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, 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.
Executions at Bodmin
Between 1735 and 1909, there were 60 executions in Bodmin including eight females. The early execution took place on the edge of the town on Bodmin Common. From 1802 to 1828, a drop gallows was used in the field outside the front of the gaol. A new drop over the main gate was used between 1834 and 1856.
When the new gaol was built the drop was placed over the main gate which now pointed to the
north-east. This was declared illegal by the Inspector of Prisons on the grounds that it was not public enough. The drop was moved to the south wall in a similar position to that of the old gaol. This allowed very large numbers of people to witness the executions from Asylum Hill, also known as the Bodmin Highlands. There was a major change in 1868, when a new law declared that executions had to take place in private. The hangings in 1878 & 1882 used the same site but shielded the event from view with a canvas shield. Only the 1901 & 1909, hangings were truly in private. They were the first executions inside the gaol. The new execution shed and pit were built sometime after 1882.
Details of an Execution (Lightfoot Brothers, Bodmin 1840)
￼￼￼￼￼By 9 o’clock, several thousand people had taken their places in the valley near the railway and in the adjoining fields. Soon after, the executioner, Mr Mitchell, a respectable dairy farmer from Ilchester, Somerset, came out on the drop and fixed the ropes, which passed over hooks in two cranes, branching from the wall. A portion of the raised path, immediately in front of the gaol, was very judiciously barricaded, not only to prevent any rush or pressure at the gateway, but also for the purpose of enclosing the place of burial appointed for the criminals, and of avoiding any unseemly disturbance near them in their last moments. A police force was stationed near this spot, consisting of the captain and sixteen other members of the Sheriffs troop, eight other constables of Bodmin and a policeman of Wadebridge. These arrangements were all conducted under the direction of the Acting Under Sheriff, Philip Protheroe Smith Esq., of Truro aided by the Mayor of Bodmin, C. Coode Esq.
In accordance with the usual practice, a divine service was held in the Chapel. At ten o’clock, the condemned criminals entered the chapel, each stooping and lifting with his hand, the burden of the massive fetters in which his legs were bound. They took their seats together, in a recess which was screened from the view of all others in the chapel, except the Clergymen when standing at the altar. Presently, the body of the chapel was filled with male prisoners, in their prison dresses, of dark brown and yellow. In the gallery were the debtors, some inmates and part of the Sheriff’s troop. In the centre of one side of the gallery is the reading desk, where the Chaplain Rev. Francis Kendall, took his place. He was accompanied by the Rev. W. Molesworth, Rev. Francis Cole, Rev. Nicholas Kendall and Rev. N. Kendall, jur. The Acting Under Sheriff, the Coroner and the Governor of the Gaol, John B. Everest. The service concluded at about half past eleven, after the chapel had emptied, the two Lightfoots approached and knelt before the altar to receive the Sacrament.
By the time of the execution, the crowd had grown to an estimated 20,000- 25,000. This included trains which were halted below the prison wall so that the passengers, estimated at 1,100, could watch the hangings without leaving the wagons.
Just before twelve o’clock, the prisoners were brought to the place of execution. The executioner then proceeded to place the ropes and put the caps on the prisoners. William Lightfoot then asked for the Rev. Francis Cole, who was in attendance with some other Clergymen, to come near, and spoke to him as follows: Tell my wife and family that I die happy, beg them to go to Church and keep the Sabbath; not to go in the way that I have gone, and brought myself to ruin. Tell them to avoid idleness, and get their living honestly, and pray that they may meet me in Heaven. After which Mr. Cole turned to James Lightfoot, and asked him if he had anything more to say he, following up his Brother’s words, answered, Say that I am happy. They (meaning his wife and child) must pray to God that we may meet in Heaven.
Immediately after, the Drop fell, and their souls were launched into eternity.
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.