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H M Prison Dartmoor: E Wing

A Grade II Listed Building in Princetown, Devon

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Latitude: 50.5497 / 50°32'58"N

Longitude: -3.9946 / 3°59'40"W

OS Eastings: 258784

OS Northings: 74112

OS Grid: SX587741

Mapcode National: GBR Q2.VZMD

Mapcode Global: FRA 27JM.1KS

Plus Code: 9C2RG2X4+V5

Entry Name: H M Prison Dartmoor: E Wing

Listing Date: 12 February 2016

Grade: II

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1429817

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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A former isolation prison wing with attached exercise yards, completed in 1901 to designs of 1897 by Alten Beamish, Surveyor of Prisons, with late-C20 alterations.


A former isolation prison wing with attached exercise yards, completed in 1901 to designs of 1897 by Alten Beamish, Surveyor of Prisons, with late-C20 alterations.

MATERIALS: squared granite rubble with ashlar dressings. The pitched roof has four skylights to the ridge and two ventilation chimneys to either side of the roof slope. The roof is covered in metal sheeting replacing former slate tiles.

PLAN: the building has a rectangular plan. Built on a sloping site, it contains two rows of individual cells at one level at its west end whilst the east part of the building has cells are arranged over two levels to either side of a central atrium. Attached to the north and south elevations are five (formerly six) walled exercise yards.

EXTERIOR: the west gable end has chimney stacks to each corner (serving fire places in the former guards’ rooms near the entrance), and a central entrance, now linked to one of the late C20 covered walkways which replaced a small porch. To either side is a sash window with a tripartite window above the entrance.

The side elevations are 6 bays wide at the west end, each with a small prison cell window and larger sashes to the former guards’ rooms. The 7th bay is marked by two, full height projecting ablution towers, followed by a further 13 bays to the east, each with two small prison windows. Some of the window openings retain their original 60-small pane sashes.


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 civilian 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.

After the First World War, Dartmoor became a civilian prison again. In1932 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.

E Wing occupies the site of the former bathing pool of 1809. Completed in 1901, E Wing was built as a prison block of 61 separate cells with 12 attached exercise yards to designs of 1897 by Alten Beamish, the Surveyor of Prisons (held in the Ministry of Justice Archive). With its individual cells, E Wing formed part of a new scheme planned to gradually replace the traditional ‘bunks’ which by 1903 had almost disappeared at Dartmoor Prison. Originally built as an isolation wing (called Separate Cells), E Wing contained 23 gated observation cells, 3 darkened cells and 38 ordinary cells. In 2003 it became a resettlement wing opened by HRH the Prince of Wales. At the west end the punitive cells were removed and two exercise yards were amalgamated into one to create a garden. E Wing is currently in use as a general wing.

Reasons for Listing

The E wing at H M Prison Dartmoor, an isolation wing of 1901 designed in1897 by Alten Beamish is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* Historic interest: as an important part of the historic prison complex, representing an improvement to the prisoners' accommodation;
* Architectural interest: it is a good and mostly intact example of an isolation wing of 1901 designed by the then Surveyor of Prisons, Alten Beamish;
* Group value: the building forms part of an important and relatively complete group of listed prison buildings, together reflecting the historic development of HMP Dartmoor and its distinctive radial plan form as first envisaged in 1806-9.

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