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Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt: a man, a dream and a prison.

Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt shown courtesy of Christ Church College, Oxford.

Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt shown courtesy of Christ Church College, Oxford.

The Eighteenth Century is full of stories of men with great vision, who persevered, and by succeeding, changed the world they lived in. Think of people like Jethro Tull, Josiah Wedgwood, James Watt and Matthew Boulton. But what of the men of great vision who tried – and then failed? One such is Thomas (later Sir Thomas) Tyrwhitt. His dream: to make the wilderness of Dartmoor into a productive bread-basket of the South West of England. He believed that he could tame the wilderness, drain the acidic boggy soil, clear the granite rocks which littered the fields, and plant wheat, and grow plantations of trees to produce wood needed by the Royal Navy.

You only have to visit Dartmoor today, a glorious wild space often shrouded in mist, to see what a spectacular failure it was. It remains untamed, a National Park of extraordinary beauty but little agricultural value. A few sheep, one or two cattle, and the occasional Dartmoor pony, are hardly what Thomas dreamed of when he took a lease of 2000 acres of land from the Duchy of Cornwall, when he was just twenty-three years old. He had been born in 1762/3 to a family living in Essex. Father was a country vicar, and young Tom went to Eton and then on to Christ Church College Oxford. He arrived on Dartmoor in 1785 at a remote spot, with an entourage of workmen, determined to make his mark on the Dartmoor landscape. Labourers cleared fields and constructed drains, while mine-workers dug shafts searching for tin, copper and other metals. They all needed accommodation, and  so Thomas arranged for the building of the Plume of Feathers (still in existence as a public house) where the workers could stay. In 1785 he also started construction of his own residence, still standing today as a fine guest house, known as Tor Royal. With its  shutters, and windows in the roof, it looks to me to be heavily influenced by a French style of architecture.

Tor Royal today.

Tor Royal today.

The ‘Royal’ gives the game away – Thomas was a friend of the Prince of Wales, so he had both money and connection. Both would come in useful as he battled away at taming the countryside. He had been appointed as private Secretary to the Prince, and in 1796 was made Auditor to the Duchy of Cornwall. In the same year he was returned as Member of Parliament by the good people of Okehampton.  By then work on the main structure of his modest little pad at Tor Royal was finished. As the website of the present guest house states: “Tor Royal Farm is Grade II* listed with a walled courtyard featuring a Bell Tower.  The interior boasts a domed ceiling with lantern and an unusual plaster frieze depicting the Princetown Tramway, the plans of which were reputedly drawn up in the house.  There is a single storey suite of rooms with a Plume of Feathers frieze and ornately decorated doors obtained from Carlton House in London when it was demolished.  The House has arched doorways to the domed reception room and many original Georgian features. A walled garden below the Devonport leat has been roofed over and now houses cattle and sheep in the winter months.”

The excellent Patrick Baty carried out detailed research into the paintwork on the mahogany doors at Tor Royal, concluding that they were taken down when Carlton House was demolished in 1827, and establishing that they were originally in place in the Blue Velvet Suite. His blog-post here contains fine photographs of Tor Royal, its arched atrium and the elaborately carved doors. By the time the doors were transported down to Dartmoor, Thomas had already extended the main building to include a suite of rooms apparently designed specifically for the use of the Prince. Sir Thomas certainly knew how to court royal favour, and when he hit upon the idea of establishing a detention centre for French prisoners-of-war, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, he immediately proposed that the hamlet comprising  the cluster of prison buildings and warden’s quarters should be called Prince’s Town (later, Princetown).

Dartmoor prison The scheme, designed to solve the problem of housing large numbers of prisoners in the Thames estuary in rotting hulks of ships, was popular with the authorities, and in 1806 the foundation stone of the new prison was laid. Two years later it was ready to receive its first inmates and in due course it brought a measure of employment to the area. Prisoners meant guards, and guards needed accommodation. In time the accommodation block became the Duchy Hotel, and a bakery, slaughter-house and brewery were added. Over 5000 prisoners were interred behind the bleak granite walls.

