Written & adapted for television by David Freeman for SECRET BRITAIN
The Story, History and Images of Bodmin Gaol
formerly HM Prison Bodmin Jail
Bodmin and its public executions: & escapes
An interesting historical over view of the unique history of Bodmin Jail adapted from his TV series with photographs by celebrated Cornwall Photographer Jackie Freeman
ack in the times when the prison was operating at full capacity, in the gap which appears in the prison wall in front of the Naval block, you would find the site of the original prison's main gate and a favoured position for the public executions which took place here.
Behind the railway line, from where the photograph was taken, were elevated fields called Scarlett's Well meadows on which tens of thousands of people could congregate to observe the spectacle which was to be rolled out before them. Train loads of people, carried in from Bodmin's surrounding villages would line the carriage windows of the trains which would halt here, vying for the best vantage point to witness a hanging.
Dr Samuel Johnson (arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history) then aged a noble 74, in writing a letter to
Sir William Scott who was distinguished Judge in the High Court of Admiralty, complained bitterly about the possibility of public executions being abolished. He was old school and liked the idea of its harshness and the lesson it could teach society.
Dr. Johnson said;
Capital Punishment - Death by Hanging at Bodmin.
Here in Great Britain way back in the year 1820, there were no less than 220 crimes for which an Englishman could be hanged.
Today there are none.
The most obvious crime befitting the punishment was for willful murder, the others; high treason, piracy, dereliction of duty if you were serving in the army or navy and crimes against the person such as rape.
However, other pitiful crimes against British society which were considered worthy of the ultimate preferred penalty, death by hanging, is a frightening indication of how the rich demanded and received protection of their property from the common felon.
Any theft therefore or attempt at theft of property exceeding five shillings automatically carried the death penalty.
Known as the bloody code; Highway robbery, willful arson, poaching and stealing from a rabbit warren, horse theft, taking a sheep which didn't belong to you and cattle rustling, were all crimes that the convicted felon could hang for.Forgery and Pick pocketing too and even children were not exempt from the worst sentence in the land back then. This common crime also carried with it a possible trip to the gallows and many a youngster met his maker at a very early age, trying to pick a pocket or two!. Writing a threatening letter may seem today a feeble enough crime, but back then, society stridently upheld its protective shield and it too was punishable by death, as was being in the company of gypsies for a month or even cutting down young trees.Commit any of these heinous crimes listed on the statute books, child or man and you may end up wishing you hadn't.
To make absolutely certain that the population knew full well that they should keep the peace and not consider even thinking about going beyond the bounds of the law, executions were made 'very' public and the community were actively encouraged to attend, as Dr Johnson so eminently pointed out.
And just to make doubly clear that the lesson was learned by all who attended the dreadful demise of the accused, a pretty horrible end was devised for the gallery of spectators to witness.
Thomas Rowlandson, the 19 C. English caricaturist who so famously put St Breward on the map by drawing an image of the inside of its church for his acclaimed series based around Dr Syntax, recorded many a gruesome public event as we shall see.
At a place called Five lanes which some call Five Ways in Bodmin, on a high hill overlooking the prison where the main turnpike's to Truro, Liskeard and Wadebridge converged on the town, was the site of the original Bodmin Gibbet. Affectionately known locally as the 'Three legged mare,' because of its triangular method of construction on which you could string up eight souls a side!.
Those of you who know Cornwall and Bodmin in particular will remember that this is the area around St. Lawrence's Church and the old site of St. Lawrence's Hospital, once the Bodmin workhouse, which was extended in the early 1800's to become the huge insane asylum serving the whole county of Cornwall. To site the gallows permanently here, right beside the principal roads into and out of Bodmin was rather clever of Bodmin's town elders as it would have certainly served as a serious warning to would be wrong doers and vagabonds entering the town. A very clear warning indeed that that Bodmin magistrates would certainly have no truck or tolerate lawbreakers here.
By now, British society had changed the original use of the gibbet, leaving the poor convict in a metal cage strung up to be starved or pecked to death by the crows, to a more humane way of execution, one by hanging... but the name gibbet still stuck.Gibbet, gallows or scaffold, it hardly mattered end result was the same.
There is naturally some conjecture and argument locally as to exactly where the Bodmin Gibbet or gallows was sited at Bodmin Five ways but indications from reports of the time make it clear that the gallows was clearly visible from the prison itself and that the prison cart carrying the unfortunate condemned inmate was pulled up 'next the crossroads.' Ironically, at this main convergence of roads at Five Lanes today is a funeral home!
