Four prison officers and their families who still live in the Dartmoor barracks are to be evicted, ending a 200-year-old link between the buildings and the infamous prison.
The case is now expected to end in court where the officers will claim breach of promise by Prison Service managers who they allege have reneged on a deal to allow the families to buy the barracks for themselves. The officers also hope to enlist the help of Prince Charles, whose Duchy of Cornwall estates owned the barracks until 2003.
Barracks No 10 in Princetown, Devon, is all that remains of a complex of military quarters built in the first decade of the 1800s to accommodate 500 soldiers guarding thousands of French prisoners in Dartmoor Prison.
The prison, supported by the barracks, was used to rehouse French prisoners captured during the Napoleonic wars but who had been left to rot in decommissioned warships docked in Plymouth harbour. After the United States declared war on Britain in 1812, American prisoners were also taken to Dartmoor.
When Dartmoor was converted to a civil prison in 1850 the barracks continued to be used to accommodate prison officers, who adapted their quarters to support families.
But in 2001 Dartmoor was redesignated as a category C prison, a lower security rating used for less dangerous prisoners. This meant fewer officers needed to be accommodated close to the prison and so the Home Office began selling off its housing stock.
Some were sold to staff but as a mini-property boom took hold more and more buildings passed into the hands of private developers. Local estate agents say the value of Princetown properties has doubled in the past four years.
Letters seen by The Independent show that in 2003 the Prison Service bought the freehold of Barracks No 10 from the Duchy of Cornwall and informed the officers they would sell them the freehold. But last month the tenants were called to a meeting with the Prison Service at which they were told the deal was off.
In a statement yesterday the Home Office said the offer of sale had been withdrawn because the buildings were considered structurally unsafe and lacked an adequate fire escape.
But the tenants claim their own survey, which they commissioned after being offered the right to buy, identified no such hazard.
Daniel Slaughter, 49, a serving prison health officer, and his partner Michaela Drew, 37, now on incapacity benefit after being seriously assaulted by a prisoner, say they have nowhere to go and can't afford to rent private accommodation in Princetown.
"After 20 years service, am I now going to end up on the street?" Mr Slaughter asked. "I didn't think it would ever come to this. Especially as we offered to buy the flats at the same price the Home Office paid the Duchy."
Chris Devey, 47, and his wife, Stephanie, 49, say they feel "betrayed" by the Prison Service. "We brought up our family [here] and my husband has given 21 years of his life to the Prison Service. Now they want to throw us out," said Mrs Devey.
The officers claim the Prison Service has operated a policy of low-maintenance so that the barracks became run down. John Hampson, 50, who lives in one of the flats with his wife Marilyn, has been a prison officer for 22 years. He said: "The Prison Service ... would treat inmates better than they have treated us."
Adam Wilkinson, of Save Britain's Heritage, said the barracks was just the sort of building that deserved protection. "It's ironic that in the 200 anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Trafalgar such an important building of its time should be threatened with demolition. It seems that once again profits have come before the public interest."