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H M Prison Dartmoor: Former Infirmary

A Grade II Listed Building in Princetown, Devon

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Latitude: 50.5497 / 50°32'58"N

Longitude: -3.9973 / 3°59'50"W

OS Eastings: 258598

OS Northings: 74116

OS Grid: SX585741

Mapcode National: GBR Q2.VYW4

Mapcode Global: FRA 27JM.0KS

Plus Code: 9C2RG2X3+V3

Entry Name: H M Prison Dartmoor: Former Infirmary

Listing Date: 28 October 1987

Last Amended: 11 February 2016

Grade: II

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1326422

English Heritage Legacy ID: 92797

Location: Dartmoor Forest, West Devon, Devon, PL20

County: Devon

Civil Parish: Dartmoor Forest

Built-Up Area: Princetown

Traditional County: Devon

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Devon

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Former prison infirmary building, built circa 1806-9, to the design of Daniel Alexander, with later alteration and additions, and former annexe.


Former prison infirmary building, circa 1806-9, with later alteration and additions, and former annexe.

MATERIALS: granite rubble, incorporating some massive pieces, with granite cills and lintels to the windows. The window openings contain multi-pane windows with moveable hopper sections; there are later outer bars. The roof has been replaced with metal sheeting.

PLAN: the original infirmary building is an H-plan, with the longest central range on a north/south axis. An additional range stands immediately to the west of the infirmary block, also on a north/south axis. There are numerous later additions to both parts. The two small additions to the south-west of the main building, and the larger addition to the south-east of the northern wing, are not of special interest; nor is the addition to the north of the western range.*

DESCRIPTION: the main building is two storeys high; the west-facing elevation of the main range is of eleven bays, the original entrances having been to north and south; these are now obscured by later additions. There has been some alteration to the window openings on this side, including the blocking of some first-floor windows, whilst the ground-floor openings appear to have been lengthened. The south range of the main building remains largely intact internally, and is also of eleven bays, with fenestration as on the main range, and a low central door opening. The upper part of the central bay has been altered, and a modern fire escape added, which is not of special interest.* The western end of the north elevation of the north wing is largely obscured by a later addition – possibly the former farrier’s shop marked on a plan of 1927 – though the original privy block at the centre of the elevation can still be identified. The eastern side of the former infirmary could not be inspected.

The single-storey range, to the west of the main block, on the site of the former annexe to the infirmary, and thought to incorporate some of its fabric, has been much altered and added to. There is a long lean-to section against the west wall, essentially dating from 1900 but with later rebuilding. There is a low C20 addition against the north end, which is not of special interest.*

INTERIORS: not inspected (2015).

*Pursuant to s.1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act of 1990 (‘the Act’) it is declared that these aforementioned features are not of special architectural or historic interest.


During the American War of Independence (1775-1783) there were a large number of prisoner of war hulks at Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth and during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) a total of 47 hulks were moored at these dockyards. By 1805 the prisoner of war prisons at Norman Cross, Northamptonshire (1796-7, closed in 1816) and Stapleton near Bristol (1779) were full and a growing number of prisoners were held in hulks in Plymouth Harbour, in too close proximity to the arsenals at Plymouth. In response, the Admiralty built Dartmoor Prison in 1806-09 on land leased from the Duchy of Cornwall to designs by the London architect Daniel Asher Alexander (1768-1846).

Works on Dartmoor Prison started in the winter of 1805-6 and the foundation stone was laid on 20 March 1806. The first inmates were not received until 24 May 1809, and by June that year it housed 5000 prisoners of war. As described in Risdon’s Survey of Devon (1811), and illustrated by two views by Samuel Prout (1809 and 1811), by a print published in Ackermann’s Repository of 1810, by two engravings of 1815, one illustrating the massacre of rioting American inmates in that year, and by a survey drawing of the prison of 1847, Dartmoor Prison consisted of five blocks laid out in a radial arrangement around a central market place, in total covering c12ha and surrounded by a double, circular perimeter wall. Internal walls divided the prison into a number of sections. In the central market place prisoners could trade with outside traders. The western part of the prison included an Infirmary and a separate Petty Officer’s Prison. The main entrance of the prison was flanked to the right by the Governor’s House and to the left by the Surgeon’s House. Fresh water was supplied via a reservoir and conduit outside the prison wall opposite the main entrance. From here it was led into the prison and carried about the site in five open channels, feeding a bathing pool (on the site of the current E Wing) and passing beneath privy blocks privies attached to each prison wing. The foul water was then carried away from the prison to the east. The five two storey prison blocks with attics housed up to 500 men. Metal columns on each floor held the sleeping hammocks, with stairs at either end of the building, as shown on the 1847 survey. The attics were meant to be used for exercising but due to overcrowding they were soon used for sleeping in. In the attic of the former chapel block, originally one of the five early prison blocks, the fixings for the hammocks on the roof timbers survive in situ (NMR Record).

In 1812, following the outbreak of the trade wars with America, two blocks were added to house prisoners, and the Petty Officer’s block was converted into a barrack to supplement the large barracks complex south of the prison.

The prison closed in 1816. Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt, Secretary to the Prince of Wales, who had been closely involved with the establishment of the prison and the foundation of Princetown, feared that the closure would lead to the depopulation of the moor. He successfully campaigned for the building of a railway from Plymouth to Princetown, opened in 1827, but this did not lead to major economic development in the area.