The earliest recorded execution in Bodmin is that of Nicholas Boyer the mayor of Bodmin, hanged on a gallows at Mount Folly, near where the Turret Clock is today for his part in the Prayer Book rebellion of 1549.
Now being strung up on the gibbet or gallows for your crime against humanity was a particularly horrible way to go, though it's not as if you would have had any choice in the matter. One thing's for certain though , a public execution on the gallows in Bodmin back then was certainly a crowd pleaser and a well attended event it was that was exceptionally good for the traders of Bodmin.
Bodmin's Inns and lodging houses burst at the seems the night before a hanging and even travelling fairs were set up to further entertain the throngs who gathered in Bodmin to watch the spectacle. So the toll gates & Cornwall's refreshment traders who set up on the day and of course, the local pick pockets, did a resounding trade.
| At the appointed time, usually around noon to allow for those getting to Bodmin by foot or cart to arrive in time, the wretched and utterly terrified condemned prisoner, shackled and bound with hands tied behind him, would be unceremoniously hauled by horse and cart from the jail at Bodmin through the streets of the town and onward to the gallows. Suffering the dreadful obscenities and jeers of the crowd on his fearful last journey to the top of the hill.
The prison driver has now pulled up beneath the gibbets shadowy framework, a noose is slung over the condemned prisoner's head the rope fastened off to the top of the gibbets frame. This would be quite sufficient for the job.
With a roar from the crowd as the horse was whipped across its backside, the cart jerked away from beneath the desperate man, sending him tumbling into oblivion
If a cart wasn't available, a condemned prisoner was forced to climb a ladder with his hands tied behind his back whereupon the ladder was kicked, twisted or jerked away from under him leaving him dangling and gasping for air.
Now some experts argue that this form of execution was not as cruel as it first seems, suggesting that with the rapid tightening of the noose around the convicts neck, the flow of blood to the brain through the main artery in the neck is near immediately halted, bringing with it a merciful and almost instant feint.
Survivors of such incidents, failed suicide victims for instance, as few as there were, have commented on this feature and likened it to "a great cloak of grey sea fog which surrounds you before you can even take a gasp." Other eye witnesses to such executions report that the poor soul is left to asphyxiate and is strangled to death, dangling and kicking for several minutes in front of the appreciative crowd before he met his maker. Then along came the ingenious LONG DROP method of hanging, invented it's believed by the Irish but perfected by William Marwood who conducted executions at Bodmin. It was primarily developed to lessen the anguish of those witnesses who by law had to attend an execution. The prison Governor and the Chaplain.
Marwood's long drop method, by correctly positioning the knot of the noose under the left ear stopped it from twisting and the hangman's rope, adjusted to a restricted length calculated by the weight and height of the prisoner, ensured the neck was broken cleanly as the prisoner fell through the trap and his weight and momentum did the rest.
Actually this form of hanging leads to comatose asphyxia i.e. the condemned prisoner still dies by asphyxiation but is by now unconscious as it happens. When effected properly there is no visible movement of the condemned after the drop. Whilst executions took place at Bodmin throughout the 19th and early 20th century, more criminals condemned to death were 'Transported' to the Colonies as an alternate punishment than actually met a fateful end, thus ridding English society of the threat they had become, by passing the buck and putting the problem on to someone else's back.
Interestingly one famous son of Bodmin, Sir John Moles worth was a famous prison reformer and primarily responsible for halting Transportation to the colonies.
Australia was a firm favorite and a pretty fair option to the gallows it must have been. The rest is history
Bodmin Jail Breaks
Escapes from Bodmin Gaol
Escape from Bodmin Jail two hundred years ago was really a little silly if you consider the relatively short time that so many of the inmates had to serve.
Just sit it out and you would be .... out !!!
But in its early rather insecure state back then many attempts at escape from Bodmin Gaol did occur.
There were 10 recorded at least back then and there were probably many more and most were achieved by bribery rather than cunning.
But first, one escape attempt that concerned one of Bodmin Jail most notorious criminals, an inmate called
Bodmin and the POP GUN PLOT
Robert Cross field tries to abscond before he gets to Bodmin Jail.
One of Bodmin jails most well know prisoners or should we say infamous inmates albeit briefly was a man called Robert Thomas Crossfield.
Now Robert Cross field was committed to Bodmin Gaol on an exceptionally serious charge, on suspicion of High Treason back in August of 1795.
His crime is cited as, “ imagining the death of the Lord the King, September 8, 1794” A class one crime which naturally carried the death penalty! Story goes that Robert Crossfield was on the fringe of a group of radical critics of the Pit government who plotted to murder the King, George III.
