Bodmin Jail Part 4 – Crime & Punishment


In which we find that crimes endure but punishments change.

Prisoners Of Bodmin Jail

Like Alcatraz, Bodmin Jail is little more than a ruin as the ravages of nature slowly undo all the labour of the prisoners who built it, but unlike Alcatraz, Bodmin Jail didn’t hold the worst of the worst. Indeed it would appear that rather than holding the Al Capones of the world, Bodmin held many people who committed misdemeanors that may have been more the product of poverty or mischief than malicious intent.

The crimes shown in the exhibit involve the poor or tradespeople both as the criminals and the victims.

The Crimes

Crimes range from the most heinous, mothers murdering their own child, to the puzzling – why was it a crime for children to play “Toss Penny” on a Sunday? It seems that felonies are timeless but misdemeanors are often contemporary. An informal survey of the exhibit suggests that typical crimes of the period fell into these classes:

  • Murder
  • Assault
  • Theft
  • Smuggling
  • Causing Damage
  • Vagrancy
  • Sexual

Notably absent of course were crimes like drug dealing (although smuggling does get a mention), hackers or identity thieves.

Murders and Assault

In order to make the exhibit a tourist attraction there is a lot of attention given to murderers and their heinous crimes. These are not unlike a lot of today’s murders including, shockingly, cases of mothers murdering their children.

The exhibit also shows a number of serious assaults, carried out with the intent to rob the victims.

Both murder and serious assault resulted in sentences of hanging.


Unlike murder, theft is something that has a contemporary element. For instance in 2012 we might be greatly concerned with identity theft, but in 1800 people might have given you a strange look if you suggested that having your identity stolen was a major crime. Instead we find that serious theft included:

  • Stealing bees and honey
  • Stealing milk from a cow (are we not all guilty of that crime?)
  • Stealing a sheep


I suppose this is the 1800’s version of homeless people; if it was, then the attitudes were very different. A man was sent to Bodmin Jail with hard labour on the treadmill for being guilty of vagrancy.

Prisoners working the treadmill

Causing Damage

In 2012 arson can get you a serious prison term. In 1871 in Bodmin a woman set fire to a haystack in a neighboring farm as payback for them doing the same to her. However, she was caught and hanged.

Sexual Crimes

Various acts related to sex were considered illegal including:

  • Prostitution. Women were sentenced to several months hard labor for being prostitutes.
  • Bestiality. A man caught in the act would be hanged. However, it was not a crime for a woman since the attitude was that no woman would engage in such a thing.

Crimes, Criminals and Punishments

As noted, crimes were divided broadly into three groups:

  • Felons
  • Misdemeanants
  • Debtors – as far as I know prisons in the 1700’s didn’t separate prisoners according to their crimes. This probably had the effect of putting murders and felons in the same area as people who were in prison because they owned money.

The exhibit consists of a series of tableaux depicting various criminals, crimes and punishments that occurred during the history of the prison. It appears that the criminals are not too different from today’s criminals, often motivated by greed, sloth, or self interest. Similarly the crimes, while contextual, are not too dissimilar from many crimes committed today. However, what has changed radically is the punishment.



I was struck by the severity of the punishments. Before looking at some examples it’s interesting to reflect on the changing attitudes with regard to punishment. In 1689 the English Bill Of Rights included the following: “no excessive bail or ‘cruel and unusual’ punishments may be imposed.” What does this mean?  It appears that it’s a term that is relative to its time. Prisoners in Bodmin Jail were subjected to up to three classes of punishment:

  1. Incarceration – All prisoners were subject to this. This would most likely mean imprisonment in Bodmin Jail but it could mean transportation.
  2. Capital punishment – Seems to apply to all serious crimes but the information doesn’t give enough detail to see the big picture.
  3. Hard Labour – Part of the sentence for  felons and misdemeanants
  4. Corporal Punishment – Could be part of a sentence for felons and misdemeanants but might also be used on prisoners who were not of good behaviour while in prison.

By contrast in the 21st millennium

  1. Incarceration is still used extensively but other forms of punishment are used such as house arrest, community service and probation. Transportation no longer exists.
  2. Capital punishment has been abolished in the UK and seems to be heading that way in the US. Note that EU law forbids use of the death penalty, while at the same time it is estimated that China executes perhaps as many as 5,000 people a year.
  3. Hard labour or penal labour has been abolished in the UK and applied only as a work program in US prisons.
  4. Corporal punishment has been abolished in the US, UK and EU as well as many other countries.

Since both the US and the UK exist under a “.. no cruel and unusual punishment..” rule it’s interesting to see how the interpretation of this phrase has changed with time.

But enough of the abstraction of the law and social attitudes; what about the punishments themselves?

