Cornwall and Capital Punishment: Hanging around on holiday.

Jamaica Inn Sign Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Jamaica Inn Sign Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I write this having just returned from a wonderful week visiting my family in Cornwall  (images and tips are in my distractions section). Given the change of surroundings, I thought it only fair to reflect this in the blog, so this week I have turned my lens onto capital punishment in Kernow. Although I cannot begin to claim any expertise, I was well positioned for this as my family live in Lostwithiel, home to an ancient debtors prison and just a stones throw from perhaps the most famous criminal landscape in the South West, Bodmin Moor. So, what I thought I’d do is give a few snippets of crimes that were punished by death and show how executions changed over time.

Much like the North East, little has been written about execution in the South West of England, a fantastic scholar called Pete King being the most notable exception. Of the early work that has been done, what has been asserted about the region is that it took a dim view of laws from London and as such was very reluctant in its application of the death sentence. Consequently, In an era widely known as that of the Bloody Code (owing to the vast amount of crimes that carried the death penalty) Cornwall saw relatively few executions. In this respect it is similar to the North East.

The site of Cornish executions in the c19th was Bodmin Moor. The Moor itself is perhaps best known as the backdrop for Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn and the fact that for years a ‘beast’ has allegedly resided on it, occasionally appearing in grainy photos that look suspiciously like a blurry photo of a cat. It is also renowned for the mists that can descend on it, seemingly without warning, leaving riders and walkers shrouded, disoriented and ripe pickings for lurking highwaymen. Longstanding readers of the blog will remember descriptions of Gateshead Fell in the c18th, which was a similarly fear stalked landscape and the site of Robert Hazlett’s gibbet.

One such execution that took place on the Moor (Bodmin Down) was that of Grace Smith in 1755. Smith lived in Southill and was tried at Bodmin assizes for the murder of her infant. She was found guilty and sentenced to death, followed by anatomization. The newspaper reports on the trial and execution note that Smith was married but hadn’t lived with her husband since the marriage. It was thought the child was sired by another, a “married man from the Parish of Callington”, as such newspapers speculated that Smith had committed her crime to “hide the shame.” She was executed on the 11th August and the Oxford Journal carried the following report.

Last Monday, about ten o’clock in the forenoon, was executed on Bodmin Down, in that County, pursuant to her sentence, pass’d on her last Friday at Bodmin Assizes, Grace Smith, of Southill.

Oxford Journal – August 18th, 1755

Bodmin Moor was also the site of crimes that were eventually punished by execution. In 1844, Charlotte Dymon, an 18 year old domestic servant, was murdered by her lover and fellow servant Matthew Weeks. Both worked on the edge of Bodmin Moor on a farm owned by an elderly widow. Weeks had grown jealous of Dymon’s flirtatious relationship with a man named Thomas Prout, the nephew of the farm’s owner. In a jealous rage, Weeks took Dymon out on the Moor and murdered her, burying her body at Roughtor Ford.

Roughtor Ford on Bodmin Moor. Image courtesy of
Roughtor Ford on Bodmin Moor. Image courtesy of

The crime sent shock waves through the local community and funds were raised to have a permanent memorial placed on the Moor in memory of Dymond. The inscription on it (not pictured) reads

“This monument is erected by public subscription in memory of Charlotte Dymond who was murdered here by Matthew Weeks on Sunday April 14 1844.

Memorial to Charlotte Dymond on Bodmin Moor. Image courtesy of
Memorial to Charlotte Dymond on Bodmin Moor. Image courtesy of

In 1802, executions were moved from the Moor to outside Bodmin Prison, as was becoming increasingly common across the country by the late c18th and early c19th (Newcastle being a notable exception – the move not being made till 1850). One notable execution here was that of James Eddy, hung in 1827 for Highway Robbery. Eddy was hung in front of a “vast concourse of people” and showed “uncommon fortitude” and even “shook hands with several persons he recognised amongst the crowd.” On the gallows he gave a long and detailed speech about his relative guilt concluding,

“My earthly judge thought me guilty but he could not see my breast. But I forgive him and I hope in a few minutes to be in the presence of the Judge of all, who knows I am innocent – God Bless you all.”

The conclusion of James Eddy’s last dying speech on the gallows as reported in the Globe, Tuesday 24 April, 1827

Some died in silence, as was the case at the first execution outside Bodmin Gaol on September 2nd, 1802  Convicted of burglary at Bodmin Assizes, William Lee and John Van Stone were launched into eternity on September 1st 1802.

They made no confession, and spoke not a word. 

Royal Cornwall GazetteSaturday 04 September 1802

The pair were the first to suffer on at this new site of punishment and on Cornwall’s first drop gallows. At the same assizes a John Lashbrooke was also sentenced to death for “ravishing Alice Ask, an infant of only 12 years.” However Lashbrooke was later reprieved.

I’ll end with a particularly grim story involving Bodmin, but one that is quite far outside of my period. It has a particular pertinence as I made a very rare appearance at church on Sunday in Bodmin, where my father was preaching.  Interestingly, given the story that follows, parts of the service were from the original Latin Mass. I apologise in advance to my father for any glaring liturgical errors (I am not famed in the family for my religious devotion or biblical knowledge, having spent a decade of Sundays in bed – more likely at my girlfriend’s flower shop these days!).

In the January of 1549 parliament passed the Act of Uniformity, which saw the introduction of the Book Of Common Prayer (the first English translation of the complete forms of church service). This was a continuation of a sustained move away from Rome, kick started by Henry VIII’s establishment of the Church of England (I always find it ironic that our state church was effectively founded out of the desire for a divorce). There had been growing resentment against this break from Rome in many pockets of the country, but none more so than Devon and Cornwall. The Act of Uniformity was the straw that broke the camels back and a popular uprising ensued in those counties. Eventually, the uprising was ruthlessly crushed and one of its many victims was the Mayor of Bodmin, one Nicholas Bowyer. His execution and the lead up to it, as reported in the Newgate Calendar, reads like one of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

In the reign of King Edward VI. a rebellion happened on account of the alteration of religion, and the rebels being defeated, Sir William Kingston, Provost Marshal, was cruel enough to make a jest of men in misery, by virtue of his office. One Bowyer, Mayor of Bodmin, having been among the rebels, not willingly, but by constraint, Sir William sent him word, he would dine with him on a certain day, for whom the mayor provided an hospitable entertainment. A little before dinner the provost took the mayor aside, and whispered in his ear, that there was to be an execution that afternoon, and ordered him to have a gallows set up over against his own door. The mayor obeyed his command; and after dinner the provost took the mayor by the hand, and desired him to lead him to the place of execution, which, when he saw, he asked him, “If he thought the gallows was strong enough?” “Yes,” says the mayor. “Well then,” replied Sir William, “get up and try, for it is provided for you!” “I hope, Sir,” answered the mayor, “you are not in earnest?” “By my troth,” says the provost, “there is no remedy, for you have been a busy rebel.” And accordingly, without delay, or liberty to make a defence, the mayor was executed.

THE MAYOR OF BODMIN, IN CORNWALL – Barbarously Executed in the Reign of Edward VI. Taken from the Newgate Calender 




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Having travelled far and wide in my week away I thought I’d give you some recommendations if you are ever planning a visit to Cornwall. Images for all in the slideshow

Food: Rick Stein’s Fish and Chips – the perfect end to a day and situated in the lovely little Town of Padstow (Padstein to the locals who hate Rick Stein).

Gardens: There are too many to mention but this trip i was tipped off about a new one, thanks Carolyn, called Tremenheere. It is a sculpture garden near Penzance and is a beautiful site that will hopefully grow into a rival to the amazing Yorkshire Sculpture Park in years to come. Also, I visited Trebah (one for families this), not quite wild enough for me, but there are some beautiful sections and it leads down to a beach that, in 1944 “was used as an embarkation point for a regiment of 7,500 of the 29th US Infantry Division for the assault landing on Omaha beach, part of the D -Day Landings.”¹

Other Points of Interest:

St Michael’s Mount is a beautiful tidal island near Marazion. It is a stunning place and near Tremenheere Gardens if you fancy a day out. Even more interestingly, I found out in the course of researching this blog, it was also a site where loyalists holed up during the Prayer Book Rebellion (unsucessfully i might add).

Prindl Pottery – This is a fabulous pottery just outside Lostwithiel, on the road to Bodmin. We visit every time we’re down and invariably leave with something as the workmanship is remarkable. Chris Prindl is the potter and he was trained in Japan and it shows. I highly recommend a visit, the building alone (an old forge) is a thing of beauty.

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Having spent a rare week with my family I thought they had to get their own section in the blog. PhDs are only possible with a strong support network around you and I have been particularly lucky with mine. My mother is a professional fact checker and proofreader and, in a former life an editor for a national magazine, so about 10 minutes after every blog goes live I get a polite call reminding me of the various grammatical errors I have invariably made. My dad is also a great writer and thinker, having spent 25 years writing a weekly 1,000 word sermon and being part of the editing team for the aforementioned magazine. Throughout my PhD they have both been immensely helpful in checking drafts of my work and given their, sometimes brutally honest, opinion. So, I would like to say thanks very much for all your help, I couldn’t do it without you. I struggled for a picture here and then remembered my girlfriend took this great shot of me and my father together at St Michael’s Mount of all places! Also, seeing as most of my happy memories are tied up with listening to my dad’s record collection, I thought I’d include a suitable song from one of the many great albums in his collection. Enjoy.

Like Father Like Son.
Like Father Like Son.

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