John Bodman’s Death and Ilchester Prison

John Bodman, after his death sentence. would have spent the next few weeks on the regulation diet of bread and water in the condemned cell, in shackles and  irons. The prison was notorious for the poor sanitation and frequent flooding. It would have been a very smelly place. Several prisoners died of Typhoid. John Bodman died on the 30th April and was hung with three others within the prison above the entrance gate at Ilchester.

Ilchester Gaol

The others were Joseph Turner (breaking open a house and stealing watches), John Pitts (Sheep stealing) and Anthony Slade (Burglary). They were the only ones hung at Ilchester that year. Up until 1811 they would have been taken away by cart and hung in a field known as Gallows Five Acres outside the prison. These public hangings were very popular and attracted large crowds and were sometimes called Hangfairs. However there was much commotion and they transferred the place to within the prison.

According the Chaplain’s notebook; No. 87, John Bodman born near Devizes, Wiltshire was executed at Ilchester (Gaol) April 30th 1817 aged 57 for assaulting James Watts on the Kings Highway with a loaded pistol with intent to rob him and murder him. Conducted himself with great propriety and seeming penitency.

In Ilchester Goal Records (Ref. Q/Gi14 /1General register – List of Prisoners executed. Folio 153, N0. 14. John Bodmin, no. in journal 2244, crime-feloniously, wilfully, maliciously and unlawfully assaulting a subject of his Majesty’s with intent to rob and murder him. Sentenced at

Taunton Assizes 3.4.1817 (Last remarks, etc) Admitted the justice of his sentence and died penitent. Remains buried at Ilchester.

Although records state that John Bodman was buried at Ilchester, the graveyard was full and the governor was begging for executed prisoners to be buried at the local church. The problem was solved by selling them to body snatchers for dissection! However, records for St. Mary Major, church at Ilchester show a burial there on the 30th April, the same day as the execution. So maybe John Bodman at least escaped the body snatchers!

Conditions at Ilchester Prison
At that time, Ilchester Goal was one of the worst prisons in England. Conditions thee were so bad that questions were raised in the House of Commons four years later .Ref. Hansard, HC Deb 11 April 1821 vol 5 cc156-63156 Mr. Alderman Wood presented a petition from James Hillier, a prisoner in Ilchester Gaol, complaining of his treatment there. The first was the irregular and inconvenient construction of the gaol.

W Bridle goaler of Ilchester Gaol

It was built near the river, and its foundation in some parts being below the bed of the river, it was damp and of course destructive to health.The; stone in some places was porous, and admitted the moisture, and sometimes the river overflowed its banks and inundated the gaol. In the winter before last such an event occurred, and the gaol was flooded to the depth of fourteen inches, during a day and a night, and while it continued in that state there was no access to the prison but by the hazardous conveyance of a boat. It was not matter of surprise that in a prison so circumstanced, the typhus fever should often rage; and at one time it was at such a height in the prison, that it was not considered safe to take the prisoners to the assizes, and the magistrates did not like to approach the gaol. There were often from 200  to 300 prisoners on a Sunday crowded into the chapel, though it could not conveniently contain 100, which was another cause of pestilential distempers. Two debtors had died there recently, and were left to breathe their last in the midst of the other prisoners. Another point was, that the wells were so near the river, that it often flowed into them, rendering the water foul; and the sewer for carrying off the soil and filth from the prison sometimes broke into the wells, and mixed its contents with the water. Some of that water had been brought to him in London, and it was in a most filthy state. He was unwilling at present to enter into the subject of the charges against the gaoler at large, but would touch upon them most briefly but the discipline in the prison was exceedingly severe, partly under the direction of the magistrates, and partly at the gaoler’s own discretion. But as to the gaoler’s own house, there were proofs to show that it was kept open to unseasonable hours, and sometimes all night, while it was a scene of riot, drunkenness, and gambling; for he could assure the House, that it was customary for persons to meet there to gamble, and even the names of many of the persons who were accustomed to frequent it, were mentioned to him. There was, among the rest, a clergyman of the neighbourhood, who, it would be proved, had lost 18 guineas there on one night. He understood he was since dead, and he hoped he was gone to a better world. These facts would be proved by some of the persons who had played there themselves. He could not help thinking, that a person, who, like the gaoler, so conducted himself, while he enforced discipline in other parts of the prison, by orders executed even to cruelty, ought not at least to escape inquiry, Ilchester prison governor, William Bridle was sacked from the job and fined £50, after an enquiry in 1821 Ref. A Peep into a Prison; or, The Inside of Ilchester Bastile (by H. Hunt) – free google book.

By 1832, Bidle  after running an entertainment business at Sydney Gardens, Bath  with circus tumblers, strongmen, a ballon ascent and four cosmorama illuminations on Gala Day in July 1824. However the business failed and he was made bankrupt and found himself back at Ilchester goal, but this time as a prisoner. The prison itself  closed around 1844 and was demolished. Bridle’s destitution continued, probably bought by his campaign against his dismissal. He was later imprisoned in a London goal in 1848.