In 1812 Thomas was knighted and made  Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod (‘Black Rod’ for short) with an important ceremonial role in the opening of Parliament. He stayed in office for twenty years. Back on Dartmoor, the prosperity associated with incarcerating those darned Frenchies was lessened when peace was declared. For a while their place was taken by up to 6,500 American prisoners, mostly sailors, captured in the War of 1812. After 1816, even these prisoners were re-repatriated, and the prison cells emptied. It was to be 1851 before the buildings were brought back to life as a secure prison for criminals. Until then, Princetown, by then a small town, was largely redundant and Sir Thomas had to consider other ways of bringing prosperity to the area.

He hit on the idea of constructing a railroad to link Princetown to the coast at Plymouth, convinced that transporting granite blocks quarried on the moor would generate profits for the promoters. It was a half-baked scheme in that the precise route had not been settled – it had not even been surveyed properly. Despite this, work started, leading to a realization that the badly drained and heavily contoured land was going to involve complicated and expensive engineering. The route was changed, meaning that the route now crossed the land of a neighbour, the Earl of Morley. His consent came at a price – the railway company had to agree to run a spur line to the Earl’s kaolin quarries so that the  kaolin (otherwise known as China Clay, used in cosmetics and in the manufacture of high quality paper) could be taken by rail to the port of Plymouth. To add to the problems, the new line had its own unique gauge of four feet six inches, meaning that it was not compatible with other rail links. It was also never intended to be used by steam trains, Sir Thomas and his board assuming that the wagons would be pulled by horse. The intention was that individual hauliers would pay a toll in return for being permitted to bring goods, mostly granite blocks, and the track known as the Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway opened in 1823 with a further extension being finished two years later. It was never going to be commercially viable, because not enough goods were ever transported, and what there was (stone) was entirely a one-way traffic. The anticipated transfer of goods to the interior of Dartmoor never took place, neither lime to fertilize the fields, nor tea,  sugar and other comestibles to sustain the prisoners and their guards. It was never a passenger line, and the project was a dismal failure.

Sir Thomas died in 1833, returning to Calais after he had gone on a holiday aimed at restoring his broken health. He was 71. His dream of taming Dartmoor is thankfully unrealized to this day, but on a crisp winter’s morning, or a  warm summer evening, a visit to Tor Royal has much to commend it. Go to Princetown in the wet, when mist shrouds the ancient field systems, and hangs on the moss-covered gnarled trees, and you get a picture of what it must have been like when Thomas Tyrwhitt first laid eyes on it 250 years ago…

To end with, a reminder of the role of the Black Rod in the year 1820. Convening Parliament involved the door to the House of Commons being ceremonially slammed in the face of the Black Rod, after  Parliament had been summonsed to investigate claims of adultery levelled against Caroline of Brunswick, the wife of the Prince Regent. Sir Thomas would have used his staff of office to strike the door three times, calling the members of the Commons to attend the House of Lords where the evidence of adultery was to be heard. The trial, in 1820, was recorded in a painting made some two to three years  later by Sir George Hayter, and now held in the National Portrait Gallery:

The trial of Queen Caroline 1820

The trial of Queen Caroline 1820, with Black Rod somewhere amongst the throng, holding his staff of office.

The trial failed to establish the claim, despite the evidence that she had been openly living with her “valet” Bertolomeo Pergami in Italy. Besides, the public were outraged at the appalling treatment of Princess Caroline – after all, she was hardly deserving of criticism when her husband was known to everyone as a serial adulterer, whore-monger and rake. The hypocrisy was unacceptable. Sir Thomas played his ceremonial part in the trial, but in the end the public disquiet prevailed. However when George III died and the Regent prepared to step into his father’s shoes, he banned Caroline from the coronation. The poor woman couldn’t take the hint, turned up at the Abbey, and was turned away at the point of a bayonet. She fell ill shortly afterwards, convinced that she had been poisoned, and died a few days later. Somehow I feel that both Princess Caroline and Sir Thomas had much in common – both of them died unfulfilled and largely un-mourned. Neither of them achieved what they had spent their adult lives pursuing – but I for one am glad that Dartmoor remained as a big, boggy, wilderness.

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