Bodmin Jail and Bridewell

Arms of the Duchy of Cornwall

The Bodmin Bridewell

Written & adapted for television by David Freeman for

SECRET BRITAIN

The Story, History and Images of Bodmin Gaol

formerly HM Prison Bodmin Jail

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 or any ill fated commoner whose destiny turned him into a prisoner of Cornwall's sinister Victorian penal system, being cast into the cold and dark captivity of one of Britain's most terrifying prisons, the great Bodmin Gaol, was not for his reform as reformed as
the system may have started to have become back then. No, Bodmin's great jail was built for revenge.

 

 

 

CONTENT

 

Bodmin Jail's History

A look inside Bodmin Jail today

Life in Bodmin jail 

The fighting fairy woman of Bodmin

Bodmin Jail Prison Cell.

 

 en men, women and children were caged here cell by cell in Bodmin Gaol

in desperately harsh and grim conditions, often their minimal crimes being met with cruel and unforgiving sentences demanded by the local magistrates of the time.

 So what exactly did penal servitude in Bodmin's Jail mean for its early convicts?

Total isolation, ruthless enforcement of absolute silence, the terrible discomfort of a solid plank bed, a demeaning and meagre diet of bread and gruel and perhaps an onion and the deprivation of all previously known human privileges to start!

 Here in Bodmin's sinister jail, many a prison inmate would see out their days broken and dispirited but for some of Bodmin's Cornish prisoners, young and old alike, their desperate days were rapidly ticking away.

 Public executions in the forboding prison at Bodmin were not uncommon and morbidity in Bodmin town bred a strange follower in those times.

The tens of thousands of Cornishmen and women, who were avid supporters of Bodmin's executioners and hangmen were no exception to the rule.

 Train loads of people flocked from far and wide across the whole of the west country to witness and mock the terrible ordeal of the condemned prisoners of Bodmin Jail. To ogle and cheer at the crack of the trap and here at Bodmin, the gallows would be erected as it always was, in full view of the jeering public for years to come.

 Steal a sheep, an apple or some grain in Cornwall and be sure, the hangman's noose could indeed seal your fate. And for two such waifs here in Bodmin, it was.

Photograph & Graphics © Jackie Freeman Photography

Looking into one of Bodmin Jail's  13 x 7 foot cells

Photograph © Jackie Freeman Photography

St. Breward  Cornwall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bodmin Jail child prisoner convict

                                         

 

 It was in Bodmin up on the moor overlooking the great gaol then on 11th August in 1796 that John Hoskin, aged 55 was publicly hanged for stealing a sack of wheat at Redruth.

And on the 5th September 1820 and only back a snippet in time, Michael Stephens aged just 27, was also put to death on the Bodmin gallows for "killing a ram & stealing it."

Heavy penalties were the norm in Cornwall back then.

 

Execution  odmin

Above: Graphic of Public Executions at Bodmin Gaol

Reads: John Harris for Horse theft. Death by Hanging William Francis for sheep stealing. Hanged. William Pearse  Stole from a wreck. Hanged at Bodmin Jail. Thomas Roberts and Francis Coath. were hanged for sheep stealing at Bodmin Jail. John Hoskin, hanged at Bodmin for stealing sheep in Redruth.

 

 

 

 In Bodmin jail's defence, it's equally true to say that many of Bodmin's condemned criminal element met their end on the gallows for horrendous crimes. No less than 35 souls going to the hangman for various degrees of murder on the Bodmin gallows alone. All in all, at least 69 men and women were put to death here by the Bodmin hangman. Probably more.

 Of the balance of executions that took place at Bodmin and the jail, it's worthy to look back at the sort of crimes that the condemned prisoners paid the ultimate penalty for. Remembering that back then, theft of any sort was not to be tolerated by society and was viciously punished.

