norman cross prison

Norman Cross Prison

The prison at Norman Cross in Huntingdonshire, England holds the distinction of being the world’s first purpose-built prisoner-of-war camp. Its construction began in 1796, during the French Revolutionary Wars, to house the growing numbers of French captives being brought to England.

The design of Norman Cross was inspired by contemporary artillery forts. It had a perimeter wall and ditch measuring 8 meters across and 5 meters deep, intended to prevent prisoners from tunneling out. Inside this secure perimeter were four large quadrangles for prisoner housing and exercise yards. At the very center sat a formidable Guard House with troops and artillery pieces.

The capacious wooden housing blocks within each quadrangle could hold up to 500 prisoners. There was also a hospital and a notorious ‘Black Hole’ for punishing unruly inmates. With a construction cost of over £34,000, Norman Cross was a marvel of engineering and security for its time.

Operation as a Prisoner of War Camp

After opening in 1797, Norman Cross held an average of 5,500 French captives throughout the Napoleonic Wars. The population peaked at over 6,000 men in 1810. Most were low-ranking soldiers and sailors, along with some junior officers. A handful of senior officers and upper-class civilians were given parole in nearby villages.

Day to day operations focused on keeping the prisoners secure, healthy, and adequately provisioned. The British government ensured the food quality matched local standards. Prisoners could supplement rations by making handicrafts and getting paid for work projects. Educational opportunities were also provided.

Despite good conditions, diseases like typhus still claimed over 1,770 lives due to the cramped quarters. Some prisoners also starved after gambling away food rations. Others endured punishment in the infamous Black Hole for violent infractions.

Prisoner Demographics and Treatment

The population at Norman Cross was predominantly French with a small minority of captives from other nations like the Netherlands. They were almost entirely common soldiers and sailors, with a handful of junior officers and senior officers on parole.

See also  HM Prison Aberdeen

Treatment of the prisoners seems to have been relatively humane by the standards of the time. An emphasis was placed on keeping the inmates adequately fed, clothed, cleaned, and sheltered from the elements. The provision of educational opportunities and crafts was also fairly enlightened.

However, the large death toll from diseases reflected the inevitable problems with housing thousands of men in confined quarters with rudimentary hygiene and medical care. Solitary confinement and bread-and-water punishment meted out in the Black Hole could also be severe.

Education and Religion for Prisoners

Prisoners at Norman Cross were offered education opportunities to learn reading, writing, and English. Those already literate could access books and receive news on the war’s progress. Religious needs were also addressed with a resident Catholic priest and later the former Bishop of Moulins ministering to the predominantly French inmates.

Prison theatres hosted plays and concerts. This educational and creative enrichment, though still basic, showed an unexpectedly progressive attitude towards imprisoning men whose ‘crime’ was merely being soldiers of an enemy nation.

Health and Hygiene

The cramped quarters of Norman Cross inevitably led to rampant diseases despite the best efforts at sanitation. Outbreaks in the prison hospital claimed over 1,770 lives, mostly from typhus, pneumonia, and tuberculosis.

Hygiene measures like weekly soap rations, access to latrines, and delousing were insufficient to combat contagion. Medical care from French doctors and orderlies could only provide limited relief for sick prisoners. A special cemetery was even needed outside the prison walls.

Food Rations

Feeding thousands of prisoners was a monumental logistical task. The base daily ration per inmate consisted of bread, meat, potatoes, vegetables and even an allowance of soap. On Fridays the meat ration was switched to fish for Catholics.

Supplementary food could be purchased from prison wages or profits from handicrafts sales. The British and French governments agreed that each should pay to feed their own nationals held captive abroad. This helped fund fairly substantial prison rations.

Some prisoners still starved after gambling away rations or falling ill. But in general the provision of food was deemed adequate by contemporary standards. The prison even had dedicated cooks drawn from the inmates for meal preparation.

Prisoner Crafts and Commerce

Prisoners could manufacture handicrafts in their spare time and sell them to locals for additional income. Skilled artisans produced impressive wooden ship models, straw marquetry, bone carvings, and more.

See also  Bodmin Jail

The prison set price controls on handicraft sales so prisoners didn’t undercut local industry. But the best craftsmen could still earn upwards of 100 guineas purely from their art. Some prisoners even received commissions from wealthy patrons.

This opportunity for productive commerce and even artistic fulfillment was highly unusual for imprisoned men of that era. The creative outlet and relative freedom likely provided some welcome distraction from the monotony and gloom of captivity.

