Bodmin Gaol and the Victorian Prison

Looming on the skyline in Bodmin, Cornwall stands a museum which once was the site of Bodmin Gaol. A place where many were sent for a number of crimes. There both men, women and children were incarcerated and faced harsh punishment. Some would even meet their death there with the hangmans noose. Bodmin Jail would go through a number of changes in  its history, some of these would reflect the changing nature of English prisons to what we have today. Here is Bodmin Jail development through the years.

Bodmin Gaol was designed by Sir John Call – retired military engineers and is based on ‘a plan for a county gaol which was published by John Howard who was a great prison reformer. Built in 1779 by prisoners of war it was operational for 150 years, in which it saw over 50 public hangings. It was the first British prison to hold prisoners in individual cells.

The Prison was made up of a main gate and gatehouse, office block, a male prison block, chapel, debtor’s prison (post 1887 officers store and infirmary for the naval prison). There was also a female block which would later become the Navy prison, a governor’s house, staff quarters and punishment cells.

In 1778, an act of parliament declared Cornwall needed a new county gaol after a report highlighted the state of local prisons. ‘An act for building an additional jail, and also a prison and house of correction within the county of Cornwall…’

 The new design had many new ideas. It was light and airy, had individual sleeping cells, a total segregation of male and female prisoners along with isolated areas for various crimes. There was running water, a chapel and an infirmary for sick prisoners

The cells were 13ft in length by 7ft in width. The doors were 6 ft 3 by 2.3 ft and 2.5 inches thick.

The male cells were lit by a gas light outside each cell; there was thick piece of glass in front to prevent interference. In the punishment cells the only light was from the windows. There was also a device which acted as an alarm should a prisoner require assistance.

The old prisoner, before its development would have been staffed by jailer with 2 turnkeys. By 1815-1839 staff numbers would increase to 15, including a governor, chaplain, clerk, male and female warders and a baker. In 1877 there was up to 24 staff.

By the end of the 18th century prisons were seen as a place of detention not punishment. This led the way to prisoners being able to be placed in some kind of employment in the prison. It would be between them and the gaoler.

In 1865, however, the Prison Act brought about new change. It was felt that providing some kind of employment was useless labour and did not deter prisoners from re-offending. The new act meant the introduction of a tread wheel in prisons and one was built in Bodmin. Prisoners would work for four hours and four hours rest.  The tread wheel was 80 feet long and could house up to 32 prisoners at a time. They each had separate wooden screens to allow no contact or communication. This harsh form of punishment would lead to a riot in the jail in 1827.

early 1800s — Several prisoners hold onto a bar and walk on a long treadmill at the Brixton House of Correction. The treadmill was used for discipline. — Image by © CORBIS

In May 1827 a prisoner called James Sowden and a group of prisoners he refused to go onto the tread wheel and mutinied. They began to smash the tread wheel and tearing it apart. They also armed themselves with bludgeons and threatened the prisons guards. A rider was sent out to alert the local militia and to rouse them to come and aid the prison guards. The riot was soon put down with much brutality. Sowden once again still refused to go on the treadmill and wad eventually bound and gagged away to be fluffed. The rest of the rioters decided to fall in line after sowdens punishment.

The use of the tredwheel continued until the prisoner act of1898 which abolished the use of the wheel and declared that all prison work should be productive. This time it felt that men and women should leave prison as better people than when they went in. New rules were set out for a more enlightened prison regime. The act abolished hard labour and stated that any labour that was done should be have a constructive purpose. In addition at around the same time it was also acknowledged that young offenders should be treated separately and away from the older inmates.

In the 1870s Bodmin jail would change once more. An act was passed in 1869 which abolished the imprisonment for debt. This resulted in the Debtors part of Bodmin jail being left empty. In addition the number of female inmates was at a low. It was decided that those parts of the prison would be handed over to the Admiralty who would use the space for naval prisoners. The first of these would begin to arrive in 1874, and this new RN prison would be run by Governor Colville.

The Navel discipline act state that those who were to stay in the Navy were to be sent to Royal Navy Prisons, those who were dismissed were to go to ordinary prisons. “The philosophy of the naval prison system was that every prisoner should be made to feel that his state and condition in prison was worse than when he was on active service. They worked very hard, received basic food, were frequently reminded of their sins by the Chaplin, discipline was severe and their daily life was ruled by the silent system”. (p39)

The Naval prison would eventually close in 1921.

There were many forms of punishment for a number of crimes in the 1800-1900s.  The harshest punishment one could receive was capital punishment – execution. From 1735 and 1909 60 people were executed at Bodmin, 8 of these female. A drop gallows was first installed outside the jail around 1802. It was moved above the main gate in 1834 however the Inspector of prisons decided that the site was not public enough so it was moved again, this time to the south wall. A large number of people were now able to witness the executions.