Both John Williamson and James Joyce were hanged at Bodmin for 'Breaking in to Miss Tyeth's shop'

 One Pierre Francois Xavier La Roche, a Frenchman and ex POW left over from the Napoleonic campaign & who couldn't speak any English at all, died horribly on the Gibbet on the 13th of April 1812 for the terrible crime of forging a two pound note.

His bravado is well recorded in that he was seemingly not at all bothered about his fate. This brought about great suspicion and when he was searched it was found that he had a carving knife ground down to a dagger secreted beneath his shirt.

His plan? To assassinate the chief witness for dropping him in it.     He still was!

Hanging shed Bodmin Jail

Above Detail from the reconstructed execution shed, Bodmin Jail - Cornwall

Photograph © Jackie Freeman Photography - St. Breward  Cornwall


 It was July 1813 when a thirsty Ann Holman was convicted of stealing milk from a cow in Redruth and sentenced to two months in Bodmin jail.

Even the papers considered this to be a little harsh! But she was Lucky!

Because a 20 year old, Elizabeth Osbourne who set fire to a corn stack as she was jealous over the fact that her employer ate better bread than she did. For her crime she was publicly hanged on the Bodmin gallows.

So: Highway robbery, burglary, cattle and horse theft, stealing a purse and for "feloniously killing a mare" which sealed the fate of a Cornishman William Moyle, were all crimes met with death by hanging at Bodmin.

A complete List of Executions at Bodmin can be found here>

 

More gruesome stories like that to come, but for now, let's take a look at Bodmin jail's history and step firmly into her dark grey past.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SECRET BRITAIN

Bodmin Jail - PART II

 

Bodmin Jail's History

Bodmin Jail Tower

 

he year was 1780 and as a new decade began, Bodmin's Gaol became one of Britain's first purpose built prisons to be opened. The great British prisons were nicknamed Bridewell's after London's premier Gaol and as Bodmin's Bridewell opened its doors for the first time to Cornish criminals, the name stuck.

 Briton's prison reformists had proclaimed that the then dreadfully overcrowded communal jails and sheriffs ward's of England and Wales should be outlawed for once and for all and new penitentiaries built to house and isolate their inmates separately in single sex cells. Designed with each cell contained within large and airy cell blocks and with new stringent prison disciplines upheld. An imposed life of Silence, no communication, the most basic and measured diet and hard labour being the norm

ack in 1778, over in the nations capital, an act of parliament was being passed providing the finances and permissions for a new, purpose built 'house of correction' to be built in Cornwall. Recommendations suggested that it should be built on a site recommended for the jails construction in a town called Bodmin. A garrison town which could provide for the prison inmates 'clean air and pure water.

 

 In the late 1700's Britain's grim debtors prisons were the terrible places that convicted or so called felons faced. Side by side with remand prisoners, vagrants, homeless, debtors, miscreants, unmarried mothers and the local riff raf. They were horrible jails with large numbers of prisoners crammed into desperate communal dungeons.

Bodmin's debtors prison and sheriff's ward, which was no better than most would eventually be closed, making way for a brand new Bodmin Jail complex proposed by the forward thinking High Sheriff of Cornwall, Sir John Call, who saw the Bodmin prison completed by Napoleonic prisoners of war in 1779. So it was inevitable that the influence of the French builders would have a major bearing on how the jail would finally look and today why Bodmin's Châteauesque features still dominate the Bodmin skyline today.

 

Bodmin jail painting

 

 

 Perhaps the earliest tantalizing view of the original Gaol at Bodmin in 1779, appears in the background of an oil painting by an unknown eighteenth century English artist of Sir John Call. Although the image of the prison may be only a representation by its artist & based loosely upon the original designs, its as close as we get. No drawings or engravings seem to have been made or survived in history.

 

 

 

 

 

 odmin's ruling town Burgesses agreed then to provide land for the building of the new Bodmin Gaol in fields called Berrycombe in order to replace the old Bodmin debtors prison and Sheriff's Ward which stood on the current site of the Hole in the Wall Pub in Bodmin.

