Bodmin Gaol

The late 18th and early 19th centuries saw the building of new County Gaols throughout Britain to replace the small and often unsuitable jails and lock ups that were common place. The County Gaol for Cornwall stands in three acres adjacent to Berrycoombe Road in Bodmin (the county town).  It was completed in 1779, built by French prisoners of war, working under the supervision of Sir John Call, J.P., M.P. to the design of Philip Stowey and Thomas Jones of Exeter.

As built is was an attractive two storey building with a three storey entrance lodge.  It had accommodation for one hundred persons, including male and female debtors, male and female felons and bridewells (lock ups) for minor criminals of both sexes.  Three condemned cells were included in the north-west corner of the buildings.  Over time the buildings were modified and enlarged as required and also a naval prison wing added in 1878 which continued to house naval prisoners until 1922.  In the early part of the 20th century the number of inmates fell rapidly. By 1908 there was only one female prisoner and this part of the facility was closed in March 1911.  The last male prisoner was transferred to Plymouth (in Devon) in July 1916.  The prison finally closed in 1927. The governor’s and the chaplain’s houses were sold off and part of the prison roof was removed allowing some of the structures to decay. It was bought in a semi derelict state by, the Wheten family in 2004. In the last six years over £1,000,000 has been spent on renovating the structure and creating a museum. This process is ongoing as proceeds from visitors allow.  Here is a photo of the gaol in the 1950’s

Executions at Bodmin Gaol.

A total of 32 executions took place at the Gaol between 1802 and 1909, comprising 28 men and four women.  One woman and three of the men were executed in private after the abolition of public hangings in 1868.

The first confirmed hangings carried out at the Gaol, rather than on Bodmin Moor (the previous place of execution) were those of John Vanstone, age 37 and William Lee, age 60 who had been convicted of burglary in the dwelling house of Walter Oke in the parish of Poughill on the 25th of February 1802. They stole a pocket book, other goods and money with a value of £2, 2.shillings, two £2 notes, a knife, plus other goods and money with a value of 10 shillings and 7 pence belonging to Elizabeth Trewin. They were hanged on a New Drop style gallows in front of the Gaol on Wednesday the 1st of. September 1802. 

Elizabeth Osborne was condemned for arson, having been convicted of setting fire to a mow of corn belonging to Mr. John Lobb. She was hanged on the 6th of September 1813 and the event was reported in the West Briton newspaper.  Arson was a capital felony and reprieves were quite rare.  There was little in the way of insurance at this time and so a serious fire would lead to major consequences for the owner of the property.  The crime of setting fire to a hayrick or mow of corn was separately defined as one of several individual offences of arson.  In this case Mr. Lobb may have had difficulty finding food and bedding for his animals during the winter of 1813/1814. The last hangings for arson took place in 1836.

The next female execution at Bodmin was that of 37 year old Sarah Polgreen who had been convicted at the Summer Assizes of poisoning her husband, Henry, with arsenic.  At the time this crime was still classified as Petty Treason and therefore she had to be drawn to the gallows on a hurdle prior to her execution on Saturday the 12th of August 1820. Once there she made a speech to the crowd imploring them to take note of her fate, she then recited the Lord’s Prayer before giving the signal to the hangman to release the drop which fell a little after midday.  She was dissected after death.  A broadside was printed about her case, as was normal at the time.

Another arsonist to die on Bodmin’s gallows was 21 year old William Axford on the 7th of April 1825, who had also set fire to a hayrick. The bill for Axford's hanging was as follows: £1 15 shillings (£1.75) for a coffin, 12 shillings (60p) for six bearers from the scaffold to the grave and £1 5 shillings (£1.25) for erecting the gallows.  The hangman’s fee was not recorded.  As Axford had not committed murder he was allowed to be buried in consecrated ground.

Highway robbery was still a capital offence in 1827 and 29 year old James Eddy was to die for robbing and violently assaulting Jane Cock on the King’s Highway.  The hanging took place before a huge crowd on Thursday the 19th of April 1827.  Although Eddy admitted to having a criminal past he proclaimed his innocence of the crime for which he was about to suffer. 

22 year old Elizabeth Commins was one of six women hanged in Britain during 1828.  She was executed for the murder of her bastard son on the 8th of August of that year.  Although no real detail remains of the case it is probable that Elizabeth was poor and unable to take care of the child.  Young women were often abandoned by their boyfriends if they got pregnant and there was little help available to them.  The workhouse was often the only option and thus infanticide was quite commonplace in the early 19th century.

57 year old William Hocking was executed on the 21st of August 1834 for the crime of bestiality was on the old gatehouse roof, and was described by the Royal Cornwall Gazette as "a permanent erection over the southern door of the gaol".  Hocking was convicted of bestiality which fell under the same law as sodomy (homosexuality) and was a capital offence until 1861. Several men were convicted of this at Exeter during the 1830’s. would seem that Hocking was suffering from some sort of mental aberration.

A year after Hocking’s death 29 year old John Henwood suffered for parricide (the murder of his father)  He was executed on Monday the 30th of March 1835.

Five years would pass before the next executions here.  These took place at noon on Monday the 13th of April 1840, when brothers 23 year old James and 36 year old William Lightfoot were hanged side by side for the murder of Mr. Nevill Norway. This execution was carried out by George Mitchell from Ilchester and is believed to be his first within Cornwall.  The brothers had severely beaten Mr. Norway and robbed him of his purse on the night of Saturday the 8th of February 1840.  The came to trial at the Lent Assizes on Monday the 30th of March of that year, before Sir Thomas Coltman.  It took the jury just five minutes to convict them.  The double hanging attracted a large crowd, including the occupants of trains that had stopped on the railway line running alongside the South side of the gaol. 
George Mitchell carried out two more hangings at Bodmin, those of Matthew Weeks (see below) and 61 year old Benjamin Ellison a year later on Monday the 11th of August 1845 for the murder of a Mrs. Elizabeth Ruth Seamour (also given as Seaman).

22 year old Matthew Weekes was a farm labourer at Lower Penhale Farm near Bodmin and was reportedly not a physically attractive young man, with a badly pock marked face, few teeth and a limp.  The farm also employed a milk-maid called Charlotte Dymond who was both an attractive and promiscuous 18 year old who was fancied by and flirted with many of the local young men.  Weeks too fancied Charlotte but felt he had no chance with her. However on Sunday, the 14th of April, 1844 he managed to persuade Charlotte to go for a walk with him on Rough Tor and then along the road towards Camelford.  As they walked Charlotte told Weeks that she liked some of the other local lads and this made him jealous and he told her that her behaviour was disgraceful.  She didn’t accept his rebuke and replied that she would do as she liked and wanted nothing further to do with him.  This caused Week’s passion to become totally inflamed and he took out his knife and cut her throat.  He hid the body and threw away the knife but these were found two weeks later leading to his arrest and a charge of wilful murder.  He was hanged on Monday the 12th of August 1844.  Locals paid for a monument to Charlotte to be erected at the crime scene and it is said her ghost still haunts Lower Penhale Farm.

William Calcraft got a good fee for the execution of William Nevan on the 11th of August 1856.  The official receipt shows that he was paid £21 plus 5 shillings expenses for his rail fare from London.  44 year old Nevan had been convicted of the murder of Sgt. Major Benjamin Robinson on the 1st of June 1856.  Nevin was a corporal under Robinson on a prison ship called the Runnymede anchored in Plymouth Sound.  When Robinson ordered him to locate a missing prisoner Nevin fired his musket at the Sergeant Major, killing him on the spot.  The killing was witnessed and Nevan arrested.  At his trial on the 28th of July he claimed the shooting was an accident but the jury dismissed this argument and found him guilty after just ten minutes.  He was duly hanged atop the gatehouse roof on Monday the 11th of August 1856.