As far as I can tell the classes of punishment were as follows:

  • Hanging – Capital Punishment
  • Hard Labour – Penal Labour
  • The Stocks or Pillory
  • Incarceration – locally or transportation
  • Flogging and whipping – Corporal Punishment

Some offenses warranted a combination of punishments such as hard labour and corporal punishment.
In addition to the punishments for crimes committed, if prisoners did not follow the rules of the prison they would suffer additional punishments, such as:

  • Transportation
  • Solitary Confinement
  • Being placed in irons
  • Reduced Food
  • Corporal Punishment

Review Of Punishments


Over 50 criminals were hanged, some of them women. Hanging was used to punish murders and a range of the other crimes, some of which don’t seem to warrant the death penalty by todays’ standards. Take for instance the case of the women who as an act of revenge set fire to a mow of corn on her neighbors farm – she was hanged.

Hangings were a very public affair until 1868. Sometimes these executions would draw crowds as large as 20,000.

Hard Labour

Some sentences included hard labour, perhaps all did, but I can’t tell from the exhibit. There were two classes of hard labour:
Class 1: Working on the treadmill or working in the quarry.
Class 2: Picking hemp, sewing or similar work.

You could be sentenced to hard labour for something as trivial as vagrancy. Some other crimes that resulted in hard labor were:

  • Stealing some bees and honey
  • Running a brothel or being a prostitute
  • A boy was caught placing stones on the railway line and was sentenced to 6 months hard labour

As far as I can tell women were restricted to class 2 hard labour while men might get class 1 or 2 depending on their crime.

The treadmill
exhibit of the treadmill in Bodmin Jail

Treadmill Used For Hard Labour

This device is similar to the stepping machine that you find in a modern gym. However, prisoners were on the wheel for 15 minutes at a time, then they worked for 15 minutes at picking oakum, then returned to the wheel for another 15minutes. This cycle of work continued for 8 hours, 6 days a week. The exhibit claims that the climbing on the treadmill was equivalent to climbing mount Snowdon three times every day. The power generated by the treadmill was used to grind corn.


The Stocks

The stocks and pillory are today things that we use to take amusing pictures while on holiday, but in their day they were at best a hard form of punishment and could be brutal.

The lasting punishment of this technique was the humiliation. The stigma of being in the stocks or being pilloried might stay with a person for years.
However, while in the stocks there could also be brutal punishment. The period of the punishment might be as little as an hour or as long as several days. Punishment was often carried out when when the weather was at its worst, the hottest period of the day in summer or perhaps in the rain or cold in the winter.
People in the stocks would have their shoes removed and might have their feet whipped by members of the public.
In both the stocks and the pillory the public might throw rotten fruit or dead and rotting animals.
It was not unknown for members of the public to defecate on people sitting in the stocks.
In one extreme case, it is reported that a person had their eyes gauged out while they were in the pillory.
The use of the stocks was abandoned in 1872 because it was deemed to be ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment – that’s almost 100 years after the prison opened and 200 years after the English Bill Of Rights was enacted, these things are certainly contemporary.





Without transportation we might not have the great country of Australia but I digress.
One example of this punishment involves a man who stole a ram. He killed the animal to eat but he was found with the evidence and sentenced to 15 years transportation.
In another case a boy was sentenced to 7 years transportation for stealing a hen.
Another boy was sentenced to transportation for life for stealing a basket. The sentence was severe because it was his second offense. I suppose this an early version of California’s three strikes law.

Corporal Punishment

Corporal punishment could be administered to men, women and juveniles as part of their sentence.

Men were flogged with a cat-o-nine tails.

A man being flogged with a cat-o-nine tails

Flogging Punishment For Men

Women were strapped to a post and whipped

Post to which women were strapped while they were whipped

Female Whipping Post


Apparatus for holding juveniles while they were canned

Juvenile Punishment


Have Things Changed?

The 2010 recidivism rate in California was nearly 80% – a frightening statistic. So I wondered; did the harsher prisons of the 18th and 19th centuries have a stronger deterrent effect on the people who were incarcerated? (Yes, it’s not a good comparison, but this is just a reflection.)
Unfortunately the Bodmin Jail exhibit doesn’t provide any suitable population statistics, but it does provide some glaring examples of recidivism that give pause for thought.
A man sentenced for vagrancy had been in prison 19 times before.
A man charged with being drunk and disorderly was sentenced to three months in Bodmin Jail where he had been imprisoned some 25 times over the previous ten years.
I have to believe that there were other cases, but what strikes me about these extraordinary cases is that I would have assumed the very conditions of the prison would be enough to deter repeat offenders, but apparently not. What is amazing is that in the second case above, the individual was never charged with any serious crimes. He was put in prison for not agreeing to keep the peace or for assaulting police officers – makes you wonder if perhaps he needed some treatment other than prison.

The recidivism in Bodmin Jail certainly suggests that for some people going to jail, even a jail as bad as Bodmin appeared to be,  was not a deterrent to committing a crime or misdemeanor.

To find out more about the jail go to part 5.

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