to prisoners?

Dartmoor offers educational courses and vocational training programs in areas like construction, engineering, catering, and farming. Prisoners can work full-time in the prison doing cooking, textiles, manufacturing, and other jobs to maintain the self-sufficient facility.

What are some notable incidents from Dartmoor’s history?

There have been several riots and mutinies over the years due to poor conditions. Infamous incidents include a major uprising in 1932 and a siege in 1966 where prisoners took control of sections of the prison. Dartmoor is also known for daring prisoner escapes onto the surrounding remote moors.

Why does Dartmoor have an uncertain future?

Its aging granite infrastructure from the 1800s makes upgrading facilities expensive. With growing rehabilitation focuses in corrections, Dartmoor’s isolated location and harsh reputation pose challenges. However, negotiations continue around keeping this historical prison open.

How has Dartmoor Prison influenced pop culture?

Dartmoor’s foreboding atmosphere has inspired many fictionalized versions in books, shows, and films. It has been depicted in works ranging from The Hound of the Baskervilles to the James Bond movie From Russia with Love to the BBC drama Peaky Blinders.

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