John Short describes the period between 1804-1814 when he was a PW of the French and the conditions were very poor, including a march of some 1200 miles. But, by and large, the comparatively few British PWs held by the French appear to have been kept in reasonable conditions but, I concede, I have seen very little on that subject.
The number is fundamental to the experience of French and other, mainly American, PWs in Britain, which held up to 122,000 PWs during the period 1803 to 1814. Also important is the time scale. I doubt any belligerent during the entire period held as many PWs for so long.
The PWs were certainly held in hulks at Plymouth and other ports, decommissioned warships in the main, and although purpose made facilities were constructed, Dartmoor and Norman Cross being well known, hulks continued in use for holding PWs to the end of the period. Hulks were part of the penal system from the late 18th century and used for civilian convicts, originally those waiting deportation, initially to America and later to Australia. Up to two thirds of the civilian prison population was held on hulks, on which conditions were, by all accounts, appalling.
Officers were invited to give their parole and were sent to various centres around the country, where they lived in comparative comfort, but were not supposed to leave the area where they were held.
Dartmoor is probably the best known of PW Depots, as they were known, and the proposal to build a one at Princetown on Dartmoor was made in 1805, driven by two imperatives. First was the increasing numbers of French captives who were being held in overcrowded conditions on hulks at Portsmouth and, second, security. In particular the proximity of the prisoners to HM Dockyard Portsmouth.
The chosen site was windswept, wet, bleak and remote. Communication to ports of embarkation were good; situated in the County of Devon in southwest England, local industries comprised quarrying, farming and animal husbandry which could provide the materials to build the depot and sustain a large prison population. In short, an ideal place for prisoners of war who would never have a nice day.
Prisoners were put to work clearing the site in late 1805 and the foundation stone was laid in March 1806. It took three years to complete and was immediately occupied by French prisoners who were marched from the hulks at Portsmouth, some 140 miles away.
The depot was circular, a mile in circumference, built of granite comprising an 18 foot outer wall enclosing an area of approximately thirty acres. Inside the outer wall was a second inner wall, topped with a trip wire and bells, and within that a twelve foot iron palisade. The prison comprised three distinct parts; the accommodation area where prison staff and officials lived and included the main entrance, the support area including a hospital and guard's barracks, and finally the prison area, which occupied half the entire site, comprising seven large rectangular prisoners' barrack blocks and a punishment block.
Marching through the main gate, the prisoners passed between the two houses of the senior prison officials, the surgeon's on the left and the governor's on the right, and into a large courtyard containing staff quarters.
Ahead were two further gates, the second flanked by two guard towers. These gates gave access to the 30 yards wide walk-way between the outer and inner walls surrounding the support and prison areas. Passing between the two guard towers into the support area, the prisoners found themselves in another courtyard between two 'H' shaped buildings. The one to their left was the hospital and to their right the barracks for the guards, who were drawn from the Militia.
Ahead of them was another wall beyond which was the prison area containing the seven prisoners' barrack blocks, numbered clockwise one to seven, and the punishment block capable of holding up to sixty men. Conditions in the barrack blocks were harsh. Each block was three storeys high and designed to accommodate up to 1500 prisoners, who slept in rows of hammocks. Each storey comprised a single large dormitory, with small unglazed barred windows which were closed by wooden shutters.
The prisoners worked outside the prison where they cleared land for agriculture, worked in quarries or as labourers on nearby farms. Prisoners arrived at the depot wearing the uniforms and clothing they were captured in and were issued a coarse yellow woolen jacket and trousers bearing a broad government arrow and the letters 'TO' for 'Transport Office' (all prisoner of war depots were administered by the Transport Board), a woolen waistcoat (red according to records from Norman Cross Prisoner of War Depot), a woolen conical hat, two cotton shirts, two pairs of stockings and a pair of wooden shoes.
Daily rations are recorded as being one and a half pounds of bread, half a pound of beef, a third of an ounce of salt, half a pound of vegetables and one ounce of barley per prisoner. On Wednesdays and Fridays the vegetables and meat could be replaced by one pound of potatoes and one pound of fish, usually herrings, if available. This is similar to the rations provided at Norman Cross prisoner of war depot near Peterborough in 1800, where the vegetables were served as a soup, each prisoner receiving two pints. This diet was actually a rather better than which many civilians subsisted on, for whom meat and fish was virtually unknown.
The likelihood that these rations were always received by prisoners seems remote. The problem was corruption and dishonest victualling agents often stole a proportion of the rations and sold them to local tradesmen, and the prisoners often did not receive their full entitlement. Prisoners were able to supplement their diet by means of a market that was held six days a week between 1100 and 1400, where the prisoners sold or exchanged 'prison art', baskets, ornaments, carvings, paintings and so on, for money, food, clothing and other necessities.
The cold and damp conditions in winter and the hot and humid conditions in summer, combined with overcrowding, resulted in a variety of illnesses, including influenza, pneumonia, tuberculosis, dysentery, smallpox, measles and typhoid. Approximately 1750 prisoners died of disease between 1806 and 1815 and were buried in communal pits beyond the walls. Their remains were discovered in 1852 when a prison farm was being developed. They were exhumed reburied in two cemeteries. In contrast, Norman Cross Prisoner of War Depot had 1770 deaths from disease, amongst 7000 prisoners, between 1797 and 1814, approximately 1000 of which died in a typhoid outbreak in 1800-1801.
In April 1813 American prisoners started to be moved to Dartmoor from the hulks at Plymouth, Chatham, and Portsmouth. Between April 1813 and March 1815 approximately 6500 American prisoners, almost entirely sailors from privateers and merchantmen, were sent to Dartmoor. One in seven of these sailors were free negroes. American prisoners were not separated from the French at first but as French prisoners were released at the end of the wars in 1814, Americans occupied five of the seven barracks. Black and white American prisoners were mixed together initially but in early 1814 the white American prisoners petitioned the governor to give the black prisoners separate quarters. At first they were segregated into the upper stories of Barrack 4 but by September 1814 Barrack 4 was occupied entirely by black prisoners.
With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in April 1814 the French prisoners started to be repatriated and soon the depot was occupied only by Americans. The Treaty of Ghent was signed in December 1814, which ended the War of 1812, but American prisoners continued to be held at the depot into 1816. The reason for this was the negligence of the American government and the incompetence of its London agent, Rueben G. Beasley. Beasley had a history of neglect where the interests of the American prisoners were concerned and now neither the American government nor Beasley demonstrated any urgency in providing the vessels necessary to transport prisoners back to the United States. In the meantime, in March 1815, the prisoners demonstrated; “at Noon we had the Effigy of Mr. Beasley hung and then burnt for his kind attention to the American prisoners of war.”, and in April there was a riot which resulted in the deaths of seven prisoners and the wounding of another 31.
The British government concluded that the best course was to ignore the procrastination of the American authorities and prisoners with means of support were released immediately, the remainder transported home on British, later American ships. There was, however, a further delay when black prisoners refused to be repatriated on ships bound for southern US ports, for fear that they would be sold into slavery on arrival.
Dartmoor Prisoner of War Depot closed in 1816 and was unused for the next 34 years. In 1850 it was largely rebuilt and re-opened as a civilian prison, for particularly dangerous or hardened criminals whose sentences included hard labour.