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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

A Night in Bodmin Jail

This jail really isn't what it used to be. People wonder why crime is skyrocketing and say it's because our jails are like 5 star hotels? Well, with tongue firmly in cheek, here is the news, this jail IS a five star hotel.


Bodmin Jail is a historic former prison situated in Bodmin, on the edge of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. Built in 1779 and closed in 1927, a large range of buildings fell into ruin, but parts of the prison have been turned into a tourist attraction, and more recently another large part was converted into a hotel.


Here on the right is the original main entrance which would have put the fear of God into any new inmates on arrival.


Here at this breach in the old high walls that once surrounded the jail is the later entrance for hotel guests.


Bodmin Gaol was designed by Sir John Call and built in 1779 by prisoners of war, and 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.


Kentish Gazette - Friday 31 July 1789


A murder was committed at Gerrans, Cornwall, on the 10th instant, in consequence of a dispute betwixt one Ball, a blacksmith, and a youth of seventeen years of age, of the name of Clark, Clark had gone into Ball’s shop requesting him to return an awl he had lent him; when the other took a red hot nail rod from the fire and thrust it six inches into his belly. The wounded lad was conducted home, when a surgeon was sent for, but too late—he expired under the greatest agonies. The Jury sat on the body, and brought in their verdict Manslaughter against Ball, who is committed to Bodmin jail. Ball says he dreamed three nights before he committed the murder, that he should be hanged.

The jail closed in 1927. Since that date, there has been no prison within the county of Cornwall.

During the latter part of World War I, the prison was used for holding some of Britain's "State Papers and Records" including the Domesday Book. The material was in the jail in 1918-1919.


It may look very foreboding and was probably nowhere that anyone would be happy being locked up in, but it was considered quite progressive in its day, as can be attested to by this article in a newspaper at the opposite end of the country.


Inverness Courier - Thursday 08 April 1824


In the county jail Bodmin the prisoners make clothing, shirts, shoes, stockings, &c. They are also employed in sawing and polishing marble and in carpenter's work. ' There is also a tread wheel and thrashing machine. In various other prisons the prisoners are engaged in different manufactures. The females are superintended by a person of their own sex and schools have been in some places established for their instruction. These are great and striking improvements, and it is only to be regretted that for want of the necessary accommodation they cannot be established as part of the discipline of every prison.

The Bodmin Jail Hotel has been transformed from an 18th century prison to a stunning boutique hotel. Immersed in history, guests enjoy impeccable hospitality and service, luxurious bedrooms and the ultimate dining experience.


A heritage gem, the Bodmin Jail Hotel has carefully blended contemporary design with over two hundred and fifty years of history to create an unparalleled guest experience. Our breathtaking bedrooms are formed of three former cells, with all the finishing touches you would expect from a luxury hotel.


From 1887, the Royal Navy occupied an entire wing of the jail, and after the last civilian prisoners left in 1923 it was used to house the Crown Jewels during World War One before becoming a nightclub and casino in the 1930s.



As with most old prisons, Bodmin Jail envelopes a dark history within its formidable walls. Over the years, 55 executions took place here, for crimes such as murder and burglary, with the last execution taking place in 1909.


Penzance Gazette - Wednesday 12 February 1840


DIABOLICAL MURDER. It is with a feeling of horror we have to mention that a most inhuman murder was perpetrated on Saturday last in this county. The victim is a gentleman well known in the West of England, & we believe not more extensively known than respected —Mr. Nevill Norway, of Wadebridge, the father of a numerous family. This unfortunate gentleman was a merchant in extensive business in the Timber, Coal, and Iron trade, and was on his return from Bodmin, where he usually went on Saturdays, and was waylaid and barbarously murdered on his return home between 10 and 11 o’clock, and a large sum of money taken from him.


On Monday in consequence of a farmer’s dog having been observed on the fatal spot, and having returned there being driven away, it was suspected that a poacher named Chapman, whom the dog sometimes followed, had perpetrated the deed, and he was apprehended, and after an examination before the magistrates committed to Bodmin jail to take his trial. Five other men, associates of Chapman, have been apprehended on suspicion of having robbed a farmer on the preceding night. A reward of £lOO is offered for such information as will lead to the discovery of the diabolical beings who committed this atrocious deed. All the magistrates, constables, &ec. of that district of the county are exerting themselves in the most praiseworthy manner to secure the criminals.


In 1844 a crowd of over 250,000 gathered to watch the execution of the Lightfoot brothers (William and James), who were convicted for the brutal robbery and murder of a local well-known timber merchant (Neville Norway). Such was the clamour to watch the executions unfold, train carriages carrying around 1,100 people had stopped on the railway that ran alongside the jail.


...and it wasn't just murder but also petty crimes that brought you to this place.


Cornubian and Redruth Times - Friday 24 January 1868


Richard Warren, of St. Erth, was brought up in custody of P.C. Treleaven charged with stealing 6lbs of sugar, the property of Andrew Hosking. of St. Erth—Committed to Bodmin jail for 7 days' hard labour. Jane Roberts, wife of John Roberts, of Nancekuke, apprehended 10th inst., on a charge of stealing pork, the property of Mr Huddy, butcher, Redruth, was sentenced to 21 days hard labor in Bodmin jail.


