- Historic Sites
The Paradox Of Dartmoor Prison
While some American captives languished, others conducted a flourishing market—and a huge black sailor organized everything
February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
More important to the seamen than their handicrafts were the shops and salesmen selling food and drink to supplement the rations and bring a little warmth into the damp moorland mornings. Some with a little capital set up grocery shops by buying from grocers in local towns and selling items in small quantities; tiny portions of butter, tea, coffee, and fruit, as well as the constantly demanded tobacco and snuff, found a ready market among the seamen.
Black prisoners seem to have been particularly involved in the sale of ready-cooked food. One white diarist, more biased than most, tried to describe the cry of a “chattering, monkey-faced negro” fritters salesman: “Fr-r-r-r-itters lighter dan da’punge, bigger dan a nobodies—de pan so clean what fry ’urn, a man can shabe heself in, or see he purty face, dout tearing it to tatters; -tur-r-r-r-it! tur-r-r-r-it!. frit! ter-r-r-frit! ter-r-rfrit!” Particularly popular among the prisoners were plumgudgeons, burgoo, and freco. Plumgudgeons were mashed potatoes flavored with codfish, fried to a crisp brown, and sold in little conical shapes. Dartmoor burgoo was a sort of pudding made of oatmeal and flavored with butter or molasses. This was somewhat different from and more popular than the burgoo served to Americans imprisoned belowdecks on their way to England as prisoners. One seaman commented of this oatmeal gruel that “none but hogs and Scotchmen ought to drink it.” The third specialty, freco or friego, was a kind of stew, less adulterated than the ration, made from a little meat, potatoes, the marrow and fat of bones, and onions or barley. When there was more meat, the stew became “lobscouse” and cost twice as much.
To go with his extra food an affluent seaman could buy “coffee,” sometimes made from burnt peas or burnt crusts of bread. If he wanted something stronger, there was no shortage of alcohol within the prison. The British soldiers helped smuggle in liquor, and there was a good deal of drunkenness. Beer was sold from the stalls, and King Dick was said to hold a monopoly of the sale in No. 4, as well as taking a cut from the general shopkeepers there.
For those who wanted diversion beyond extra food and drink, the black quarters offered the greatest opportunities, although navigation and nautical subjects were taught in other barracks and No. 7 even had a small lending library. White prisoners went to No. 4 to be taught boxing, fencing, dancing, and even music. When on February 22, 1815, the prisoners marched to celebrate Washington’s birthday, they were accompanied by fifes, flutes, bugles, trumpets, violins, and clarinets; and No. 4 had a band that on one occasion annoyed visiting British officers by playing “Yankee Doodle.”
More surprisingly there were two theatres in Dartmoor—one in the loft of No. 4, where the actors were mostly black, and one in No. 5, where they were all white. The black theatre seems to have been the more active, and there were productions of Othello, Romeo and Juliet , and the Scotch tragedy Douglass, as well as less ambitious pieces. The admission price was sixpence, but at a performance of the comedy The Heir At Law in No. 5 the seamen rushed in without paying. A visitor from another barracks commented on this occasion that “the scenery was very good and so was the performance. After the play we had a grand dance and kept it up till daylight when the prison doors being open each one went to his own prison.”
What with all these activities there was no need for boredom for anyone with a little money. Many, however, used any they had for gambling. The committees controlling some of the barracks attempted to set up rules outlawing gambling, but it was prevalent throughout Dartmoor. One prisoner wrote of waking at daybreak to the sound of gamblers who had been up all night in their pursuit of sudden wealth. Cards, dice, and pitch-penny were general, but the most elaborate gaming went on in No. 4, with King Dick controlling some tables and taking a percentage from others. A white prisoner complained of young men ruined by gambling in the prison who finished up as Rough Alleys, or “perhaps tending a gaming table in No. 4, a miserable slave to an ignorant negro.” Keno was one of the most popular card games—twenty or thirty at a time played at a table—but the prisoners also played vingt-et-un and brag, and for those who were tired of cards there was a tvoe of roulette.
If a sailor was ruined by gambling in the loft of No. 4, spiritual consolation was close at hand, for the black barracks was the center of religious activity. Every Thursday a British minister came from Plymouth to preach in No. 4, and on Sunday a black Methodist preacher, a prisoner, held services that were frequently attended by white prisoners. It is difficult to obtain an impartial view of these observances, as of many of the other activities in No. 4, because the white diarists frequently emphasized the grotesque qualities of the service and of the preacher, Simon, who was described as “an ugly, thick-lipped, ignorant black man” in one white’s journal.