In 1778 an Act was granted to the local Justices for the building of three penal institutions on a new site in Bodmin. An additional County Jail (for Felons i.e. serious offenders); a Debtor’s Prison and a House of Correction (for minor offenders). The buildings were designed by Sir John Call, Bart. J.P., M.P. based on the plans and ideals of the prison reformer John Howard. Bodmin Gaol was a milestone in prison design. It was light & airy and therefore healthy; it had different isolated areas for felons, misdemeanants and debtors. Males & females were totally segregated. There was hot water, a chapel, an infirmary for sick prisoners and individual sleeping cells. Prisoners were paid for their work from the profits from the products sold by the governor.
Prisoner numbers were low until the national crime wave at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. In 1820, all cells were occupied with multiple occupants. From 1820 the population declined and this continued until the gaol closed. The old buildings were gradually extended and new buildings added up to 1850, when the buildings were declared unfit for purpose. These changes were needed because of several Acts of Parliament, which required total segregation of remand prisoners, convicted prisoners, felons, misdemeanants, debtors, vagrants and of course, men from women. This resulted in over 20 different classes of prisoners; each group had to be housed in separate sleeping areas and workshops.
In the late 1850s, under a specification from Lt.Col. Joshua Jebb the Second Inspector General of Prisons, a new 220 cell gaol was built. This was excessive for the number of prisoners in Cornwall. In 1887, part of the gaol was transferred to the Royal Navy and H.M. Royal Naval Prison at Bodmin was established. The female gaol was closed in 1911, the male civil prison was not used after 1916 as the prisoners and staff went to war. The Naval Prison closed in 1922 and all the buildings were sold in 1929.
Governor John Bentham Everest (1828-1860)
J. B. Everest was baptized on the 27th December 1781 at H. M. Dockyard Church, Sheerness, Kent. His parents were George and Ann Everest and he had 5 brothers and a sister, all born between 1775 and 1790. He joined the Royal Navy and later became an officer on the prison hulks in Kent. On the 12th February, 1828, he was appointed Governor of the Cornwall County Gaol at Bodmin.
The Visiting Justices report of April, 1832, noted four years have elapsed since total change in system made. Justices expressed their perfect satisfaction. Everest organised a major building and repair programme from 1828 so that the gaol conditions conformed to various Acts of Parliament. The Court was so impressed with the running of the gaol, the behaviour of the prisoners and the rebuilding programme that in 1832, it ordered £100 or a piece of plate to that value to be presented to Mr. Everest in recognition of his valuable service. By 1835 the Justices reported the gaol in excellent order and in a state of progressive improvement.
The inspector of Prisons, wrote the following tribute to governor Everest after his retirement in 1860: Advancing age and infirmity have deprived the County of the services of an officer who has long and deservedly enjoyed the reputation of being one of the best of prison governors. Mr. Everest has in that capacity had to struggle with the all but insurmountable obstacles presented by an ill-constructed prison, which, besides other disadvantages was far too small for the convenient confinement of its inmates, and it is not too much to say that his talent, energy, and activity so completely triumphed over these difficulties as to render the County prison of Cornwall one of the best conducted establishments of the kind in the kingdom, and to reduce the expenses quite as much as, the discipline was improved.
John Bentham Everest died in Bodmin on the 22nd January, 1863, aged 81. It has been known for some time that he was buried in Bodmin Cemetery but his grave has not been identified. Recently, Ann & Mike Hicks of the Cornwall Family History Society have found the gravestone but not the grave. The stone also records the death of Mary, wife of John, in 1869, aged 83. She died in Perth, New Brunswick, Canada and the body was returned to Bodmin.