The original gaol was becoming overcrowded so a rebuilding program commenced in 1856 to enlarge it.  This went on until 1861 and cost over £40,000. Again local granite was used in the construction, being quarried by prisoners serving sentences including hard labour.

The next execution here was that of 28 year old John Doidge who was hanged by William Calcraft on Monday the 18th of August 1862 for the murder of Robert Drew.  Drew was a 57 year old grocery shop keeper in Launceston and was rumoured to be wealthy.  On the night of Saturday the 7th of June he had walked up to his local pub for a drink after work and the landlord recalled that John Doidge had also been there and was showing off a billhook.  Drew was found dead in his shop on Sunday the 8th of June 1862 and it was established that money had been taken.  He had suffered repeated blows to the head and his living quarters above the shop had been ransacked.  Unemployed Doidge who lived just a few houses from Drew was questioned and the billhook found to have blood stains on it.  As a result he was charged with the crime and came to trial where he was convicted after a two day hearing.  He was hanged by William Calcraft on Monday the 18th of August 1862, in what would be the last public execution at Bodmin, the practice being outlawed by the Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act of 1868.
The details of the preparations for this execution were described in detail in The West Briton newspaper, dated 22nd of August: as follows : About half-past eight on Monday morning, the carpenters commenced the erection, on the principal floor of the female department of the gaol, steps and a platform inside the southern wall of the prison, the platform being on a level with the grating floor of the drop on the exterior; and at ten o’clock these preparations were completed. The drop has the same southern aspect, and is nearly over the same site as that of the old gaol: and, consequently, the fields sloping down from the northern side of the street at the western part of the town, the “Bodmin highlands” afford the same facilities for view of the dread spectacle that have been available to so many thousands at previous executions. We understand that it had been intended, in the building of the new gaol, to erect the drop at the northern part; but this purpose was abandoned because of the comparatively small assemblage of the public to whom the execution of a capital sentence could be made visible.(The female department was the building later known as the Naval Prison.) 

There would be no more hangings at Bodmin until 1878, when Selina Wadge was executed by William Marwood for the murder of her child at Altarnun to the west of Launceston.  Click here for the full details of her case.  The gallows of the balcony pattern, was set up over the archway shown in this photo and was she was bought out through the door above it.  This was also the loading area for the kitchen goods and food for the prisoners.  The 1868 Act required that executions be carried out in private in the presence of the Under Sheriff of the County, the Governor of the prison, the prison doctor, the chaplain and such other persons as the under sheriff might see fit to admit.  A formal inquest had to be held afterwards and a notice of execution placed on the prison gates.

William Bartlett, a quarry manager, was the next person executed here.  46 year old Bartlett was hanged by William Marwood on the 13th of November 1882 for the murder of his bastard daughter at Lanlivery, near Bodmin.  Bartlett had seven children by his wife who was expecting an eighth and was also having an affair with a nurse whom he got pregnant.  Two weeks after this child was born Bartlett persuaded her to give him the child on the basis that he would find a home for it.  Instead he strangled the baby and threw it down a mine shaft.  The body was soon discovered and traced back to its mother and Bartlett who was arrested and charged with the killing. 
A report of the hanging stated that “the drop was erected in an angle of the outside of the prison facing up the lane to Town Wall and down towards Dunmere. It was a wooden erection, looking at a distance like a roadman’s hut. There was nothing else to be seen, but at 8 a.m. a black ball was run up by the big chimney, which spread out to be the black flag.”  Bartlett was reported to be in a state of terror on the morning of the hanging and it was said that his hair had turned from jet black to pure white whilst in the condemned cell.

