Bodmin Jail and Bridewell

Arms of the Duchy of Cornwall

The Bodmin Bridewell

Written & adapted for television by David Freeman for SECRET BRITAIN

The Story, History and Images of Bodmin Gaol

formerly HM Prison Bodmin Jail



An interesting historical over view of the unique history of Bodmin Jail adapted from his TV series with photographs by celebrated Cornwall Photographer Jackie Freeman




 Eerie it may be, awe inspiring it certainly is but it has to be said that you immediately sense the presence and the dreadful plight of the long gone prisoners at every turn in Bodmin jail.

 But no more so than deep with in the oldest cells of the gaol, in Bodmin prison block's dungeons, built here in King George’s time.


Bodmin Jail gatehouse

 Beyond the steps leading to the reception rooms of the Civil Administration block, a road that every prisoner of Bodmin jail would walk, lies its deepest, darkest and oldest dungeons in the bowels of the jail. An ominous place housing the condemned cells and solitary confinement units, the punishment cells and whipping room.


Warden Bodmin Jail

Stepping back in time, the warden and staff of the old Bodmin Jail

on the steps of the administration building in the early 1900's.


 Irrespective of your religious beliefs or trust or otherwise in the existence of the supernatural, or even your feelings about the dark Satanic powers of the unknown, Bodmin jail’s great stone walls seem to echo the terrible plight of those it held captive, taking you back into a time where the shuffling of a hundred chained and shackled feet could be heard echoing around the exercise yard.

A place where Bodmin’s sad incarcerated  prisoners, dispirited heads bowed and silent, in constant fear of a whipping once trudged.



 These walls would have seen countless thousands of desperate men and women over the centuries and surely it is the prisons walls themselves which will have listened to every story, every whispered conversation, witnessed  every tear and heard every silent prayer.


It is hardly a wonder that paranormal activity and sighting's of unexplained presences, eerie lights and sounds and ghostly apparitions are reported by so many visitors to Bodmin Jail, be they serious paranormal investigators, inquisitive ghost hunters or just the impressionable visitor who watches far too much YouTube!






Bodmin Jail today.



odmin Jail is run these days as a successful Cornish tourist attraction. An important historical venue that includes a licensed bar and restaurant with a substantial part of the old Bodmin jail rebuilt and regenerated by the current owners, much restored to its original state and to their great credit.

 Serious ongoing excavations at Bodmin Jail are constantly uncovering more and more British history, with the jail unravelling its secrets and giving up its history to many academics who are drawn there.

 One such example is this tunnel  lying deep underground. Perhaps once a walkway from the old judging rooms of the first prison to the dark holding cells and dungeon. Perhaps a secret tunnel, only known to the jail's very first officers. Maybe we'll never know.

 In this day and age it is ridiculous that with so many vestiges of British history to discover and rediscover here, assistance is not forthcoming for further research and development through either Lottery, Government or National Heritage funding. These financiers see the place solely as commercial and walk away.

What then of Windsor?



Below: Recently excavated tunnel below the dungeons, Bodmin jail.

 Records show that this may very well be an old disused passageway between the women's cells and the main block which we know James Chappel back in 1779 had ordered blocked up for some reason. Or it may hold more sinister secrets


Prison administration block Bodmin Jail

Tunnel below the dungeons, Bodmin jail.


 Ghost hunting and paranormal activity events are popular activities here at Bodmin jail and held at the old prison regularly.

Hands up for some though.

 For those ghost hunters and apparition seekers along with so many of you who really do believe that you have a true to life photo of a long dead convict, still locked up in his cell in the after life, here's a reason why you shouldn't be so scared.

 Please note that the two ghostly faces in the prison cell windows above the cycle park to the left of the old administration block (see photo on above right))  are in fact life size manikins, put there to entertain and not scare the Bejesus out of Granny!


Ghosts? The faces of the prisoners in Bodmin Jail
Ghostly faces in Bodmin Jail

Ghosts? The faces of the prisoners in Bodmin Jail

Photograph © Jackie Freeman Photography - St. Breward  Cornwall

Ghostly faces in Bodmin Jail's cell windows.