He was a paid up member of a society known as the London Corresponding Society for Reform of Parliamentary Representation. The Pop Gun plot, as it was to become known, was so called because the hard line group of militants within the group had planned at least to assassinate the King by firing a poisoned dart from an air gun ay him whilst the King was at the theatre.
With the modern day gunpowder plot exposed, members of the society were tracked down and eventually Robert Cross field was arrested one night in Foie. The evening of his arrest, 31 August 1795, Robert Crossfield made a valiant attempt at escape from Bodmin prison before he even got there!
That evening around nine, Robert Crossfield, perhaps by then a little worse for wear for his earlier session of wine was being escorted by sheriff Walter Comer and a man called Edward Stoker who were both constables from Foie. They travelled in the post chaise to Bodmin ( The Post Chaise was four-wheeled coach or carriage drawn by fast horses, which were changed at each post. )
So off they went driving from the Cornish sea port of Foie the twenty miles of so to Bodmin Gaol. Suddenly, quite out of the blue, Robert Crossfield offered the men a bribe of a guinea apiece to let him go and take the irons off his hands.
Pointing out the obvious irony of the situation, that the officers would only have but a few shillings between them to escort him to Bodmin prison he tried adding a curt threat to the bribe, warning his guards that he was man enough to take both of them. But was ignored. Some time after that, he upped the stakes even further by offering the two guardsmen an astonishing 2 guinea’s each !The sheriff enquired of Crossfield that if they did let him go, what would he do with the driver of the coach? Crossfield replied;
" If I were to have one of your pistols, I would pop at him and soon settle the business!”
Wanting no part of a murder charge set against them as accomplices, Crossfield was ignored again , so he gave up, resigning himself to a spell in prison and went to sleep in the carriage.
So this escape from Bodmin jail was foiled before he even got there!
Crossfield was eventually taken to London and imprisoned in the Tower and faced trial at the Old Bailey with Paul Thomas La Maitre, John Smith and George Higgins for conspiracy and treason.
He got away with this too and was found not guilty of all charges and discharged immediately.
Bodmin jail with the old Bodmin Lunatic Asylum far left.
On we go with other Great Escape stories from Bodmin Jail :
S M U G G L E R
The man who got away
Jack Rattenbury the Cornish smuggler is best known as 'the one that got away' and unlike Robert Crossfield he did exactly that, escaping from his guards sent to bring him to Bodmin Gaol to serve out his sentence.
Now, Jack Rattenbury is not nearly as famous as a smuggler but more so because he wrote a diary bragging about his criminal activities and then published it. His entry about escaping from Bodmin Gaol before he got there sums up the discipline of the jailers in the early years and how the public felt about romantic highwaymen and Cornish smugglers.
He tells us;
"We were put into two post-chaises, with two constables from Bodmyn to take care of us and were sent forward to Bodmyn gaol.
As our prison guards stopped at almost every public-house we came to, towards evening they became pretty merry; and taking advantage of this circumstance, I was determined to find some place for making my escape.
Accordingly, when we came to the Indian Queen, (a public-house, a few miles from Bodmyn,) while the constables were taking their potations, I bribed the drivers not to interfere.
Having finished, the constables ordered us again into the chaise, but we refused. A scuffle ensued. One of them collared me, some blows were exchanged and he fired a pistol, the ball of which went off close by my head. My companion in the mean time, was engaged in encountering the other constable and he called upon the drivers to aid and assist, but they said it was their duty to attend to the horses.
We soon got the upper-hand of our opponents, and seeing a cottage near, I ran towards it, and the woman who occupied it was so kind as to show me through her house into the garden and to point out the road.
I made the best of my way forward and when I had proceeded about a mile, on looking back, I perceived a man following me, upon which I crept into a ditch for concealment. When the person came up, he hailed me by name and I found it was my fellow-prisoner, who had made his escape likewise, through the aid of the woman at the cottage.
We then went on our journey together, and towards evening, we met with a party of men, who were smugglers like ourselves; and having told them our adventures, they behaved very handsomely to us, and took us the same night to a place called Newkey, where we slept.
Escapes from Bodmin Jail - Continued.
Due to poor security conditions of the early Gaol and down right negligence at times of its guards, many of whom were 'a bit Bodmin' or partial to a bribe, there were quite a large number of escape attempts made at Bodmin Gaol. Details are however sketchy and only vague mention is made in old newspaper articles of the time and various letters which turn up in archive.
