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Coffee, Tee or Pillory? An Afternoon at Bodmin Jail

by Jean E. Bellamy

A visit to the former Cornwall County prison can be a scary experience for those of a fearful disposition. The grim building dates back to 1776 and the exhibition within its austere walls has doubled in size since it first opened. Nothing daunted, however, we bought our tickets and having been pointed in the right direction, set off below stairs to the dungeons, the comforting words, "See you in the morning!" ringing in our ears.

Bodmin JailFormer inmates, depicted in tableaux in their squalid surroundings, present a vivid picture of the way in which crime was dealt with in the times of our forbears. Some folk may find the lifelike dummies occupying the gruesome cells a little too realistic, and as for those sinister figures lurking unexpectedly around dark corners, they are calculated to frighten the nervously disposed out of their wits.

Every variety of crime is portrayed. Take, for instance, the case of William Harding, a boy of 15, charged with stealing a basket, the property of one, William Matta. Having been once before convicted of larceny, the unfortunate youth was sentenced to transportation for life. It was not so much the value of the stolen property that had been taken into consideration, the learned judge observed, as the fact that -- though young -- the boy was a confirmed thief. It was therefore his duty to the community to ensure that such persons should be sent out of the country.

At the same Assizes, Joseph Perryman was indicted for stealing a black hen and was sentenced to seven year' transportation. The judge said that, in order to prevent persons prowling about for plunder at the still and dead of night when property was unprotected, the strong arm of the law must be administered.

Ann Holman got off more lightly. She was found guilty at the Cornwall Quarter Sessions of 16th May 1813, of stealing milk from a cow belonging to James Grey and was sentenced to just two months' imprisonment. It was stated that the ease with which this type of felony could be committed had induced the Bench to inflict a punishment that might otherwise have been considered as rather severe.

Bodmin JailA very much harsher punishment was meted out to Elizabeth Osborne, committed at Cornwall Assizes for setting fire to a mow of corn belonging to Mr. John Lobb. She was sentenced to be hanged, the report of the event appearing in the West Britain newspaper of 20th August 1813. Also reported at this time was the case of William Wallis, found guilty of stealing and killing a sheep belonging to Mr. Thomas Pethick. He too received sentence of death, as did James Northey, convicted of housebreaking and robbing in the dwelling of Mr. John Woodcock. On 12th August 1820, Sarah Polgreen was hanged at the age of 37, having been found guilty of the charge of murdering her husband by arsenic poisoning.

The last hanging in Bodmin Jail took place in 1909 and one can see the exact spot where it occurred. Public hangings were intended as deterrents but came to be regarded as popular entertainments -- by those of a ghoulish turn of mind, presumably! One public hanging went badly wrong. Wyatt, convicted of the murder of Valentine, a Jew, at Fowey, fell off sideways after the clergyman had left him, and it was twenty minutes before an end was put to the unfortunate man's existence.

On a lighter note, 31 Christmases spent in prison was the record of Samuel Glasson, blacksmith of Truro, charged on 19th June 1863 with being drunk and disorderly in the streets. On the previous night he had been fined ten shillings and costs, but being in default, he was committed to seven days' hard labour in the House of Correction.

The previous prison life of this man disclosed some rather startling facts. He had, it was believed, been committed to gaol a greater number of times than any other man in Cornwall, having eaten no less than thirty-one Christmas dinners there, and had served in gaol upwards of 11 years. Said to render the case even more singular was the fact that he had never once been charged with felony, his committals to prison having always been for want of sureties to keep the peace, and for assaults on the police.

Bodmin Jail

An unusual case was that of the tramp roped to a wheelbarrow. He arrived at the Union House one evening and was given a night's lodging. The following morning he refused to work, saying he would leave the house unless he was given a new pair of boots. A policeman was sent for, but the man would not walk to the lock-up though he submitted to being roped to the wheelbarrow. So in this rather bizarre fashion he was taken through the streets in the custody of the policeman. The next day he had to be carried up the town hall steps and would not stand before the magistrate but lay on the floor during his examination. For which insolent conduct it was reported in the West Briton Newspaper that Mr. Coode "very properly gave him the heaviest punishment in his power and committed him for twenty-one days at Bodmin Gaol." The trouble did not end there, however, for in the court the man was obliged to be roped down in the cart like a pig to be removed to gaol.

Before leaving the prison, visitors can -- if they have the inclination -- sit in the stocks or stand in the pillory for a photograph with which to entertain friends back home. They can also -- if they have the stomach for it after touring the exhibition -- enjoy morning coffee, lunch or a cream tea in the tea room of the licensed bar. There is also a souvenir shop and a playroom with table tennis.

The exhibition may be seen from 10am (Saturday 11am) to 6pm all week all the year round and there is free parking. It is interesting to note that the Crown Jewels and Domesday Book were stored in the prison during the Great War.

More Information:

Bodmin Jail (BBC)

Spooky times at Bodmin's old jail
The south west based Paranomal Site Investigations team has spent time at Bodmin's famous jail and wrote about the visit...

Jean Bellamy has been writing since 1970, and is the author of over 300 published articles and short stories. She has written three children's novels (all with a "West Country flavour"). A resident of Dorset, she is the author of several local history books, including Treasures of Dorset, A Dorset Quiz Book, Second Dorset Quiz Book, Dorset Tea Trail, Dorset as she was spoke, Little Book of Dorset, 101 Churchces in Dorset, and Cornwall: A Look Back. Jean loves to explore and write on all things British.
Article © 2006 Jean Bellamy
Photos courtesy of Bodmin Jail


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