The life of a prisoner in the 18th and 19th centuries can only be described as punishing. Even though Bodmin Jail was built after the prison reform with individual cells and segregated male and female areas, there was overcrowding, a meagre diet and harsh conditions to survive.

After thousands of people had passed through its doors, the jail was finally closed in 1927. Now nearly 100 years later, we’ve injected new life into this historic landmark. You will no longer find a dilapidated, derelict old building, but instead you will be in awe of the creative, contemporary design that weaves the past and present together. After 100 years of neglect, the Bodmin Jail is ready for new stories, cherished memories and unlimited possibilities. Come and see it for yourself! Bodmin Jail Hotel

As the needs and interests of society as a whole changed, the prison’s inmate population shifted over the years. It was used largely as a debtor’s prison for many years, but this all changed in 1869, when imprisonment for debt was abolished. From 1887 parts of the jail were used by the Royal Navy, whose occupation lasted until 1922.

Our guests experience fine dining in the elegant, yet informal atmosphere of our signature restaurant, The Chapel or relax in the comfort of the Champagne Bar and enjoy a favourite cocktail or glass of Champagne. All day dining is provided by our Courtyard Restaurant, offering the best of contemporary Cornish cuisine along with barista coffee and sweet treats.

Dundee Evening Telegraph - Wednesday 13 November 1878


BRUTAL TREATMENT OF A BOY. At the Falmouth Police Court yesterday, Daniel M'Millan, captain of the schooner Kenmure, of Greenock, was committed to Bodmin Jail for four months, with hard labour, for brutally ill-using one the crew, a little boy 13 years of age. The schooner owned by several gentlemen in Greenock. M'Millan joined her as master about the beginning of the present year. He belongs to Arran.


The Crank, which consisted of a large post-mounted handle with a counter, was a pointless activity where a prisoner had to do on average eight thousand turns a day without any product of their hard work. Gears turned round in a drum and each turn of the handle was recorded. To make it even more gruelling, the Warders could tighten the Crank via a big screw, making it harder to turn; hence the Warders became known as ‘Screws’. Bodminjail.org

Bodmin Jail closed in 1927, with the remaining inmates being transferred to Plymouth. The number of prisoners declined dramatically with the outbreak of the war, and the last male prisoner left Bodmin Jail in July 1916. The Jail was finally closed and officially decommissioned in 1927, and 1929 saw its sale to the demolition men.

The last person taken to the gallows was William Hampton, who in July 1909 paid the ultimate price for taking the life of his 17-year-old girlfriend; he was also the last man to be hung in Cornwall.


PUBLIC EXECUTIONS

Early executions took place at Bodmin Common, just at the edge of the town. From 1802 to 1828, drop gallows were used in the field outside the front of the jail. The first confirmed hangings carried out were those of John Vanstone and William Lee, who were publicly hanged in front of the jail on Wednesday 1st September 1802.

The building which had no roof for decades and which had trees growing inside, has now been sympathetically and creatively restored, incorporating many original features, including stairs to nowhere, narrow winding staircases and restored jail cells. It also features modern staircases and elevators too.


Our elegant air-conditioned rooms offer a king size bed, or two single beds, adorned with luxurious Egyptian cotton. This is the ultimate in rest and relaxation. With sumptuous, natural toiletries to hand, you can luxuriate in a deep, free-standing bath or revitalise in a refreshing tropical shower.


Comprising a king or two single beds, our luxurious rooms are a symphony of class, character and comfort. Kick off your shoes and make yourself at home.

Nestled on the edge of Bodmin Moor, you’ll discover a place full of intrigue, wonder and mystery. Built during the reign of King George III in 1779, Bodmin Jail was a milestone in prison design. With individual cells, segregated male and female areas, and hot water, it formed the new ideal for prisons throughout England.


The Bodmin Jail Hotel is the epitome of luxury, history, Cornwall. At The Courtyard, the atmosphere is just as important as the food. We’ve combined our historic charm with a relaxed, laid-back vibe to create a cosy, inviting space where you can enjoy a delicious meal with friends, a romantic dinner or just a casual bite.

Many of the souls that lost their lives on the noose remain. The spirit of Matthew Weeks (executed in 1844 for murdering his lover Charlotte Dymond) is said to have been seen on several occasions, as he wanders around the jail pleading his innocence.


Another famous ghost of Bodmin Gaol is Selina Wadge. She was hanged for the murder of her younger disabled son in 1887. It has been said that she tries to grab any young children visiting the jail.

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4 Comments


kimmy.sue.harvey
Aug 31, 2023

Such an interesting read and beautiful photos. And now I know where the term "screws" for prison wardens comes from.

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Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
Aug 31, 2023
Replying to

Yes, that was a surprise to me too.🙂

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John Durham
John Durham
Aug 30, 2023

Loved the long shots of the galleries and low perspectives of the exteriors. What a great idea to make use of such a historic and formidable structure - "I stayed the night in a prison!". I hate to ask what it costs for a night, especially if "fine dining" is attached. Such an interesting place.

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Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
Aug 31, 2023
Replying to

Thanks John, a very different experience. Rooms without a view.🙂

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