The French Prisoners on Dartmoor

The French Prisoners on Dartmoor

THOUSANDS OF CAPTURED FRENCHMEN were imprisoned in Devon during the Napoleonic wars which, off-and-on, ran between 1803 and 1815.  Eleven thousand of them died here during their incarceration and are buried in mass graves at Dartmoor prison.

So too are 271 American sailors captured during the 1812 American war.

Prison ship 'The Devonshire'

The prison ship ‘Devonshire’

Initially they were put into military prisons and prison ‘hulks’, derelict ships anchored in estuaries. Conditions on these hulks  were appalling with overcrowding, poor diet, crude sanitation and little in the way of exercise or fresh air.

Many of these hulks were in Plymouth and too close for comfort to Plymouth Docks and the temptation for hundreds of highly-qualified young marins to break out and ‘liberate’ one or two of His Majesty’s men-of-war in a getaway.

Death rates rose to an unacceptable level and it was decided to build an escape-proof prison on land. The Plymouth hulks were emptied one at a time and the local militia escorted the prisoners and their possessions as they were marched out of the city and up onto the moor.

The prison that awaited them, then as now, was a forbidding looking place: grey and cheerless it had been built from Dartmoor granite by local labour in the middle of nowhere and as far as could be judged on that late, May afternoon in 1809 as the first contingent arrived, it also looked escape-proof.

But to those ragged, pale-faced men escaping those sodden, cheerless, wooden hell-holes that had contained some of them for years, it must have looked like a paradise.

In describing Dartmoor’s rolling hills and valleys at that time, a Monsieur Jules Poulain, a Frenchman  who is said to have lived at Princetown to be near a friend who was confined there, wrote, ”Think of the ocean waves changed into granite during a tempestuous storm, and you will then form an idea of what Dartmoor is like.”

Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt

Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt

Dartmoor prison was the brain-child of a man called Thomas Tyrwhitt, a well-connected, well-heeled Old Etonian, Oxford graduate and son of an Essex vicar.  Mr. Tyrwhitt (later to receive a knighthood) seems to have done rather well out of the deal which was helped by the fact that he was secretary to the Prince of Wales on the Duchy Estates and shared with him his (Tyrwhiit’s) dream of turning Dartmoor into a prosperous place by draining all the bogs, clearing away all those tiresome rocks and boulders so that thousands of acres of golden corn might be planted and the moor transformed to become “the bread basket of the West Country”. 

His other crackpot schemes included laying iron tracks across the wildly undulating terrain from Dartmoor to Plymouth so that horses could pull his wagons loaded with granite to the docks.

Tyrwhitt’s own Herne Hole quarry supplied all of the cut stone for the construction of the prison and he was also granted the licence to hold a market and a fair at  his creation of Prince’s Town (later to become Princetown) at which prisoners could trade their rations, handicrafts, clothes and other personal possessions for money. The money was then used to gamble or to buy vegetables from the locals who flocked to the town on market days.

Plymouth Hulk ships

At the end of the 19th century oak from some of Plymouth’s ‘hulks’ was used in the sub-structure of the stands for Wimbledon’s Centre Court – a more fitting end perhaps, for some of England’s once noble ‘wooden walls’.

The building as then built (and shown in our print) cost £130,000 and is described in the architect’s notes thus:
The outer wall encloses a circle of about 30 acres – within this is another wall which encloses the area in which the Prison stands – this area is a smaller circle with a segment cut off. The prisons are five large rectangular buildings each capable of containing more than 1,500 men ; they have each two floors, where is arranged a double tier of Hammocks slung on cast-iron pillars, and a third floor in the roof, which is used as a promenade in wet weather.
There are besides two other spacious buildings, one of which is a large hospital, and the other is appropriated to the Petty Officers. The entrance is on the western side, the gateway, built of solid blocks of granite.

No sooner had they settled in than the French began to organise. They conducted their own courts, and devised their own punishments for misdemeanours. Most remarkably of all perhaps, the French prisoners in the UK formed no fewer than twenty-six  Lodges and Chapters of Freemasons in England and elsewhere. The one in the neighbourhood of Dartmoor was at Ashburton, and the only evidence of it is an undated certificate granted to one Paul Carcenac, described as Assistant Commissary, the Lodge being described as “Des Amis Reunis” (the Re-united Friends).

