Go directly to jail … at Bodmin

By Dawn Robinson-Walsh:

Well, I bit the bullet and yesterday paid a visit to Bodmin Jail. Having been before, I remember it feeling bleak, grim, menacing, cold and starkly austere.

That has changed a little as the dark history of the jail has become immersive with an £8.5 million state of the art theatrical ‘Dark Walk’ which is enjoyable as stories are told and special effects are created with projections, holograms and sinister sound effects, more of which is here. It’s an intriguing way to spend an hour or two.

The jail was built in 1779 for George III, based on the plans and ideals of the prison reformer, John Howard, who introduced segregated cells, male and female areas and paid work.

The jail was extended over the years as prison reforms became more exacting. For many years, it was used as a debtor’s prison. The female prison closed in 1911 with the women prisoners transferred to Plymouth. The last male prisoner left the jail in 1916, and the prison was decommissioned in 1927.

It is said to be a haunted building, not surprisingly given 55 executions took place within its walls (8 were women). William Hampton was the last man to be hanged there (and in Cornwall) in 1909 for taking the life of his 17 year old girlfriend. In 1840, when the Lightfoot Brothers were executed for murder, a ghoulish 25,000 people allegedly turned up to watch. From 1868, all executions were private and later, television was invented.

Since closure, its history has been mixed: a casino, nightclub and attraction with mock executions. In 2004, money was invested by the local Wheten family,  to create a tourist attraction. In 2015, the attraction was further developed to the tune of £40 million and now has a luxury boutique hotel on site.

Views on whether the older attraction or the new is better, are mixed. Trip Advisor’s most recent says:

Bodmin Jail is much better since the re-vamp – my husband and I were thoroughly impressed! Gone are the dodgy mannequins and instead it’s a fascinating attraction – you learn about past prisoners and their story, different punishments, what it was like working in the jail… there is so much to read and learn about. The sets and the films were excellent, and the special effects were fun too, and without giving anything away there are a few surprises which made this a really worthwhile hour and a half.

From Bodmin Jail FB page – photos not allowed in the immersive section.

Another visitor said:

We went to the Bodmin Jail around 12 years ago and we wanted to revisit. Back then, it was authentic, eerie and gave a real sensation of how bleak it was.

We were really disappointed with the new Bodmin Jail experience. It’s been redesigned as a cheap attraction- everything historical seems to have been lost.

The hotel now seems to have some of the authentic features such as original cell doors.


A local added:

What an incredible experience, and experience is the correct word. Very atmospheric and spooky at times, this experience was engaging and enjoyable from the very first moment to the very last. So much information about the history of the jail itself to prison life and reform through the ages. As a local I have visited the Jail on several occasions and the renovations to the ‘new’ experience is quite remarkable. Many congratulations to the management and thank you. I highly recommend a visit.

The answer is obvious – go and see for yourself!


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