 In those days, there was no formal police force to keep law and order in the town of Bodmin, that was to come much later thanks to PM Mr. Peel and it fell to the locally appointed sheriff to keep a watchful eye on any mischief or goings on in town.

A tankard or two too much ale and there were plenty of Taverns in Bodmin and it would be clink overnight and a sore head. Not paying your rent or naming the father of your illegitimate child was much more serious an issue and it met with a trip to the Bodmin assizes and a forlorn spell inside for your trouble. So the debtors prison and the Sheriff's clink were busy places in the Bodmin of old.

 

Debtors Prison, Bodmin Cornwall.

Bodmin Debtors Prison site.

Photograph © Jackie Freeman Photography - St. Breward  Cornwall

 

 

Debtors Prison Bodmin

Debtors Prison Bodmin.

Remains of the walls in the courtyard of the Hole in the Wall Pub.

Right: Sign, Debtors Prison Bodmin

Photograph © Jackie Freeman Photography - St. Breward  Cornwall

 

Debtors Prison sign, Bodmin Cornwall.

oday, little remains of the old Bodmin debtors prison and sheriff's ward which was replaced by the Bodmin Brewery which itself was pulled down at the beginning of the last century. Save that is for a placque marking the spot on which it stood and the remnants of Bodmin debtors prison's old walls in the courtyard of the Hole in the Wall pub.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Architects dream

The building of Bodmin Jail.

 

 

 

 

 o it was that the building of Bodmin's new jail, designed according to the great vision of John Howard began.

And just a 'vision' of the jail at the time it was too.

Build that then men!

 Now the prison builders of Bodmin had a bit of a problem. Their final interpretation of the new Bodmin Jail was naturally going to be somewhat different to the original plans which weren't really plans at all. lets call them visions and for no other reason then because it had to be. In the main the problem rested with the steepness of the hillside and unevenness of the land on which the gaol was eventually built and from which its stone too was quarried.

But build the Bodmin jail they did - all be it a little higgledy - piggledy and with the help of a clever architect from Exeter called Thomas Jones and a forthright and energetic young project manager called James Chappel who would feature big time in the history of Bodmin Jail and in the history of Bodmin town too in the years to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Architect design Bodmin Jail

Bodmin Jail Prison Buildings

Elevation of Bodmin Jail today . Showing; the Derelict Naval block top left, Warden and Chaplains
houses centre, Main Gate house  right, Administration, Plenum Tower, position of the execution
shed and civil prison beyond.

Photograph © Jackie Freeman Photography

 Bodmin's new gaol of the time was said to be an elegant set of buildings with Bodmin's Gaol being purpose built to include a Chapel, workshops, an infirmary, an administration block, kitchens and courtyards and all built in order to house up to a hundred inmates. 

 But it rapidly became very clear to the authorities that the new prison buildings at Bodmin just weren't big enough to cope with the demand for prison accommodation. Remember, this was a time where criminal committals to Bodmin jail were increasing rapidly. So over the ensuing years, more and more of the Gaol at Bodmin was constructed and alterations to the old prison buildings made, leaving us with much of what we see today. A very different jail indeed.

 

 

 

 

So why the sudden increase in inmates at Bodmin jail?

Bring in the  Bodmin Association

As Bodmin invents the very first Neighbourhood watch scheme. 

 

 

 Around 1819, a huge increase in petty crime was descending upon Cornwall which was to put even more pressure on the overcrowded prison at Bodmin. There are many reasons for this, starting with simple abject poverty and on to a prevailing view amongst magistrates that little would be tolerated so don't step out of line.

Previously, inmates of Bodmin Gaol were sentenced for their relatively minor crimes to suffer exceptionally harsh but often relatively short sentences. The local magistrates feeling comfortable with the notion that the short, sharp, shock treatment of a month or so with hard labour would be enough to do the trick and teach the lesson well to would be criminals.