An interesting Bodmin escape however is that of a man called called Parsons, who had already escaped once and did so yet again having stolen five pounds from a prison warder who was dozing. He picked the lock of the cell block, got over the wall and made it into Bodmin where he spent the five pounds he'd taken on drink in the pub.
With no cash left and realising that he had nowhere to go and would have to sleep rough, Parsons took himself back to the Gaol, rang the gate bell and turned himself in to the gatekeeper!
Parsons was a a pretty clever man though . He'd escaped twice from Exeter prison on previous occasions and was an excellent lock picker. Leave anything metal lying around that he could twist and get into the eye of a padlock and he'd be off!
1812: August 27th. George Kendall a local blacksmith and John Bayley who was described as a travelling Tinker, escaped from Bodmin Jail. A ten guinea reward was offered for their recapture but they were never found.
Local legend has it that they both died after getting lost on Bodmin moor. But we'll never know!
1827: A failed escape attempt was thwarted from Bodmin Jail on the 28th of April 1827, when inmate Charles Smith informed his jailers that remand prisoners John Mortlake and Samuel Williams had pledged to escape if they were found guilty of their crimes.
This inevitably happened and Mortlake attempted to fool the guards by filling his jacket with straw and leaving it in his bed as a diversion whilst they escaped through the laundry room. The convicts had converted 2 knives into saws and had somehow got hold of a sleeping draft to give to their cell mate to make him sleep whilst they escaped.
1828: Edmund Lane absconded.
1831: James Medland, Thomas Hore and John Burrows all went over the wall.
1832: A 20 man mass escape attempt was foiled at the prison.
1833: John Walters, Edward May, Samuel Langley & Thomas Jeffers went AWOL. All were recaptured on Bodmin Moor. Jeffers was later sent to Australia! Clever escape!
There are also reports of a woman escaping through the roof of a work room adjacent to the old original Bodmin Jail wall. It was much lower then. It seems she pushed off the slates from the inside, clambered up over the wall and at its lowest point, hung her legs over and dropped.
1846 A prisoner named Joseph P.... who was a debtor escaped on the 3rd of May but was later recaptured.
1855. 2 men awaiting trial also escaped and were never recaptured.
With a new prison Governor installed at the jail and better provision for security made, there were no more escapes until 1890 when a report to the Home Office suggested an escape had taken place through the negligence of an officer.
In 1906, there was a report in a local newspaper that a Lunatic had escaped from Bodmin Jail which is corroborated in Lewis Hinds book, 'Days in Cornwall.'
Apparently the man got out, attacked a cyclist, stole his bike, set fire to a haystack as a diversion and rode on to St. Ives!
A crafty attempt to escape justice & foil the judge at Truro!
Photograph © Jackie Freeman Photography - St. Breward Cornwall
Time line; December 10th 1833.
This was the day that one Joseph Martin, then aged 17 was committed to Bodmin jail by the Mayor of Truro for stealing a silver watch from a jewelers shop in Truro.
In his defence, the lad told a fascinating though not too convincing story to the mayor.
Young Joseph Martin was absolutely adamant that a cow, chasing a dog along the main street had smashed the jewellers window and hooked the watch up on one of its horns pitching it into the gutter in fear.
“All I did he said was to pick it up” he said innocently to the court.
After receiving a harsh sentence despatching him to Bodmin jail for a spell of hard labour, the prisoner now very angry with his judge chirped up boldly that he felt it was grossly unfair that he should be punished for something a cow had done!
“And what exactly was that,” asked a very miffed judge?
“Why steal the watch from the jewelers window Sir” he replied.
“Guilty ,” sounded Judge Martin loudly banging his fist on the table . “The prisoner is an old offender!”
* Joseph Martin's miscreant career would continue to evolve on the streets of Truro and would one day see him off to the Colonies as a long term and rather long range guest of His Majesty.
PART 6 - BODMIN JAIL
Bodmin Jail Escapes & Public Executions | Cornish History - Secret Britain | Gaol, gibbet, scaffold the Bloody code, Pop Gun Plot
Bodmin, Bodmin jail, Bodmin Gaol, Cornwall, Cornish, History of Bodmin jail, Escapes, Escape from Bodmin Jail, Public executions, prison, hanging, public hanging, gibbett, scaffold, bloody code, death penalty, murder, treason, five ways, five lanes, old Bodmin asylum, Bodmin asylum, St. Lawrence, LONG DROP, death, hanging, William Marwood, Marwood, escape, Robert Crossfield, pop gun plot, Lunatic Asylum, Jack Rattenbury , smuggler, Cornish smuggler, Indian Queen,
Bodmin Jail Prison Escapes & Bodmin Gaol Public Executions.