Attempted Escapes and Security Upgrades

Given the sheer number of prisoners, escape attempts occurred frequently despite the ditches, walls, and guards. Early on, some inmates managed to slip out in carts or tunnels, disappear into the crowds of visitors, or rush the perimeter fences.

After major breakouts in 1804 and 1807, authorities replaced the original wooden fences with an inner brick wall topped by sentry walkways. This Deterred all but the craftiest escapees for the remainder of the prison’s operation. Troops from across Britain rotated guard duties.

Overall, Norman Cross proved remarkably secure given the challenges of containing thousands of restless prisoners of war. Modern prisons still struggle to achieve such an escape-proof design.

End of the Prison and Demolition

With Napoleon’s final defeat in 1814, prisoners at Norman Cross were repatriated to France and the prison shut down. The wooden buildings were dismantled and auctioned off in 1816. Much of the timber was repurposed for housing, while the rest provided local farmers with construction material and firewood.

Today Norman Cross is considered an important historical site. Parts of the old perimeter wall and central Guard House still stand. Archaeology digs have also uncovered foundations and artifacts from the original prison quarters.

Legacy and Significance of Norman Cross

Archeological Remains and Heritage Site

Norman Cross is now a designated heritage site in recognition of its significance as the world’s first purpose-built prisoner of war camp. Visitors can see preserved portions of the wall and other remains.

Archaeological excavations have revealed crucial details about the layout and living conditions. Finds include blocks of prison housing, remains of tunneling attempts, and objects left behind by the inmates and guards.

Norman Cross Artifacts in Museums

Hundreds of objects crafted by the Norman Cross prisoners are now displayed in the Peterborough Museum and other institutions. The unique wooden ship models, bone carvings, straw marquetry and dominoes sets provide insight into how the prisoners lived.

See also  HM Prison Leicester

These handicrafts also stand as impressive examples of skill and creativity flourishing even in the stark confines of imprisonment. The artefacts are a testament to the humanity and ingenuity of the common soldiers and sailors held there.

Accounts in Literature and Records

Published memoirs from prisoners, guards, and visitors offer fascinating firsthand perspectives on life at Norman Cross. Military records and court documents also reveal insightful operational details and incidents not covered in the memoirs.

These literary and historical accounts have proven invaluable for modern researchers seeking to reconstruct the experience of Norman Cross. Together with the physical remains, they provide us with a multifaceted understanding of this pioneering prison camp.

Symbol of Prisoner of War Treatment

As the first prison camp built specifically for captured enemies, Norman Cross set a precedent for how civilized nations could incarcerate foreign combatants humanely. It balanced punitive confinement with efforts to uphold basic welfare standards.

The camp’s system of housing, feeding, sanitation, discipline, recreation, and work opportunities evolved into a rudimentary model of ‘enlightened’ prisoner of war management. This example helped shape future POW institutions for decades to come.

On the whole, Norman Cross remains a landmark in the gradual movement away from executing or abusing enemy captives, towards imprisoning them in relative security, health and dignity.


Norman Cross Prison stands today as archaeology, artefacts in museums, pages in books, and a powerful symbol. As the world’s first dedicated prisoner of war camp, it pioneered humane incarceration and proper treatment of captives. Despite inescapable hardships, Norman Cross showed that practical welfare, discipline and even enrichment could be provided alongside confinement. This revolutionary concept would resonate for generations, bringing about reform in prisoner of war management. There is much to be learned from its successes and failings.


Who built Norman Cross Prison?

The British Royal Navy’s Transport Board commissioned Norman Cross Prison in 1796 to be built specifically for housing French captives from the Revolutionary Wars.

What did prisoners do with their time?

Prisoners could create and sell handicrafts, put on theatrical performances, learn trades, or read books from the prison library. Gambling was also extremely common.

How many prisoners were kept there?

The population averaged around 5,500 prisoners throughout the Napoleonic Wars, peaking at over 6,000 in 1810. Most were French with a minority from other nations.

Why was the prison finally closed?

Norman Cross Prison was closed in 1814 and demolished in 1816 after Napoleon’s final defeat allowed the repatriation of all remaining prisoners of war.

What remains there today?

Parts of Norman Cross Prison’s outer perimeter wall and central Guard House still stand today. The site is protected as a heritage landmark and has been excavated by archaeologists.

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