As to the fate of the balance of criminals convicted of greater crimes ( See Bloody Code) they vacated their cells quite quickly too, but in a box! 

 All in all then, Bodmin’s prison inmates sentences were fairly short lived in terms of time being served and for some, so was longevity of life. 

 The Bodmin Association came about after local people, sick and tired of seeing their orchards being scrumped, vegetable plots rifled and their turnips stolen, were not best happy! 

 Drunkenness on the streets of Bodmin was rife and considered disgusting, as was begging, and loose women were not to be tolerated in this reformed and very Christian Cornish town.

 A Bodmin townsfolk committee was duly formed and such was the community support that rewards of 2 Guineas a throw were offered on posters throughout the town for any good minded citizen to turn in miscreants and vagabonds.

A particular and very watchful eye was turned on the pubs of Bodmin for any landlords who encouraged any form of card playing, gambling or skittles because they would need to be swiftly dealt with. 

Vagrants and loose women, watch out! The Bodmin Association's arrived.

 Bodmin's tidy up team's result was to be an obvious one and the lure of the reward an overpowering success, putting even more pressure on the jail than it was already suffering.

So in an effort to double the warning to would be criminals, magistrates started to impose even harder and longer sentences and the Bodmin jail filled very quickly. 

 

 

 John Atkyns, served time in Bodmin Gaol for stealing his friends shoes got two months hard labour in Bodmin.

Mary Rogers got six weeks  for breaking a window in the poor house but after all, it was the 22nd time she’d been locked up in Bodmin jail so they were about to throw away the key....... 

and James Mallet was charged for being an "incorrigible rogue and a vagabond" and sent to Bodmin prison for the tenth time!

Can’t have been all that bad in there then after all. But if you lived on the streets and in the poor house of Bodmin, there may be a balanced choice here.

 

 

 Truro followed on, quick on the heals of Bodmin's neighbourhood watch scheme with the imperious sounding 'Society for the Prosecution of Thieves' and offering large rewards on a sliding scale in accordance with the severity of the theft or nuisance!

Things escalated at the Quarter Sessions of Truro, Bodmin and Lostwithiel and Bodmin jail was soon near filled to capacity.

 

y 1836  Bodmin Jail's inmate capacity had increased from just 60 to 177, building up the possible convict population of the prison from 100 men, women and children to over twice what it was designed for if some cells were double occupied!

And over occupied Bodmin jail was, going against all reformist advisory, protocol and prison rules.

 Remember: There was meant to be no association between prisoners allowed under any circumstances and a strict rule of silence had be observed and ruthlessly enforced at all times as was commanded Sir Robert Peel in his Gaols Act of 1823!

So in order to reinforce that, by the mid 1850's it was clear that big changes needed to be made over at Bodmin and the prison had to be seriously extended.

 They literally tore the old jail apart, demolishing much of it, reusing materials and extending the jail with great haste. The new list of buildings at Bodmin Gaol, many of which can still be seen today is quite impressive in the time it took to raise it..

Bodmin Jail now had a main kitchen, a mill and a laundry with huge workrooms.

The Main Civil Prison Block contained a cell block section for males and a separate one for females.

It now also housed Bodmin prison's administration offices and a Chapel. The Naval prison block, as we now call it, was linked to the main block by means of a first floor covered walkway. It had its own administration office, store rooms, a further kitchen and an infirmary built over part of the old gaol dungeons. The prison at Bodmin also now had three separate exercise yards.

It was going to be busy.

A change in Bodmin Jail had certainly come about.

Naval Block  Bodmin Jail

The Old Naval Block at Bodmin Jail.

Photograph © Jackie Freeman Photography

 

 So by now the main gateway and staff quarters had been added, with the addition of various stables, a cart house to house the prison's Black Maria, part of which would one day become an execution shed. There were new houses for the navy's administration officers and impressive Victorian villas built for the two most important men at the prison, the Governor and the Chaplain. These were built outside the prison walls which themselves had by now been strengthened, heightened and massively enlarged.