In 1850 the prison was re-opened to become a civic prison to address the contraction in the transportation of prisoners to Australia. Four of the existing seven blocks were used for convicts: two of these were left as open blocks to house invalid convicts, whilst the other two blocks were gutted and converted into four-storied cell blocks. By 1851 there was accommodation for 1030 inmates at Dartmoor Prison, who mainly undertook the building works, completed in 1853, and additional heavy land reclamation work on the moor.

During the 1860s, 1870s and 1880s a number of alterations were made to the prison by the architect Sir Edmund du Cane (1830-1903). In 1863 he had been appointed Director of Convicts and Inspector of Military Prisons, in 1869 became Surveyor-General of Prisons, Chairman of the Board of Convict Prisons and Inspector-General of Military Prisons, and from 1878 until his retirement in 1895 was Chairman of the Prison Commission for local prisons. His work at Dartmoor Prison includes the former no. V prison block (1871-1873, demolished and replaced by the gymnasium in the late C20), the current D wing (1879-1883) and the current B wing (1880-1885). By 1885 the current F wing had been remodelled internally by Colonel AB McHardy, the then Surveyor of Prisons. By 1895 Dartmoor Prison could accommodate 1303 convicts.

Further rebuilding of the prison took place during the first quarter of the C20. In 1900 another aqueduct was built to the east of the prison and the prison’s outer perimeter wall was strengthened with 18 buttresses in addition to the 25 that had been added in 1897. In 1901 the current E wing was completed to designs by Colonel Alten Beamish, Surveyor of Prisons, followed by the current G wing built in 1901-04/5. The current A wing was built in 1905-8 and C wing in 1912-14/15. A detailed description of Dartmoor Prison, following a number of visits, was published in 1909-10 by RG Alford (Notes on the buildings of English Prisons, vol. 2, pp75-87).

In 1917, following the introduction of the 1916 Home Office Scheme, Dartmoor Prison became one of a number of labour camps in the country holding conscientious objectors. Dartmoor Prison housed around 1000 conscientious objectors, who mainly undertook farm labour or worked in quarries on the Moor. Although the conscientious objectors at Dartmoor Prison were not locked in their cells as in some other labour camps, recent research undertaken by the Imperial War Museum confirms they were generally despised, working conditions were harsh and medical care was generally poor.

After the First World War, Dartmoor became a civilian prison again. In 1932 a mutiny took place resulting in extensive fire damage to the administration block in the centre of the prison, and was subsequently demolished (the site now occupied by the modern kitchen block). Around this time the inner perimeter wall had already gone, later to be replaced with a tall metal fence.

The 1945 Prison Commission Report identified the need for new, purpose-built secure prisons and by 1947, when the lease of the site from the Duchy of Cornwall expired, it was hoped Dartmoor Prison could be closed. However, no new prisons opened until the mid-1950s and Dartmoor remained open. The White Paper ‘Penal Practice in a Changing Society’ published in 1959 did result in a major prison building programme but Dartmoor Prison remained open.

In 1990 major prison riots took place in Britain, including at Dartmoor Prison which led to an extensive refurbishment programme in order to improve the prison’s security, including the replacement of all roof coverings with metal. Both A and D wing were refurbished, and since then the other wings have been modernised too, except for C wing which was closed in 2002 and retains most of its 1914/15 interior. As part of the modernisation of the prison a network of covered walks was built leading from the kitchen in the centre to the various prison blocks. A modern gymnasium was built on the site of the former no V cell block of 1871-3 by du Cane which in 1953 had been replaced by a nissen hut, thus retaining the radial plan form of the prison.

The infirmary was constructed as part of the first phase of building work of 1806-9, and was set within its own compound in the north-western part of the site, with a separate gateway and porter’s lodge to the south-east (now demolished). The 1847 plan shows that the infirmary had a large open ward in the main central block, with two more wards and the surgery in the north wing. The south wing contained wards, kitchens, the seamstress’s apartment, and an interpreter’s cabin. In the late 1840s, the infirmary was briefly let to the British Patent Naptha Company for use as a peat processing factory. Thereafter it was used for gas production for lighting the prison, until the gas works to the north of the prison were built in 1875, after which it became workshops. The former infirmary building is now in use as workshops and for training, and some reconfiguration of the internal spaces reflects its changing use. The building is a rare surviving example of an early-C19 prison infirmary.

An additional range standing immediately to the south of the infirmary block was also constructed during the first building phase, illustrated by the print of 1810. This consisted of a central house containing separate accommodation for the assistant surgeon and matron, with a wing to the north containing the wash house and laundry; to the south was the dispensary. Attached at the south end was the gatehouse and porter’s lodge. Later in the C19 a blacksmith’s shop occupied the site of the former laundry (a lean-to farriers shop and wood store was added in 1900), with the house becoming the Works office. A fire in 1958 damaged the former house; it is thought that little of this now remains, apart from its footprint. The range has undergone much additional change in the C20.

Reasons for Listing

The former prison infirmary building, built circa 1806-9, to the design of Daniel Alexander, with later alteration and additions, and former annexe, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* Historic interest: an integral part of the historic Dartmoor Prison complex, dating from 1806-9, the main building was the original infirmary; surviving prison infirmaries of this date are rare;
* Architectural interest: the main building essentially retains its outward form, which though severe and lacking in ornament, is representative of the architectural style originally employed by Daniel Alexander in Dartmoor prison more widely;
* Group value: the buildings form part of an important and relatively complete group of listed prison buildings, together reflecting the historic development of H M Prison Dartmoor and its distinctive radial plan form as first envisaged in 1806-9.

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