Many of the prisoners of war were allowed out on parole, “upon condition that he gives his parole of honour not to withdraw one mile from the boundaries prescribed there without leave: that he will behave himself decently and with due regard to the laws of the Kingdom, and also that he will not directly or indirectly hold any correspondence with France during his continuance in England.”

The Devon towns set aside for prisoners on parole were Ashburton, Okehampton, Moretonhampstead and Tavistock, whilst periodically French officers were also billeted at Tiverton.

The behaviour of 150 who lived there was described in an official report as “exemplary” but then added, “Some of them have made overtures of marriage to women in the neighbourhood which the magistrates have very properly taken pains to discourage”.

One thinks perhaps of WW2 and the impact some American Servicemen had on some communities who described them as being “over-sexed, over-paid and over here”.   There must have been many a Devon lass who fell under the Gallic charms of their lodgers.

Printed warnings came not a moment too soon and were pasted up across the Moor for the benefit of anyone who could read whilst church pulpits were used to reinforce the message and  remind all parties of the rules of engagement.


That all such prisoners are permitted to walk or ride on the Great Turnpike Road within the distance of one mile from the extreme parts of the Town (not beyond the bounds of the Parish) and that if they shall exceed such limits or go into any field or cross road they may be taken up and sent to prison and a reward of 10 shillings (50 pence) will be paid for apprehending them.

And further that such prisoners are to be in their lodgings by 5 o’clock in the winter and 8 o’clock in the summer months.

Each prisoner was assigned a residence and received a fixed sum for his maintenance. He was allowed to engage in any kind of business or occupation. Many taught languages or carved trinkets, chess pieces or model ships from animal bone.


Escape from Topsham

Escape from Topsham

At the Devon Summer Assize, 1812, Richard Tapper, described as of Moretonhampstead, Carrier, Thomas Vinnacombe and William Vinnacombe (his brother) of Cheriton Bishop, described in the indictments as Smugglers, were indicted and convicted for aiding and assisting, with divers other persons unknown, the escape of the following persons:

Casimer Baudouin, an officer in the French Navy; Allain Michel and Louis Hamel, Captains of Merchant Vessels ; Pierre Joseph Dennis, a Second Captain of a Privateer; and Andrew Fleuriot, a Midshipman of the French Navy, to escape from Moretonhampstead.

The five Frenchmen paid £25 down, and then £150 on the day they broke their parole and made a dash for the sea and freedom.

They were taken on horseback, down from Moretonhampstead, suitably disguised, to Topsham on the estuary below Exeter, and placed in a large boat described as eighteen feet long.

Alas, with five escapees, and the three smugglers on board, they ran into trouble not far from Exmouth, when and where the boat grounded on the bar and  they were spotted and rounded-up.

The Frenchmen were returned to Dartmoor, the ‘smugglers’ to prison in Exeter.

Dartmoor had been filled to capacity in less than a year after its completion. Matters became worse with the arrival of American prisoners (allies of the French) in April 1813, and outbreaks of diseases – pneumonia, typhoid and smallpox, became widespread.

In total about 6,500 American sailors were imprisoned at Dartmoor, mostly naval prisoners, and impressed American seamen discharged from British vessels: about 1,000 of them were black.

Both the French and the American wars finished in 1815, and repatriations began but before that came to pass there was what has been dubbed a massacre of seven American prisoners (and some 60 seriously wounded) when guards opened fire at a crowd of prisoners which they believed (mistakenly) to be on the point of ‘causing an affray’.

The prison then remained empty until 1850, when it was rebuilt as a convict gaol for the most hardened criminals, who were sentenced to long terms of hard labour. When the prison farm was being established in about 1852, all the prisoners’ remains were exhumed and re-interred in two cemeteries behind the prison. There they still lie, more than 11,000 Frenchmen and 271 Americans.

Their epitaph reads:

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori: a line from Horace’s Odes that can be translated as, “It is sweet and proper to die for the fatherland.”

Wilfred Owen used the line in his similarly titled poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est”, it is now often referred to as “the Old Lie”.


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