 

Gate house Bodmin Jail
Warden and Chaplain's houses  Bodmin Jail

Top: Main Gate house Bodmin Jail

Right Warden and Chaplain's residences at Bodmin Jail
Photograph © Jackie Freeman Photography

 

Bodmin Jail Tower Cornwall

Chapel Window, Bodmin Jail

Tower Bodmin Jail

Photograph © Jackie Freeman Photography

Chapel Window, Bodmin Jail

 

 

 

 

 

 

A LOOK INSIDE BODMIN JAIL

 

 

 

 

 oday, if you take a look inside the old Naval Block at Bodmin Gaol, which is now a completely derelict shell, is as awe inspiring as it is dreadful.

 Once massive slate balconies supported on metal posts, which still can be seen today protruding from the walls, were the only access the prisoners of Bodmin jail had to the tiny cells. Cells stacked four floors high. To prevent suicides amongst the inmates of Bodmin jail, iron bars and wire mesh was stretched along the length of the balconies and the 2 1/2 inch thick wooden cell doors were reinforced with solid steel.

Bodmin Gaol was modern and escape proof!

At least for all but a few. Not quite so though. Bodmin was about to get its fair share of escape attempts.

 

 Ventilation and some times heat provided to the cells of a sort, came from air ducts and the only light from the tiny window which gave the prisoner no means of escape.

Derelict Naval Prison block, Bodmin Jail.

 

 

 

Cell Window Bodmin jail.

 

The old naval Block at Bodmin Jail >

Photograph & Graphics © Jackie Freeman Photography

St. Breward, Nr.Bodmin, Cornwall

 

 

 

Naval Block at Bodmin Jail.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LIFE  INSIDE  BODMIN  JAIL  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Peer through any one of the cell's outer windows at Bodmin Jail even on a bright and sunny day, past its crumbling rusty bars and beyond the long broken glass through which countless desperate faces of those interred here once gazed and you will get a reflection of the horror that faced the long forgotten inmates of Bodmin Jail.

 Look into the prison cell from the outside world without a lamp or torch light to aid you and you see very little, save for the glimmer of a damp and eerie light reluctantly given up by the old entrance doorway to the cell. A massively solid doorway which would once have been sealed as tight as a tomb with great locks and bolts. Then and only then do you get a feeling of just how the prisoners of Bodmin would have known it and suffered internment here.

 

 

Cell window Bodmin Jail

Cell window at Bodmin Jail

Photograph & Graphics © Jackie Freeman Photography

St. Reward, Bodmin, Cornwall

 

Bodmin jail cell dungeon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Now, give yourself the benefit of a light and look in to the cell again. Now what do you see?

 Two slate corner shelves would have housed the prisoners meagre belongings. His tankard, a wooden spoon, a comb and perhaps a bible, which was utterly useless if you couldn't read. The square hole in the wall to the right of where once the great door would hang is the only contact the prisoner would have had with his captors whilst he was locked away and through which could be passed their food.  The rotted grille above the doorway was simply an air duct, only deep enough for occasional vermin that visited the appalling room might crawl through. Within his virtual sealed coffin, was placed a bucket of water, a wooden stool, a rough blanket and coverlet and a slop bucket. Once a week the prisoners would be issued with a piece of soap with which to wash. These were the  balance of the inmates possessions at Bodmin Gaol. His niceties of life.  Penal servitude meted out at this level gave a man time to reflect hard upon his wrongdoings or in many cases, his innocence!

Now turn off the light!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Click !

 

 

 

Bodmin Jail dark dungeon

 

Here is how a Bodmin prisoner lived.

