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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

One Thing leads to Another: Dartmoor & Bristol 18th century POW Prisons, medical treatments, & more

I have recently finished reading an adventure novel, based around terrorist cells in England. It is a recent publication written by the broadcaster, Simon Mayo. For those who, like me, enjoy this type of story I can highly recommend it. However, I then discovered an earlier fiction work by Mayo. This one is set in the historical setting of Dartmoor Prison in the early 19th century, when it housed American POWs captured during the war of 1812. Another good read, but I was fascinated that it was based around actual facts (NB there are some historical errors, such as a reference to Belgium before that state was born, but the description of Dartmoor is very accurate as far as I can judge).

Three historical facts referred to in the story are:-

  1. The first and only time there has been racial segregation in a British Prison

  2. The first all-Black production of a Shakespeare Play

  3. The first reference in Britain to Black Gospel Music

All this set my mind racing. I knew, as many of you will too, that Dartmoor was first built to house French POW from the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. I didn't know about the incarceration of American POWs there.

I have always held an interest in the history of these French POW because less than a mile from my family home in Bristol was another Prison constructed to house these prisoners. Subsequently it became a workhouse and finally, what it still is today, a hospital. When constructed in the late 18th century in what was then the village of Stapleton this was seen as a better option than to hold the POWs in any of the existing Bristol prisons in the centre of the city.

My interest whetted, I discovered an academic article from the 1950s on sale with ebay entitled 'Prisoners of War in Stapleton Jail Near Bristol' by Dorothy Vinter. I bought it, read it, and discovered, that if only for a few weeks prior to being sent on to Dartmoor it too had held American POWs after the French, two thousand of them, had been repatriated. Then interestingly I learnt that the last Frenchman left was too ill to be repatriated and was sent to The Poor House in Fishponds, the neighbouring parish to Stapleton, and where 130 years later I made my first appearance.


Now to the second part of this piece. In the detailed account provided by Dorothy Vinter, she refers to the abundance of ill health amongst the over-crowded and ill fed prisoners ranging from typhus to smallpox, and from dysentery to semi starvation, and all points in-between. I then went on to read the following intriguing paragraph :-

'All the [prison] hospital stores came by sea from the Apothecaries Hall, Blackfriars, except the leeches for blood-letting of which three dozen were obtained locally every few months. Much lard was used as a basis for ointments, sheepskins for plasters and large quantities of olive-oil for the numerous skin complaints. Thirty-six gallons of lemon juice as a remedy for scurvy were on one order alone, and each winter between two and three hundred lbs of honey were needed for cough medicine. Amongst other requisites were vinegar and brown paper for poultices, tinct. opii camph., gum arabic, beeswax, alum, Epsom salts, treacle and calomel, besides tow, gallipots, probangs and sponges. Wooden legs were sometimes needed and occasionally strait-jackets, one of these for the restraint of an insane prisoner who tried to kill the surgeon and had to be confined in the 'Black Hole' until a cartel-boat [in international law any boat on an humanitarian trip such as return of POWs] sailed for France.'

Let's take a look at some of the treatments and medical practices cited in the above paragraph. I shall refer to those words I have placed in italics.

  1. Leeches. Leeches were used to draw blood and were collected from local ponds. In this case, as it is said they were collected locally, it would have been from the ponds left behind by quarrying, in both Stapleton and FishPONDS. When the leeches were used in Stapleton Prison they were the height of medical practice (we still use them today and Bristol Zoo, for example, breeds them in sterile conditions for medical use). They were gathered by poor women desperate to earn a little money, for their collection was an unpleasant business. The women waded into the water with bare legs and waited until enough leeches had latched on to them before emerging from the filthy water. The leeches were allowed to feed for 20 minutes but the women it is said could continue to bleed for up to ten hours. It is hardly surprising that ill health and even death haunted the gatherers. At one point the demand in Britain for leeches was so great we began importing them from France (just imagine the paperwork that would be involved today). The leeches could live for up to a year without further feeding and were kept by pharmacists in special jars which had holes around them to allow the leeches to breathe.

  2. Lemon Juice. Lemon juice had been discovered by The Royal Navy as a proactive treatment for scurvy, later in the 19th century Rose's produced their famous lime juice to obtain similar results - hence why the Americans called British sailors, and Britons in general 'limeys'. A nickname adopted by Australians and others. Around the same time, 1800, a French Army in The Middle East discovered that freshly cooked horseflesh served the same purpose. Thus today we drink lime juice and the French eat horseflesh.

  3. Vinegar and Brown Paper. Used in the treatment of wounds, bruises, and such like. The brown paper used was very different from our modern packing paper. It was made from old rope, canvas, and other sacking and was thus quite coarse. You used half a dozen or so sheets of this coarse paper and applied it as a poultice, after first soaking it in heated vinegar. Today many alternative therapies recommend the use of cider vinegar. The brown paper did nothing other than being a means of applying the vinegar to the infected part. And this medical use is well known because of the Jack and Jill rhyme, viz 'Up Jack got and home did trot, as fast as he could caper, went to bed to mend his head, with vinegar and brown paper'.

  4. Calomel. This was used as a purgative and to kill off bacteria. it also helped to kill the patient off too because it was in fact a mercury compound.

  5. Probang. This was a medical instrument to remove an object stuck in the throat or to apply medicine to the throat. It was a flexible rod, 30 to 40 cms long, with a sponge at the end.

  6. Wooden Legs. In our mind's eye wooden legs, peg legs, we associate with pirates and sailors. This is quite correct because in action at sea cannon balls of this period could slice a leg (or arm off) very quickly. The fact that few people actually had wooden legs is more to do with the disastrous consequences of having an amputation at this period. However, the basic peg leg, fixed below the knee, dates archaeologically back to 300 BC, with finds in both Italy and China. The Chinese example is particularly interesting as the foot is made from a horse hoof. If I was ever in the unfortunate position of losing a leg I'd rather fancy a highly polished horse's hoof! By 1800 James Potts of London had produced a very effective wooden leg which went above the knee with flexible knee and ankle joints. Modern developments were kick started in World War Two so that today we have remarkable prosthetics.

So one thing does lead to another, and life continues to be a great learning experience.

A thought to end with. If you lost a hand and had it replaced with a hook (remember Peter Pan) - do remember not to scratch your eye, or you will end up with a pirate's eye patch as well.

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