A brief history of Bodmin Jail

Jaybex By Jaybex, 2nd Feb 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Travel>Europe>England>Devon & Cornwall

A brief history of Bodmin Jail in North Cornwall. One of Britains most advanced prisons when it opened in 1779 now a popular tourist attraction and important historical site.

Bodmin Jail- A Brief History

Bodmin Jail stands prominently in the town of Bodmin in North Cornwall and was the last prison inside the county of Cornwall. The semi ruinous prison is now a tourist attraction, (including resident ghosts) restaurant and a bar. Bodmin Jail operated between the years 1779 and 1922. In 1916 due to the First World War the castle ceased to house civilians who, along with the Prison Staff were sent to fight and the Prison was used until 1922 exclusively as a Naval Prison.
Bodmin Jail was built using the recommendations of prison reformer John Howard using the labour of French prisoners of war. It was state of the art at the time offering a “light and Airy” environment, Segregation of male and female and hot water for inmates. Bodmin was also the first prison to have separate cells (although as many as ten Prisoners would share at one time)

Hard Labour

The labour that they were forced to undertake was anything but comfortable. Meaningless hours spent on the treadmill (Pictured) for civilian prisoners, while Naval Prisoners were forced to keep ready for battle.


Executions were carried out in Bodmin before the completion of the jail with the first hanging taking place in 1785, three years befor the Bodmin Jail opened. In total there were 32 executions inside Bodmin Gaol 28 of whom were men and 4 women. As you walk around the dark interior of the jail you will see the information boards describing the Crimes and Punishment of some of the inmates.
The notorious case of the Lightfoot brothers.
It is estimated that over 20,000 people gathered to witness the execution of the Lightfoot brothers who were convicted for the murder of the merchant Nevelle Norway who was on his way home to nearby Wadebridge, The pair had beaten their victim to death, leaving his body in a stream and robbing his purse in february 1840.
It is believed that the jury took only five minutes to convict James Lightfoot(23) and William Lightfoot(36) on the 30th of March at the Lent assizes. The brothers were hung together on the 13th of April 1840.
Early executions in Bodmin took place on Bodmin common, before a drop was added above the main gate. The gallows were declared by law that they were not public enough and executions were moved to the south wall of the Jail allowing much larger crowds to witness the hangings from the ominously named Asylum Hill. The Execution shed (pictured) was a later additions of the jail, built after public hanging was abolished in 1868.
The information given to tourists at Bodmin is vast, describing in depth the crimes of the condemned,executions, role of the executioner and the various rituals leading up to hanging.
Bodmin was used to house such valuable items as the Crown Jewells and the Domesday Book during the First World War. Now it is a tourist attraction complete with its resident ‘ghosts’ (Which seems to have become a convention of the heritage industry). It also contains a restaurant and bar

Tourist attraction

Bodmin Jail gained some publicity after being featured on TVs 'Most Haunted' although I did not witness any apparitions, the site does have a very sombre feel especially as you read more about some of the executed. It is however a great place to learn about Crime and punishment in Georgian and Victorian Britain and the entry fee is very good value.

The site was purchased by the Wheten family in 2004 and continue to renovate and preserve Bodmin Jail for future generations,

Jail or Gaol

A note on the Word Jail: ‘The correct’ spelling in English is Gaol, however I have realised that most of the readers of this page are from the United States and therefore have decided on ‘Jail'.


Bodmin, Cornwall, England, Execution, Gaol, Georgian, Heritage, History, Jail, South West, Tourism, Tourist, Tourist Attraction, Tourist Destination, Tourist Site, Victorian

Meet the author

author avatar Jaybex
Married father of three beautiful children, studying Classics with the O.U. and help my wife run a small business. Writing mostly about history and heritage.

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author avatar Dawn143
16th Feb 2015 (#)

I love informative writes on various places in the world. It was maybe I wouldn't say a joy to read about a gaol, but it immediately arrested my attention..wow.. just realized I had a terrible pun inference right there! lol As an American I appreciate the consideration, thankfully I have read a few old books to appreciate the word Gaol, but my Americanese inclination is to say jail, so duly noted! Great article!

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author avatar Jaybex
16th Feb 2015 (#)

Thank you, it is much appreciated.
I think with the word jail most peope in the UK would recognise the American spelling quicker too, I began writing in the English way but it just looked wrong, I prefer the Amereicanese on this one.

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