Perched on the edge of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, Bodmin Jail is one of the Southwest’s most notorious former prisons. With a long and grim history dating back over 200 years, Bodmin Jail once housed some of Britain’s most dangerous criminals. Though it closed its doors as a prison in 1927, Bodmin Jail is still known for its imposing architecture, grisly executions, and haunted atmosphere. After decades of neglect and partial demolition, Bodmin Jail has now found new life as a museum, tourist attraction, and hotel catering to those fascinated by its macabre past.
History of Bodmin Jail
Construction and Early Years
Bodmin Jail was constructed in 1779 under the direction of British architect Sir John Call. Built by prisoners of war, it was the first British prison designed to hold inmates in individual cells. For the next century, Bodmin Jail operated as the county prison for Cornwall. Conditions were overcrowded and squalid, made worse by inadequate sewer systems. Prisoners with wealth or social connections could pay the jailer for larger cells and extra food.
Expansion in the 19th Century
In the mid-1800s, Bodmin Jail was expanded with the addition of a women’s wing, infirmary, and exercise yard. Though conditions improved slightly, overcrowding remained an issue, with up to 300 prisoners crammed into a space meant for 90. The jail also began housing naval prisoners in a separate wing.
20th Century and Closure
Reforms in the early 20th century forced improvements to Bodmin Jail, including proper sanitation, heating, and ventilation. However, the jail proved difficult and expensive to modernize fully. After the execution of its last prisoner in 1909, Bodmin Jail went into steady decline. It finally closed for good as a prison in 1927.
Use as a Storage Facility During WWI
Though no longer a functioning jail, Bodmin was called into service again during World War I. From 1918-1919, it housed sensitive government records for safekeeping, including the Domesday Book. After the war, however, Bodmin was left abandoned once more.
Conversion into a Tourist Attraction
Partial Demolition and Decay
With the old prison empty, Bodmin Jail began to deteriorate. A section was demolished in the 1930s. Vandalism and neglect took their toll, leaving much of the complex a crumbling ruin. However, public interest in the imposing Gothic towers and sinister history prevented full demolition.
Renewed Interest and Restoration
By the 1980s, Bodmin Jail was increasingly recognized as historically and architecturally significant. Preservation efforts began on the remaining buildings, and small portions opened for tours. However, full restoration was hampered by Bodmin Jail’s tattered state and the high costs involved.
Museum, Attraction and Hotel Today
It wasn’t until the 2010s that major renewal efforts could commence. A £8.5 million project transformed much of the jail into a museum, attraction, and boutique hotel catering to those drawn by the jail’s notorious past. Tourists can now wander through original cells, watch dramatizations of executions, and even go on ghost walks in search of supernatural occurrences. The transformation won awards for successful heritage preservation and boosted Bodmin’s tourism.
Executions at Bodmin Jail
Bodmin Jail saw its first executions in the 1780s. Prisoners were hanged from the gatehouse roof in view of the public as a grim warning against crime. Troops were on standby in case riots broke out. Executions soon moved to a purpose-built platform in front of the prison.
Not all those who went to the gallows at Bodmin were murderers. Many executions resulted from property crimes or social agitation. The “Coiners of Callington” were a group of 14 men and women who forged coins. All were condemned and hanged in 1783.
Hangings continued to occur in public at Bodmin Jail through the mid-1800s. Thousands would gather to witness the condemned being brought from their cells and executed on the platform. Though macabre, executions became popular spectacles.
The last public hanging took place in December 1862. In 1870, executions moved indoors to a new gallows installed in the jail. The final prisoner executed was Joel Beer, hanged in 1909 for murdering his wife in a fit of jealousy. It was one of over 50 executions carried out at Bodmin Jail.
Daily Life in the Prison
Prisoners were housed in tight rows of small stone cells that offered little light or fresh air. They slept on straw mats and had no toilets beyond a bucket. Wealthier inmates could pay the jailer for larger cells and beds. The cramped conditions facilitated the rapid spread of disease.
Food and Work Routines
Prisoner rations consisted mainly of bland food like gruel, bread, and watered-down beer. Those with money got extra privileges like meat pies or rum. Convicts spent their days performing hard labor like breaking rocks or walking the treadwheel to operate the jail’s pumps and mills.
Healthcare and Discipline
Bodmin Jail had only rudimentary medical care until an infirmary was added in the 1800s. Prisoners mostly relied on the care of other inmates. Jailers meted out discipline in the form of beatings, whippings, or stints in the dark punishment cells reserved for troublemakers.
Ghosts and Paranormal Activity
Ghost Stories Through the Years
Bodmin Jail has long been considered one of Britain’s most haunted sites. Records suggest ghostly occurrences reported as far back as the 19th century. Guards told of unexplained voices, phantom footsteps, and strange shadows flitting about the cells after dark. Many blamed the restless spirits of those executed.
Investigations by Paranormal Researchers
In recent decades, numerous paranormal investigation groups have descended on Bodmin Jail hoping to document supernatural phenomena. Through the years, they’ve claimed to record ghostly voices, film apparitions, and communicate with spirits via mediums and ghost-hunting gadgets. The tv show Most Haunted even filmed an episode at the jail.
Television Shows Filmed at the Jail
Bodmin Jail’s spooky setting and haunted history have attracted numerous supernatural-themed television shows over the years, the most famous being Most Haunted in 2004. More recent shows like Help! My House Is Haunted and Celebrity Help! My House Is Haunted have also investigated Bodmin’s ghosts. These programs have further fueled Bodmin Jail’s paranormal notoriety.
Impact on Bodmin
Bodmin Jail is considered one of the best preserved examples of an 18th-century British prison. Its imposing facade and towering walls make it an iconic part of Bodmin’s skyline. Though long neglected, its historic architecture makes it an important heritage site.
As a museum and attraction, Bodmin Jail now draws tens of thousands of visitors yearly, making it one of the area’s top tourism sites. Its dramatic history and haunted ambiance fascinate tourists, while also providing an economic boost to Bodmin.
Notoriety and Public Perception
To locals, Bodmin Jail has long been synonymous with grim executions and supernatural occurrences. Generations of Bodmin residents grew up hearing chilling tales about the gloomy prison on the edge of town. However, thanks to restoration efforts, public perception of Bodmin Jail has improved in recent years. Its macabre history now generates curiosity and interest.
From its start as a harsh 18th-century prison to its new life as a heritage site, Bodmin Jail has undergone an incredible transformation. Though it once housed desperate convicts in appalling conditions and was the site of disturbing public executions, today Bodmin Jail offers an intriguing and respectful look at its long history. With ongoing restoration, expanded tourist facilities, and a new hotel, Bodmin Jail is shedding past neglect and celebrating its architecture and storied past. Though its gloomy grandeur may still be haunted by restless spirits of the past, Bodmin Jail now welcomes visitors rather than prisoners through its imposing gates.
What years was Bodmin Jail operational?
Bodmin Jail operated from 1779 to 1927 before finally closing as a prison.
What amenities are available today at Bodmin Jail?
The site now includes a museum, tourist attraction with guided walks, hotel, restaurant, and gift shop.
How many executions took place at Bodmin Jail?
It is estimated that over 50 executions were carried out at Bodmin during the prison’s operational history.
What types of paranormal activity has been reported at the jail over the years?
Reported activity includes sightings of ghostly figures, unexplained noises, doors opening suddenly, and ghost-hunting tools registering unexplained energy readings.
When did major restoration efforts begin on Bodmin Jail?
After partial demolition and decades of neglect, major renovations started in 2015 to convert the jail into a heritage tourist attraction and hotel.