Photograph © Jackie Freeman Photography - St. Breward  Cornwall

 Having diverted somewhat from our original plot, if you recall, we left the Governor of Bodmin Jail, a man called James Chappel back in the 1800's ordering up a nice new punishment wheel for his convicts:








The feared Bodmin tread wheel




massive six foot diameter timber convict breaker was erected behind the main prison block with the capacity to house up to 26 prisoners at a time. Each prisoner separated from the next in cubicle like wooden sections devised to restrict any form of communication between them during their daily ordeal.

Back in the 1840's the prisoners were forced to drive the step like apparatus continuously climbing as the steps revolved for several hours a day.

 It's true that tread mills and tread wheels were often put into use to supply power to drive belts for machinery such as pumps, lathes and mills. But contrary to popular opinion, the Bodmin tread wheel was not first used to grind grain. Here at Bodmin, the purpose was much more sinister.


Bodmin Jail Tread wheel

 Take away from a man the privilege of serving any useful purpose what so ever to his relentless trudging all day on the punishing treadmill and the futility of the work would devastate even the hardest of convicts subjected to its toil. Having served no use for their exhausting effort demeaned their punishing work and the whole episode was seen as utterly pointless. Punishing the men physically yes, but psychologically as well to unbelievable depths.

Hard labour at Bodmin was indeed just that.

 It wasn't until much later that a new wheel, a copy of the dreaded tread wheel at Brixton jail was attached to milling machinery at the prison and a brand new monster tread wheel constructed. This one in a great shed, some 80 feet long was capable of housing 32 prisoners at a time in four separate groups of eight. Again, with each convict separated from the next by wooden screens to allow no contact or communication.

The tread wheel was a cruel and bitter experience for the men to go through, which lead many of those condemned to the Bodmin Tread wheel to the brink of riot.

And riot they did.





The Bodmin Jail Riot:

 In May of 1827 a man called James Sowden, a Cornish miner, was sentenced to six months with hard labour in Bodmin Jail for his part in a vicious drunken attack on two police officers in Cambourne.

 Sowden, a bullish man, became the ring leader of a group of Bodmin prisoners who had been ordered to the treadmill for their crimes and steadfastly refused the punishment at the governors orders and mutinied.

 The desperate and angry Bodmin prisoners smashed the railings which surrounded the tread wheel apart and armed themselves with bludgeons threatening to set upon their prison guards. In the dramatic stand off which followed, a rider was sent out to the town to inform the Bodmin magistrates of the trouble at the jail and seek the help of the local militia. The militia were immediately rallied and a highly armed and unsympathetic Cornish force were dispatched to the jail.

Without any discussion or sympathy for the prisoners, the militiamen soon put down the uprising with calculated brutality though not a shot was to be fired.

 Sowden, the agitator and leader of the mutineers was re ordered back to the treadmill by their captors but stood their ground and refused. He was immediately knocked to the ground by a hail of militiamen's rifle buts and was bound & dragged away screaming and swearing under the order of the governor to be flogged with a cat o nine tails till he bled.

In fear of similar dreadful retribution, the remainder of Bodmin's rioting band of convicts resigned themselves to reenter the punishment wheel without further complaint.

Perhaps a fair trade?





The Crank.


 A new invention of legal torture was devised and introduced as hard labour machine into British prisons around this time which was called the crank.

The object of the exercise, no matter what design was applied to the appalling machine was identical. Make the crippling effort the inmate suffered absolutely fruitless for the solitary convict who operated it. A great metal handle attached to linkages and cogs protruded from either the cell wall, with its inner workings on the other side, or was encased within a framework inside the cell.

 Cogs were in turn attached to a spindle containing paddles or in some cases scoops. When the crank handle was turned by the unfortunate prisoner, the paddles were forced through a container of sand. The scoops lifted the sand and immediately deposited it back in the reservoir from whence it came for no purpose other than such was the resistance of the sand that the effort to turn the crank became harder the more he worked. But the continuing effort of working the mechanism also had the effect of heating up the cogs which in turn became even harder to turn.

It was an ever increasing vicious circle of futility and pain and a never ending more and more difficult task for the convict to achieve.This punishment was what the prisoner suffered for up to eight hours in his day. If the prison guards were of a mind to or if the prisoner slacked or slowed, they could adjust the tension of the dreadful machine by turning a screw which increased the handle's resistance & made it even harder for the convict to turn.