The law changed again in 1868 declaring that executions were now to take place in private. For a time the execution site was shielded from public view. The first executions to take place in private at Bodmin were in 1901 within a new execution shed.

The kind of drop used by Bodmin prison was known as the long drop and was developed by a man named William Marwood. This new drop was so refined that it meant instant death to the person being hanged. Marwood said of himself that he preferred “to be called an executioner” and that his predecessor Calcraft hangs people whereas he executes them. There was even a rhyme made about Marwood which went, If Pa killed Ma, who’d kill Pa? – Marwood.

Marwoods last execution at Bodmin was in 1882 and there would be no more executions in Cornwall for another 19 years. During this time a committee was set up on the orders of Queen Victoria. Their findings brought about the development of the execution shed.

By the turn of the 20th Century Bodmin jail was coming to the end of its life as a prison. The civil prison ceased being used after 1916 when prisoners and staff went to war and the Naval prison closed its doors in 1922. The jail finally closed in 1927and since then there has been no jail in Cornwall. All the buildings of Bodmin jail would be sold in 1929.

Bodmin Jail may have closed its doors and all living souls moved elsewhere but some still say there are those that still linger. If you were to visit Bodmin (it is now a museum the old Navy prison was a ruinous site which is now being developed into flats) you would surly get an eerie sense of something still lingering in the shadows. Many people say that its walls are still haunted by former inmates and staff of Bodmin. Here are just a few of those stories of the Ghosts of Bodmin jail.

There are stories of a woman who haunts the prison, reaching out to small children and who makes pregnant women who visit feel guilt and remorse. There have even been children asking who the crying lady in the long dress. This tends to happen on the 3rd and 4th floor of the prison.

Who is this lady? It is believed the phantom is an executed female inmate called Selina Wadge. She was only one of four women who were executed in Bodmin between 1868-99. A poor woman, Selina was an unmarried 28 year old with two sons, Harry who was two and John who was six. Hart was said to have been partially crippled with difficulty walking. However, Selina did the best she could and it was said the boys were well cared for. Where it all went wrong for Selina was when she met a man called James Westwood. Who she had started seeing. At around the same time the body of her son Harry was found drowned in a well and Selina was arrested for his murder. At the trail Selina said that James had told her if she killed her son then he would marry her and Selina decided to do the deed. It was found that there was no actual truth to this claim and although many asked for the judge to be lenient to Selina the death penalty was passed and Selina would be the first person privately executed at Bodmin with the first use of William Marwoods drop at eight feet.

Another spectre at Bodmin is that of a man named Matthew Weekes – the so called killer of Bodmin Moor. He was executed in 1844 for the murders of Charlotte Dymon at Rough Tor on Bodmin Moor. Charlotte was a local girl who was said to have been flirtatious. Her body was found with its throat cut twice. His spirit is said to wander around the hallways of Bodmin Jail. His execution took place outside the prison. It is also said he wanders the walls of Bodmin as he was innocent of the murder!

It is not just the inmates who wander Bodmin jail but it is also said some of the former staff do. A ghost by the name of George is also said to haunt Bodmin and is believed to have been a warden. He has been seen in the old Bodmin cell blocks and on the stairs of the prison. There are many stories surrounding this ghost so it is difficult to pinpoint who it supposedly could be.

One story goes that the warden has a heart attack while on duty at the prison and his sprit cotinues to keep watch over the prison. Some people have confused this George with that of the civil prison Governor George Colvil who held his post in 1860-78. However he did not die of a heart attack and his real name was actually Hugh. Another suspect is a George Sandford who was a warder and did in Bodmin village at 84 years of age. He had understandably retired by this point too! It is believed by some that this ghost known as George could be a prison officer called George Harrison who worked at Bodmin between 1851-61 and died at the age of 50.

There have also been reports of poltergeist activity at the jail. Paranormal investigators have stated that they have felt nauseous, a depressing dread with a cold sweat and a deep fearful dread. In some cases it has even gone further with marks and welts being left on the bodies of those investigating!

When I visited the jail many years ago I have to admit you get an eerie feeling walking around the old cells which now have mannequins in to give visitors an idea on what it was like to be a prisoner there. The eerie silence walking around does not make you feel any better. The old navy prisons which at the time o my visit was very derelict had a hauntingly beautiful look to it being all run down. However I still could to bring myself to enter the old cells alone with their doors still standing.

But that was not the end of the jail compactly, before it became a museum the jail had a more positive role to play. During the First World War it would be the safe storage place of some of Britain’s national treasures such as the Domesday Book and the Crown Jewels!

Johnson, B (2011) A guide to Bodmin jail and its history. Bodmin town museum (pub)

Bodmin Jail (2018) accessed 26/04/2018

Bodmin Jail – a brief history (2015) accessed 26/04/2018

Modern heritage – Police, Prisons and Penal reform accessed 30/04/2018

Bodmin Jail – Bridewell revisited. (2010) Freeman, D Secret Britain. Accessed 01/05/2018

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