Bayonne Prison

Country France
GPS 43° 29' 29.6916" N, -1° 27' 48.1032" W
Address 44 Rue Charles Floquet, 64107 Bayonne, France
Dates Active 1891 – current

Channel Islander Imprisoned in Bayonne Prison:
William Henry Symes

By Roderick Miller

William Symes is the only Channel Islander known to have been imprisoned in Bayonne Prison (Maison d’Arrêt de Bayonne), located in the city of Bayonne in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department of the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of south-western France. The prison is referred to in local parlance as the La Villa Chagrin, or the ‘Villa of Sorrow’. Construction on the prison started in the Quartier Saint-Esprit district of Bayonne in 1879, but was it was not placed into commission until 1891. Bayonne Prison became notorious in the early 1930s when swindler Alexandre Stavisky was briefly incarcerated there. His alleged suicide caused widespread right-wing anti-government demonstrations in 1934. The prison was taken over by German forces soon after the June 1940 occupation of France and used to incarcerate political prisoners. According to contemporary accounts, Bayonne Prison ‘was poorly guarded, mainly by Frenchmen, and there were only three Germans.’ [1]

William Symes was transferred to Bayonne from Fort du Hâ Prison in Bordeaux at an unknown date and for an unknown length of time, probably sometime in late 1941 or early 1942 during his trial in nearby Biarritz for passing German military secrets on to Britain. He later wrote of Bayonne that ‘the prison officials were human but the Gestapo were bestial in the extremes’. Symes kept his sanity by doing mental arithmetic and improvising exercises in his cell. From Bayonne, he was transferred to Compiègne Transit and Internment Camp. He went on to survive Buchenwald Concentration Camp and wrote in 1965: ‘Happily today I suffer no apparent illness or disability as a result of my ill-treatment and neglect at the hands of the Nazis, but the mental suffering is still with me…

German troops left the region with only minor military engagement in late August 1944, with the last troops leaving Bayonne on 22 August.

1n 2015, the director of Bayonne Prison was suspended for posting racist images on Facebook and was permanently replaced in 2016. The same year, plans were announced to make a new prison in Pau, about 60 miles from Bayonne, to help ease overcrowding in Bayonne Prison. The city also announced in 2016 that it has plans to eventually decommission the prison, but as of date (2017) it continues to operate.

[1] From Neave (see Sources below), p. 160.

Further Reading

Carr, Gilly; Sanders, Paul; Willmot Louise: Protest, Defiance and Resistance in the Channel Islands: German Occupation, 1940-1945, Bloomsbury Academic, London & New York, 2014.


Demagny, Xavier & Nicolaï, Paul & Labbé, Axelle: ‘Pyrénées-Atlantiques : la nouvelle maison d’arrêt sera implantée à Pau’, in France Bleu, 7 December 2016 (in French). LINK

Neave, Airey: Saturday at MI9: The Classic Account of the WW2 Escape Organisation, Pen and Sword, 2010.

The National Archives (TNA), Foreign Office (FO):
TNA FO HNP/1193, FO 950/2022 (Symes)

Wiener Library, London (International Tracing Service)
William Symes, records, refs: 7228060/0/1, 18789711/0/1, 18789719/0/1, 5382989/0/1, 7228060 – 7228073 inclusive.