Here then the origins of the prisoners nickname for their warders, 'screws' coming from the ordeal on the crank as a result.Slack off too much or refuse the punishment and you would be lashed until you did it right!

The screw was indeed a lesser and kinder punishment!


Cell Door and peep hole. Bodmin Jail

Original Cell Door and peep hole. Bodmin Jail






Crank Bodmin Jail

Oakcum Picking:

 One thing every incarcerated inmate of Bodmin jail had in common was a laborious daily task. One he had to complete with in a given time frame and in total silence of course . Like it or not, this occupation of time and energy was a good income earner for the prison and that task was Oakum picking.


 Now given that only a few miles away in Plymouth and Falmouth were a large number of ships all being refitted before setting back out to sea, their old tarred ropes and rigging were in plentiful supply to Cornish prisons. So was the need for a fresh caulking material with which the shipwrights could seal the cracks between the great wooden planks which made up the ships decks and hulls. So it was left to the inmates of Bodmin prison and other around them in the west country such as Dartmoor prison convicts, to do the work to strip out the ropes raw material which was called Oakum. And all by hand.

 Every day, for up to 2 hours a day, the silent prisoners would be presented with two pounds in weight of trimmed out rigging ropes, short enough so the rope could not be used either for their suicide or for harnessing their captors in a mutiny.

Using only their fingers, the prisoners had to unravel the rope, strand by strand and twist apart the fibres which made it so strong between palm and thigh.

 This occupation was a tedious, mind numbing and for many, a crippling job. One which left the fingers blistered, bleeding and numb.

untwisted fibres falling at his feet destined to be mixed with fresh tar and used in the ship yards, would be collected and weighed and low betide the prisoner if he or she had not recycled the correct amount or had not done so in the allowed time.

You may have to miss your meal and go hungry for the night if you did or be punished with a whipping or a spell on the tread wheel!



Breaking Bodmin Rock.


 There was no shortage of stone left over from the various jail building projects at Bodmin and from around the quarry from which it was taken. So the exercize yard at Bodmin jail doubled in purpose & had several mounds of boulders which the chosen few attended.

The object of the exercize?  To smash the boulders into gravel sized pieces, grade and select them piece by piece into various sizes which could be then sold on for use in filling holes in roads and for other Bodmin building projects.

Hard, hard labour! Hard labour which was halted when an inmate, unhappy at the privilege bestowed upon him to make gravel out of rocks as big as a head, attacked his warder with a sledge hammer and broke his leg!




Naval Block, Bodmin Jail

South East elevation, Naval Block, Bodmin Jail

Photograph © Jackie Freeman Photography - St. Breward  Cornwall

 ittle has changed here since the great jail at Bodmin was finally closed down back in 1922 as the vintage photograph of the prison will testify. Save that the old railway track between Bodmin and Wadebride which cuts in front of the prison where the swathe of vegetation appears, is now long gone.




Vintage photo Naval Block, Bodmin Jail

 or the well informed tourist or visitor to Cornwall who makes the pilgrimage to Bodmin in search of her secrets and sees the jail for the first time, a certain romance seems to court her.

 Bodmin jail's huge façades must put Cornwall's visitors in mind more of the great castles and manors of England rather than the grim fortress of detention that it actually was.

 Mother nature, after imposing a century of dereliction and decay upon Bodmin's great Gaol is today slowly returning many of the buildings to her keeping. The huge prison wings are covered with ivy and moss and the only jail birds here now are the roosting pigeons that inhabit the uppermost cells.



Bodmin jail cell blocks


Rear facade & tower Bodmin jail cell blocks, south west.

Photograph © Jackie Freeman Photography - St. Breward  Cornwall


Jail Birds at Bodmin


Jail Birds at Bodmin Jail !

Photograph © Jackie Freeman Photography - St. Breward  Cornwall



Vintage photo Bodmin Jail





Bodmin Jail a complete history - Bodmins Jail Riot  Part 3 | Punishment, tread wheel, oakum picking & the crank|  Secret Britain David Freeman Cornish History

Bodmin Jail Riot - Secret Britain a History of Bodmin Jail. Punishment that fits the crime. The Crank, Oakum Picking, The Bodmin Tread Wheel

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