 

Bodmin Jail inmate inscription

 

John Harrigan was imprisoned in Bodmin jail in July of 1857, incarcerated for 6 years in the Naval wing at Bodmin prison.

He was 28 years of age and left us a dour reminder of his term in jail which he carved into the slate in the dark.

 

 

 

 

Bodmin Jail Cell key.

 

 

 ife in one of Britain's most secure Victorian prisons, Cornwall's great and austere Bodmin Gaol was hard, harsh and mercilessly unforgiving for its inmates.

It was the rule.

 Prisoners here doing their time in the grim surroundings of Bodmin jail as with all other British prisons, were divided up into categories according to the serious level and stature their crime. So the prisons felons, those criminal types who had committed the more serious crimes such as Murder and Theft or as in one case for just being "an idle apprentice," clearly a very serious crime against society in the eyes of the Cornish Victorians, suffered the same degradation & hardship of living a prison life as did those who were remanded in custody & other Bodmin inmates who were awaiting trial or sentence & could not yet really defined as a criminal.

Clearly they were considered still innocent men until found guilty.

 So too, incarcerated here at Bodmin were the debtors serving time alongside simple misdemeanant'. All were locked away inside Bodmin Jail for relatively short, but sharp and cruelly punishing sentences.

For those sentenced to hard labour though, the punishment was to be even harsher.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

joan Whytte  

Fighting fairy of Bodmin

 

The story of Joan Wytte: The fighting fairy woman of Bodmin

 

In 1824, the Governor of Bodmin Jail, a fine man called James Chappel who you will remember was the project supervisor when the jail was built and was the obvious man for the job of its full time Gaoler and Governor after the release of its interim governor Edmund Leach who was given the sack by complaining about the builder Thomas Jones and the standard of his workmanship. The complaints were dismissed by court as was Mr Leach!

By then, James Chappel had been at Bodmin jail for a long time and really made the place tick.

With so much clout and wind behind his sails, Governor Chappel made an application to the justice department to build a tread wheel at the jail in Bodmin built upon the lines of the wheel already installed at Brixton prison. And his application was warmly granted.

It was Governor Jim Chappel who also proudly boasted to the press at the time that there was never a man in Bodmin jail that he could not tame!

Of the women prisoners of Bodmin gaol, Governor Chappel had a very different opinion and Joan Wytte known as the fighting fairy woman of Bodmin was to give him some real trouble.

 Joan Wytte was known throughout Bodmin as a healer and a clairvoyant and a problem! Had it been only a few years earlier, Joan Wytte would have been labeled a witch and burned at the stake on Bodmin common.

As it was, she was considered by many Bodmin residents to be one anyway and she was often ridiculed in the street. Joan Wytte suffered continuous abuse by local people who saw Joan as a serious threat and as a result she would get into some terrible fights.Joan Wytte displayed an incredible amount of strength in these all too common brawls with the locals which saw her raging & seeing off all opponents, including Bodmin men convincing the witch minded community that she was possessed by the Devil.It became all too much for the Bodmin magistrate after one such bout which left them with no alternative but to commit her to a spell of their own, in jail in Bodmin.  In the time she was incarcerated there, the violent outbursts didn't stop and it wasn't until her death in jail from pneumonia at the age of 38 that it was found that she had lived for years with an abscess under a tooth causing her unimaginable pain and it was only then realised that the poisoned abscess was a probable contributor to her delirious rages and great show of strength. So Bodmin. A witch?

Perhaps not after all.

 

CLICK:  Part 2 - The Bodmin Witch Hunt - Ghosts of Bodmin Jail

 

Bodmin Jail - Cornwall – A  complete & detailed History | Bodmins Gaol a Bridewell Revisited - Secret Britain | Images, photos, photographs and  story details

Bodmin Jail a complete History. Secret Britain: Bodmin Gaol - Bridewell revisited. Building Bodmins Jail, Cornwalls first ever purpose built prison, Executions, Escapes and the Bodmin gallows

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