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Prison Museum

Prison Museum

Probably one of the most mysterious and enigmatic places on Dartmoor is the prison at Princetown, it holds a certain morbid fascination for most visitors. The dark, grey granite walls have for two centuries kept French and American war prisoners along with a multitude of criminals securely confined behind them. I say, ‘securely confined’ but perhaps it would be better worded as: ‘in the main, securely confined’ for some have escaped. For the majority of people those high walls represent a fascinating mystery, what goes on behind them? Who has served time in there? How do prisoners manage to escape? What is prison life like? This phenomenon is by no means exclusive to Dartmoor Prison but what is unique at Dartmoor Prison is that it is the only prison in the UK where all the above questions, along with a host more, can be answered. How? – quite simply by a visit to the Dartmoor Prison Museum which is located virtually opposite the modern prison.

I will confess, I am no exception when it comes to wondering what secrets the prison holds and so I decided to visit the museum myself and see what secrets it can unlock. The first surprise in store was the entry fee – £2.50, it’s seldom you can get into any museum for £2.50 these days. As you enter the museum you are immediately greeted by two stern looking prison officers, one in modern riot gear and the other simply dressed in the uniform of yesteryear. This immediately suggests how things have changed over the past two hundred years.

The actual museum is housed in what was once the dairy of the prison farm and was first opened in 1996 and since then has attracted an increasing number of visitors, indeed last year (2007) over 31,000 people came to see the exhibits. The actual structures are grade II listed buildings and therefore come under the auspices of English Heritage, the land is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall and so also comes under their dictates. At one time the prison was classified as a category B establishment which meant that  it held men who were a high escape risk but without the means to do so. Because the prison is a scheduled building it meant that new security upgrades could not be made and so in 2001 Dartmoor was downgraded to a category C prison. This means it only holds prisoners who are deemed not to be a high escape or security risk but who would attempt to escape given the opportunity. The whole concept of the Dartmoor Prison experience is that you are taken around a series of displays, tableaux and exhibits which tell the prisons story. The journey begins from the earliest times when the French prisoners of war were housed within the walls, these were later joined by American prisoners who were captured during the Anglo-American war. There are numerous exhibits relating to this period among which are some exquisite pieces of work done by the prisoners. The story then moves on to the period from 1850 to the modern day and explores the many facets of prison life over the past 158 years. Amongst these are various uniforms, a flogging frame, numerous items from the prison’s past, a tableaux portraying the quarry where the ‘hard labour’ took place and what must be everybody’s favourite – The Black Museum. Here you can see many items that were secretly made by various prisoners to either aid in escape, take drugs or to serve as weapons. What is interesting to note that this display is an ever evolving one because such items are to this very day being confiscated from prisoners. One such example is a rope and grappling hook make from knotted sheets and a metal chair leg. There are some excellent video presentations that also explain the life of the prison both now and in past times. Be warned a prison officer will be watching you watching the video. To help with the ever increasing running costs of the museum the shop sells an excellent range of garden ornaments, furniture and figurines which have been made by prisoners currently serving their sentences at the prison. There is even the opportunity to but a genuine Dartmoor Prison cell door for the give-away price of £50, this is guaranteed to be a talking point in any house.

Over the years I have visited numerous museums and have found that they all have one thing in common, the majority of the staff appear to know very little of what lies within their exhibits. Refreshingly this is not the case at the Dartmoor Prison Museum, Brian and Tina are two of the most knowledgeable, helpful and even more important enthusiastic curators I have ever met. They will help with any questions and what they don’t know they will soon find an answer for be it prison or Dartmoor related.

Below is but a small sample of what the museum has to offer, I have purposefully only included a few examples because any more would spoil the enjoyment of finding the many hidden gems that lie within the museum.

Prison Museum


Prison Museum

The Black Museum

Prison Museum

Escape Equipment

Prison Museum

Flogging Frame

Prison Museum

Hard Labour

Prison Museum

Prison Life

Next year (2009) is the bi-centennial of Dartmoor Prison and it’s planned to hold a series of events at the museum to mark the occasion. I will put the dates and events on this webpage when they have been confirmed and they do sound exciting.

I must admit that when I visited I was on a tight time-schedule and only spent a short time looking at the exhibits but I could have easily spent much, much more time as there was so much to see and learn about Dartmoor prison. It can be said that anyone visiting Princetown can only complete the experience by visiting this museum. Never mind gawking at those forbidding granite walls, pop into the museum and learn what goes on behind them and at £2.50 a head it’s a bargain.

Prison Museum


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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