31 year old Valeri Giovanni was executed on the gallows in the newly constructed execution shed that can still be seen today Click here for photo.  This was an enclosed area at the right hand end of an otherwise open fronted shed next to the north east corner of the wall that runs along Bodineal Road.  Italian sailor Giovanni had been convicted of killing Victor Baileff on the 15th of February 1901 on board a ship called the Lorton which was heading for Falmouth, hence why he was tried in Cornwall.  Giovanni and Baileff had quarrelled previously and on the fateful day Giovanni stole a knife from the ship’s cook and stabbed Baileff to death.  Initially he decided to plead guilty as the attack was witnessed by another of the ship’s company but later pleaded not guilty at his trial before Mr. Justice Wills at Bodmin on the 17th of June 1901.  He was hanged by James Billington assisted by his son William on Tuesday the 9th of July 1901.  The restored trap doors are shown in this photo.  This photo is looking down into the pit with the flag stone floor 13 feet below.

Bodmin’s final execution took place in the same shed on Tuesday the 20th of July 1909.  The prisoner was 24 year old William Hampton who had been convicted of the murder of his girlfriend, 16 year old Emily Barnes Trevarthen Tredrea at her home in St. Erth near Penzance on Sunday the 2nd of May 1909.  Emily had decided to end their relationship and Hampton who was living with the Tredrea family strangled her on the Sunday evening while her mother Grace was out.  The murder was witnessed by Emily’s younger brother, nine year old William.  Hampton was arrested the same evening and gave a confession statement at Hayle Police Station.   He came to trial at Bodmin on the 19th of June before Mr. Justice Phillimore.  After opening speeches by the prosecution and defence the court was adjourned until the 24th of June.  Hampton’s defence was that although he admitted strangling Emily, there was no premeditation and therefore the killing was manslaughter.  The jury did not accept this and convicted him after deliberating for just ten minutes.  However they did add a recommendation to mercy.  Hampton was removed to the condemned cell and a petition was got up to spare him.  Herbert Gladstone, the Home Secretary, announced on Friday the 2nd of July that there would be no reprieve and Hampton was duly executed by Henry Pierrepoint, assisted by his brother Thomas at 8am on the Tuesday morning.  Unusually the execution was witnessed by the then mayor of Bodmin.  The execution was re-enacted on the centenary of it in 2009.  Further research into this case by Gary Ewart suggests that Grace Tredrea may have also been having an affair with Hampton and might have been involved in a conspiracy to kill her daughter.  Hampton refused to testify at his trial and further refused to say anything incriminating regarding Grace in the condemned cell.  Gary has published a booklet on this case, which is available at the museum.  After this those condemned in the county of Cornwall were transferred to Exeter prison in neighbouring Devon and later elsewhere.  The last executions for a murder committed in Cornwall were those of Russell Pascoe and Dennis John Whitty who had been jointly convicted of the murder of 64 year old William Garfield Rowe at Nanjarrow Farm near Falmouth in Cornwall on the 14th of August 1963.  They had battered and stabbed the elderly farmer to death in an attempt to steal his alleged fortune.  In reality they managed to find just £4 in the house, although the police later located a further £3000 stashed away.  They were tried at Bodmin between the 29th of October and the 2nd of November 1963 and on conviction, Pascoe was sent to Bristol to await execution and Whitty to Winchester.  Simultaneously at 8 a.m. on the morning of Tuesday the 17th of December they were hanged.

Bodmin Jail allegedly stored the Doomsday Book, various state papers and the crown jewels during the First World War.

The execution shed used for the Giovanni and Hampton hangings has been restored by Gary Ewart and is the only Victorian execution shed still in existence.  A new set of trap doors and release mechanism has been installed over the 13 foot deep pit and the original operating lever kindly donated to the museum by Mr. Stephen Hall of Bodmin.  Visitors can see this today and hear Gary describe how hangings were carried out, with a demonstration of the trap falling.  A video of a demonstration is available on YouTube at

Bodmin Jail Museum is open every day of the year and visitors can see the old cells, the execution shed and various artefacts relating to Cornish crime and punishment and there are also Paranormal nights for those interested in the supernatural. Additional areas open to the public are the naval wing, six floors in the civil block which forms part of the museum, the old stables where there is a video running at all times and they can also see the old place of execution. There is also a bar and restaurant and the old chapel upstairs is now "La Scala" function room available for parties functions etc. For more information have a look at the Bodmin Jail website.

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