St Michael and All Angels, Princetown, Dartmoor
The granite church sits on the top of windswept and wild Dartmoor, close to the notorious Dartmoor Prison. The building of the church began in 1812, by French prisoners and was completed in 1815 by American POWs. The prisoners had to quarry the hard stone in all weathers, summer and winter, shape them and then transport the great blocks to the site, before each piece could be hoisted in place.
During the war of 1812 between Britain and America, which lasted 32 months, many American prisoners of war were captured during sea-battles They were initially held on the prison ships in Plymouth, ironically, where the Pilgrim Fathers had sailed from, but after riots on board, the authorities decided to move them to the remote and grim prison at Princetown on Dartmoor. In groups of 250, they were marched a gruelling 17 miles up onto the moors, to Princetown, often swathed in mist and rain, surrounded by forbidding tors and deadly sucking mires.
Dartmoor Prison in the Mist
Photographer: Rob Purvis
The prison had been built between 1806-1809 to house 10,000 men. Between 1809 and 1812, 8,000 Napoleonic prisoners had passed through it’s gates, and 6,500 US sailors were imprisoned there in the years between 1813-1815. Conditions were bleak and harsh, with frequent floggings, though these were often ordered by the prisoners’ own courts. But in contrast, there are reports of music and plays being performed by the prisoners. Sadly, more than 280 Americans died in prison from food poisoning, measles, pneumonia and small pox. The stained-glass east window in the church was eventually installed as a memorial to them.
Perez Drinkwater, from Maine, a lieutenant on the schooner Lucy, was captured by the British Navy in 1813. He wrote to his brother in 1814, one of the few letters ever to make it out of Dartmoor Prison.
'We arrived in Plymouth on 20th January was put on board the prison-ship Brave on 24th and landed from her on 31st and marched to this place in a snow storm. The prison is situated on one of the highest places in England and it either snows or rains the whole year round and is cold enough to wear a great coat the whole time. There is 10,000 men here now but the French are about going home … we have but 1lb and a half of black bread and about 3 ounces of beef and a little beef tea to drink and all that makes us one meal a day.
Interior of St Michael's Church with the British, Americanand French Flags.
He also complains about getting little peace between the ‘Englishmen’ and ‘creepers’ (lice and bedbugs) which force them up in the mornings. What seems to have been worse for him is that he had nothing to do or think about except his imprisonment. Working on the church, for some of the prisoners at least, must have at least got them outside those high walls for a few precious hours.
At the end of the war in 1815, there was a delay of some months in releasing and repatriating the prisoners. That and food shortages, led to what some reports called a ‘protest’, others called an ‘uprising’ or ‘riot,’ which was quelled with armed forced. Tragically, seven American prisoners were shot dead and somewhere between 31 and 60 were wounded according to differing accounts.
Some of the small granite stones
marking graves of prisoners
The churchyard of St Michael's contains over 1,000 burials. When Dartmoor prison was reopened for convicts in 1850, prisoners were buried anonymously in their own area in the churchyard and without a grave marker, unless their families could pay for one. Now, thanks to local researchers their names and history are recorded inside the church. By 1900’s, prisoners were allowed a small granite marker with just their initials and date of death, though when I examined these rows of little stones, even these scant details seem largely unreadable now. There is, however, a large granite cross, with an arrow on each corner, carved by the prisoners themselves to remember all their fellow inmates who lie in unmarked graves.
But it was not just prisoners who had no grave stones. A large empty area between the gates and the cross is where the local people are buried who could not afford a stone, especially during the measles and typhoid epidemic in which some families in Princetown lost several of their children, siblings dying within days or even hours of each other.
I visited the church just before Armistice day, when like so many across the country, it had been decorated with the transparent outlines of soldiers in the pews. Somehow, these ghostly figures seemed even more poignant inside St Michael’s one of England’s most stark but haunting churches, a moving memorial to the French and Americans POWs who created it.
Poppies and the transparent outline of the solider
who never returned in the pew in St Michael's church.