Saturday 15 June 2013

Beastly Bodmin Jail - Sometimes They Don't Leave...

You don't expect such a small, attractive town to house such a massive prison, but that's the surprise that awaits you in the Cornish town of Bodmin.

It's been closed since 1927, but is by no means silent. Although much of it is derelict, its corridors still echo to the clanking of chains and the moans of long dead prisoners, seeking justice for their unjust incarceration...and execution.

Bodmin Jail's restoration is a work in progress and no visitor can envy the task. Built originally as a milestone in prison design, circa 1779, the jail started off its life as a prison for debtors, serious felons, and those guilty of less serious crimes. Males and females were strictly segregated and attempts were made to ensure a less harsh approach to incarceration. Running water was provided in courtyards and boilers were on hand for hot water. Ovens were installed to bake clothes (to kill vermin). There was also a chapel and an infirmary for the sick.

All of this led to its approval by the great 18th century penal reformer, John Howard, who visited in 1782 and proclaimed, 'By a spritied exertion, the gentlemen of this county have erected a monument of their humanity, and attention to health and morals of prisoners.'

From the mid nineteenth century, a heating and ventilation system ensured a constant temperature of 15 degrees centigrade was maintained throughout the year in all cells.

In addition, prisoners were put to productive work and paid out of the profits from the sales of the products they made. Sadly, this changed to the useless labour of the treadmill from 1824 onwards, until the Prison Act of 1898 saw a reversal of ideas. Useless labour was abolished and productive work was back in.

Between its opening and closure 148 years later, Bodmin underwent expansion and transformation. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, it took hundreds of prisoners,  when the population of the prison reached its peak. In 1887, part of it was converted into a Naval  prison.

But what of the prisoners themselves? 

Solitary confinement, hard labour, whipping and execution by hanging all took place within the walls of Bodmin Jail and there are some curious cases.

The great grandfather of writer, Nevil Shute, author of A Town Like Alice, the apocalyptic On The Beach and many others, was murdered by two brothers called William and James Lightfoot, whose public double hanging attracted a crowd of some 20,000 at noon on 13th April, 1840. They had battered Nevil Norway to death in order to rob him of the gold and silver coins he carried. Theirs was the only double hanging at Bodmin.

There are a number of stories of young women driven to desperate acts as a result of finding themselves on their own with an illegitimate child, the father having long run off. But one of the saddest, is the case of Selina Wadge, who had two children. She was at the lower end of the social scale, barely surviving in the workhouse, when she met and fell in love with a former soldier called James Westwood. According to her story, Westwood told her he would marry her but was not prepared to take on both children. The younger one, Harry, would have to be sacrificed. She drowned him by throwing him down a thirteen foot deep well, where he was found lying in three feet of water, with no signs of violence visible on his body.

She had been previously regarded as a good mother and many from the workhouse and elsewhere attested to her previous good character, but the jury found her guilty of child murder, with a recommendation for leniency. The judge wasn't prepared to grant it and she was sentenced to death by hanging.  By then, the measured drop had been introduced, which led to a swifter, more merciful death. Previously, the notorious 'short drop' had led to prisoners slowly strangling to death, taking up to twenty minutes or more.

Poor, desperate Selina was placed on suicide watch. By the day of her execution she was in a state of collapse. But she died 'without a struggle' on 15th August 1878. Her ghost is one of many said to haunt the place. She tries to reach out to small children and has been observed by them as a lady in a long dress who cries all the time.

An earlier and more primitive jail existed where Bodmin Jail stands today and it too saw its share of prisoners, some of whom were convicted for witchcraft. Most of these were, of course, women, who were guilty of nothing more than the ability to use herbs wisely to heal all manner of ailments. One such woman was Ann Jefferies, who was born in St Teath in 1626. She unfortunately came to the attention of the Justice of the Peace in Cornwall as a result of her claims that she had travelled to magical lands populated by little people, fairies and the like. She then claimed to have been given the power of clairvoyance and healing.
Incarcerated in Bodmin for witchcraft, she was sentenced to three months and was kept without food or water. This was then followed by a further three months incarceration without food and water, in the mayor's house. Amazingly, in both instances, she not only survived, she thrived, even gaining weight, and was released in astonishingly good health. She claimed it was because the fairies had kept her fed and watered. She went on to marry and move to Devon, but she kept very quiet about the fairies and the magical lands she had visited. After all, it wouldn't do to tempt fate twice, would it?

One day, I, or a friend of mine, will tell you the moving tale of Joan Wytte, the Fighting Fairy Woman of Bodmin who was also incarcerated here. You may have seen an image of her and a fleeting mention in my blog on Boscastle

But her story deserves a blog post on its own - and so it shall be. One day...

Find out more about Bodmin Jail  here

Bodmin Jail was the subject of a Most Haunted. I know I would be failing in my duty if I didn't leave you with an Yvette Fielding screamfest. Enjoy:

Monday 10 June 2013

Boscastle - Where Witches Are Friendly and Broomsticks Optional!

On August 16th 2004, a terrifying flood threatened to wipe Boscastle off the map. It is to the inhabitants' great credit that they showed indomitable spirit in the loving restoration that has seen the reincarnation of the village into the picturesque place we see today.

So sudden and violent was the torrent that whole buildings were swept away. People lost homes and businesses,150 had to be airlifted to safety. Yet, miraculously, only eight casualties were reported and, of these, the worst injury was a broken thumb. An estimated 100mm of rain fell in one hour, making it one of the worst floods in modern UK history.

One of the casualties was the fascinating Museum of Witchcraft, right by the harbour. Over two metres of sewage and water knocked down walls and engulfed the ground floor. Maybe the many charms and good spells it housed watched over it that day because, amazingly, most of the artefacts survived. While renovation took place, books and paintings were sent to museums in Truro and Falmouth to protect them from further damp.

Today, it stands as a unique record of witchcraft through the ages, in all its many forms and manifestations. Aleister Crowley and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn rub shoulders with Baphomet, the Green Man (found in many churches) and Sea Witchcraft. Here is coral, worn to ward off curses and illness while Mermaids' purses, washed up by the sea, were treasured and preserved as symbols of good luck. (They are actually egg sacks possibly containing a baby ray or dogfish).

A copy of Daemonologie - King James I's savage treatise on the evils of witchcraft - is displayed here, along with accounts of the torture and persecution of mostly innocent women that took place over centuries.

Here too are charms, witch's tools, fortune telling and divination, mandrakes and protection magic, including two mummified cats found walled up as a protection against rats and mice and/or evil spirits. As a cat lover, I was relieved to discover that these animals weren't sacrificed or walled up alive!

Then there's Joan, the Wise Woman, reminding us of the true origins of witchcraft. The Museum has created a tableau showing a benevolent old lady, her cat familiar on her lap, waiting for someone to tap on her door in need of her help. Jars and packets of herbs and healing remedies line a nearby wall, the efficacy and use of which would all have been known to someone like her.

This little museum is an education in itself, although for the serious student, there is also an extensive library. Some of the exhibits are quite scary, others quite sexual, so it really isn't suitable for young children, but for everyone else, it's a great experience, to be topped off by a wander down the harbour past the shallow, peaceful river. Hard to imagine how violent it became just nine years ago...

Nearby is the magnificence of Tintagel, steeped in Arthurian legend but, for me, Boscastle with its simple, understated beauty and charm, captivated me and kept me in its warm embrace the whole day.

 For more information, please visit Museum of Witchcraft

To watch footage of the devastating flood: