One of the very good things about visitors, apart from the fact that is lovely to see them, is the way that it makes me go and see places I think I know and look at those places with new eyes. I often drive along the lane and try and recall our first impressions of it when we first viewed this house, or drive back from town as if for the first time ...and imagine how the familiar must look now to those who haven't seen it before.
It took a cold wet afternoon in Princetown six years ago to convince me that I had really had enough of front line health visiting. It can be bleak and desolate, and yes depressing, especially when your purpose is to be there to visit people who were also struggling with that fact. Plenty of people live there and love it...I didn't need to go and visit them, but I can think of few more isolated spots for women to be struck down with post-natal depression and no transport. It was a frequent occurrence and a challenging one to work with.
The prison museum had always seemed to be closed, and I had often thought it might make a happy little respite from visiting people in the desponds if I could only find it open one day and take shelter and, as I now discover, learn the best way to make a cat-o-nine tails.
Curzon came to visit for a few days last week, and as we drove up onto the moors for what turned out to be a very blustery walk and almost a soaking, we diverted through Princetown en route to lunch in Ashburton, for a glimpse of the prison, and lo, the museum was open. The first thing the curator does is send you out to a vantage point around the back for the best view and encourages photographs, which quite surprised me.
So anyway, here's a perfectly legal picture of the very forbidding entrance portal to HMP Dartmoor, the inscription over the gate reads Parcere Subjectis...Pity the Conquered...
Built to house French prisoners-of-war at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it seems amazing to think that while Georgiana, Duchess of Bedford, was planning her luxury holiday cottage orne at Endsleigh...
Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt was busy laying the foundation stone across the moor at 1430 ft above sea level for the prison.
Another legal picture...
That round building part of the reservoir, and the very first thing to be built in 1806. A water supply was going to be key to any successful building and prison community up here, and a leat was created to divert water from the nearby River Walkham.
1430 ft, no wonder my ears used to pop when I drove up there, and that we always say when it snows in Scotland it snows at Princetown.
By 1812 the prison housed (somehow) over 9000 prisoners and by 1813 American prisoners were arriving too ( with retrospective apologies to all US readers on behalf of the nation, this was apparently following George III's refusal to accept America's independence) and the place must have been heaving. The death toll was high, not only from smallpox and typhus but from violence, suicide, exposure and malnutrition....and doubtless pure misery. The museum has a large section on those American connections, something of which I was completely unaware, and also some amazing artefacts made by the prisoners from chicken bones and more interesting information to be found here.
The prison fell into disuse after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, when the prisoners were repatriated, and the building wasn't recommisioned until Prince Albert decided that is should be made fit for purpose again in 1850. Fit for purpose might be a bit misleading... I'm not sure Dartmoor has ever achieved much more than isolate some of the country's most dangerous criminals in the middle of one of the most inhospitable places in the country. Prisoners are now graded according to their escape potential and Dartmoor is home to those in Category C (often sex offenders) considered not a high escape or security risk, but may be 'opportunists.'
It was surprising to discover that nothing deterred the escapees of old and of which there have been hundreds over the years, though many don't get very far. Nor would I without my Scarpa boots, walking poles and a Rab jacket and waterproof trousers, plus a rucksack full of provisions, a dry-bag, space blanket, map and a compass, and I wouldn't say no to a tent either. It can be a very scary place when the mist descends and we all know about the Hairy Hands don't we. The traditional image we have of the convict sporting his uniform covered in arrows, was finally dispensed with in the 1920s. It indicated Crown Property, and nor did I know that the 14lb boots also carried the arrow imprint in hob-nails on the sole, and thus every muddy step left an indelible and identifiable impression.
Perhaps the most famous escapee has to be Frank Mitchell, the Mad Axeman, although apparently he never actually wielded an axe in anger, just rested one on his knee while he held a couple of pensioners hostage and drank tea. It is alleged his escape in 1966 was aided by the infamous Kray twins who then didn't quite know what to do with this larger than life but unpredictable man, and when Frank disappeared eleven days into his freedom, never to be heard of again, the Krays were tried for his murder, but acquitted. No body, no evidence, though I'm sure I recall the rumours at the time (and ongoing local myth) suggested someone should check out the concrete under Spaghetti Junction, or was it the Chiswick Flyover...Curzon and I couldn't decide. The museum has some fascinating newspaper reports and photographs from the time which made for interesting reading, because by all accounts Frank was afforded a great deal of local freedom for a prisoner and would often be seen drinking in local pubs with a prison officer 'attached.'
Nor had I realised that Eamon de Valera, eventually to become the Irish Head of Goverment, was also held at HMP Dartmoor.
The long-term future of the prison seems uncertain, with ongoing improvements possibly now hampered by the fact that HMP Dartmoor is a Grade Two listed building, and more local rumour has it that closure is on the cards...I can see it now as a 'walking' hotel and tourist attraction. Meanwhile the museum is doing a sterling job of keeping the history of the place intact, and probably on a miniscule budget. Perhaps the thing I found most disturbing was that cat-o-nine tails and the frame to which the prisoners were strapped, in use until 1947 when flogging as a punishment for misdemeanours ceased. There is something stark about reading the very specific and detailed instructions about making something to effectively cause the most pain (well-placed knots) so it was good to then read about a wonderful scheme for the good and instigated in recent years at HMP Dartmoor, you can read more about Story Book Dads here.
So there you have it, finally I see the Prison Museum and decide Princetown isn't so depressing after all.