Bodmin Jail on the edge of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall was originally built during the reign of King George III in 1779 as part of the Prison Reform, built by military engineer Sir John Call. Building works started in the early 1770s with construction carried out by Napoleonic prisoners of war using 20,000 tonnes of granite quarried from Bodmin Moor.
The resulting building was a milestone in prison design, based on the plans and ideals of the prison reformer John Howard. It was one of the first modern prisons in the UK with individual cells, segregated male and female areas, hot water and light and airy areas for prisoners to live and work. In addition, prisoners were paid for their work from products sold by the governor.
Prisoner numbers at Bodmin Jail were relatively low for the first two decades, but this all changed at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. By 1820, all the cells were filled with multiple occupants, and this overcrowding caused the jail to be extended several times, with new buildings added up to 1850. Changes were needed due to several Acts of Parliament stating 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 needing to be housed in separate sleeping areas and workshops.
Between 1856 and 1861, under the reign of Queen Victoria, an entire new prison was built on the site and the original buildings removed. The new 220 cell ‘total institution’ had separate wings for men and women, a chapel, a debtor’s jail and was built to exacting standards as laid out by the reformers.
As the needs and interests of society as a whole changed, the prison’s inmate population shifted over the years. It was used largely as a debtor’s prison for many years, but this all changed in 1869, when imprisonment for debt was abolished. From 1887 parts of the jail were used by the Royal Navy, whose occupation lasted until 1922.
The female prison was closed in 1911 with remaining inmates being transferred to Plymouth. The numbers of male prisoners declined dramatically with the outbreak of World War One, and the last male prisoner left Bodmin Jail in July 1916. The jail was finally closed and officially decommissioned in 1927, and 1929 saw its break up and sale to the demolition men.
As with most old prisons, Bodmin Jail has a dark history. 55 executions took place within its formidable walls, for crimes such as rape, murder and stealing. Eight of these were women. Most of these executions were viewed by the public, and thousands would travel specially to witness the hangings. The first two inmates taken to the gallows were William Lee and John Vanstone, both convicted of burglary. The last person to be hanged at the jail was William Hampton, who in July 1909 paid the ultimate price for taking the life of his 17-year-old girlfriend after an argument; indeed, he was also the last man to be hanged in Cornwall.