As featured in Poldark. Bodmin Gaol was designed by Sir John Call and built in 1779 by prisoners of war, and was operational for 150 years, in which it saw over 50 public hangings. It was the first British prison to hold prisoners in individual cells. The Debtors Act of 1869 abolished imprisonment for debt so the prison had spare space that was taken over by the Admiralty for naval prisoners. Eventually, the naval prison occupied an entire wing of the building, before it was closed in 1922. During World War I the prison was deemed worthy of holding some of Britain's priceless national treasures including the Domesday Book and the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom. The first hanging was apparently in 1785, but the finishing date of the jail was in 1788. Executioners were paid about £10 a hanging. The last person to be hanged was in 1909, subsequent executions took place in Exeter Prison. The jail closed in 1927. Since that date, there has been no prison within the county of Cornwall. Much of the jail remains in ruins, and presents a forbidding aspect when seen from a distance. Some parts have been refurbished and these now form a tourist attraction with exhibitions telling of the history of the jail and of offenders imprisoned there.
Selina Wadge was very much at the bottom end of the Victorian social spectrum. She was a 28 year old unmarried mother of two illegitimate sons and due to her poverty and inability to get work whilst raising two small children, often had to ask for admission to Launceston Workhouse. This was a very stigmatising thing for a woman to have to do at the time. Her sons were Henry aged two and John aged six. Henry who was always known as Harry was partially crippled and could hardly walk. Both boys seemed well cared for, however. In the summer of 1878 she had taken leave from the workhouse to visit her mother at Altarnum, a village some 8 miles west of Launceston in Cornwall, accompanied by her sons. Selina claimed to be in a relationship with a former soldier named James Westwood although it is not thought that he was the father of the boys. According to James he had met Selina just twice previously, in December 1877 and again in March 1878. He had written her a letter telling her that they could meet in Launceston on Saturday 22nd of June and then another telling her that he would be unable to see her that day because he had to work that day. However on Friday the 21st June 1878 Selina and the children hitched a ride towards Launceston with a local farmer named William Holman. She told Mr. Holman that she was going to meet her boyfriend in the town before returning to the workhouse that evening.
Later on the Saturday morning Selina was recognised near Mowbray Park and by mid-day had reached the workhouse but by now only the older child, John, was with her. She told her sister who was also an inmate, in the presence of the Workhouse Master, Mr. Downing, that Harry had died at Altarnum. On the Saturday night John told the work house nurses that Selina had put Harry into a “pit”. Mr. Downing and his wife who was the matron questioned Selina about this on the Sunday morning and she told them that her boyfriend had taken Harry from her and drowned him in a well on the Friday evening and threatened to kill her and John. Mr. Downing immediately sent for the police who despatched Superintendent Barrett from Launceston to investigate. Selina repeated the story to him under caution and directly implicated James Westwood in Harry’s disappearance. Barrett launched a search for Harry and found his body in three feet of water at the bottom of a 13 foot deep well shaft in Mowbray Park. The top of the well was covered so it would not have been possible for Harry to have accidentally fallen in. His body showed no signs of violence.
Selina was not in custody at this point but remained in the care of Mrs. Downey at the workhouse to whom she confessed that she alone had committed the murder and that only John had been present. Once Harry’s body had been found Supt. Barrett had sufficient grounds to arrest and charge Selina and remove her to Launceston police station. She told one of the constables that James Westwood had persuaded her to kill Harry on the promise that he would marry her if she did. She was hanged on Thursday the 15th of August 1878, using the new, 'humane', measured drop method.
Entry to the grounds is free. Regrettably, due to the constraints of the building, they are not a wheelchair-friendly venue, and those with impaired mobility may also find access to some areas difficult. There is a fabulous diner on site that offers an excellent range of food and drink whether you are after a quick refuel or a more substantial meal.
The diner serves a wide range of American diner-style favourites including burgers, ribs and pizza, plus a selection of sandwiches, snacks and light bites including a traditional Cornish afternoon tea. All food is prepared in their kitchens, using a range of local suppliers, with gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian and vegan options available. All available from 9 ‘til 9 every day!
Location : Bodmin Jail, Berrycoombe Road, Bodmin, Cornwall, PL31 2NR
Transport: Bodmin Parkway (National Rail) then bus. Bus Routes : 454 stops nearby.
Opening Times : Bodmin Jail is currently CLOSED until Summer 2020 as they complete construction on their exciting new attraction!
Tickets : see above.
Tel: 01208 76292