A History of Bodmin

By Tim Lambert

Early Bodmin

Bodmin is an ancient trading place. It lies on a route that crosses Cornwall from North to South called the Saint’s Way. In the past, it was sometimes called the Mariner’s Way because merchants from Wales, Ireland, and Northern France often crossed Cornwall overland from the Camel to the Fowey rather than pass Lands End by sea.

During the Iron Age, the Celts built a hill fort, which is now known as Canyke Castle. Later the Romans built a fort to defend a strategic river crossing.

In the 6th century St Petroc, the patron saint of Cornwall, established a monastery at Padstow. In the 10th century, it moved to Bodmin. In the 12th century, it was changed to an Augustinian priory. The name of the town ‘Bodmin’ may mean ‘house of monks’. Certainly, for centuries the priory dominated the town. Henry VIII closed the priory in 1538 but the monk’s fishpond survives as Priory Pond.

However, at the time of the Domesday Book (1086), Bodmin was the only market town in Cornwall. During the Middle Ages Bodmin was an important market for wool and tin.

In the 13th century, Franciscan friars arrived in Bodmin. (They were called grey friars because of the color of their costumes). Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach.

The black death reached Bodmin in 1349 and devastated the population but the town soon recovered.

The Church of St Petroc was built in the years 1469-1472 with donations given by the townspeople. However, it was largely rebuilt in the 19th century. St Petroc’s is the largest parish church in Cornwall. Berry Tower is all that remains of a chapel that was erected in the 15th century.

Bodmin was at the centre of three Cornish rebellions. The first was the Cornish tax rebellion in the Summer of 1497. The rebels almost reached London before they were crushed. Then, in the Autumn of 1497, a man named Perkin Warbeck tried to usurp the throne from Henry VII. Warbeck was proclaimed King Richard IV in Bodmin. However, Henry Tudor had little difficulty crushing the uprising.

Finally, in 1549, Cornishmen rose in rebellion when the staunchly Protestant Edward VI tried to impose a new prayer book. Most Cornish people were still attached to the old Catholic religion and rose in rebellion but, once again, the king prevailed.

Following the failure of that rebellion, Bodmin returned to being a busy little market town.

Bodmin goal was built in 1776. Several executions were carried out there between the late 18th century and the early 20th century. The last hanging happened in 1909. Bodmin goal finally closed in 1922.

Moden Bodmin

At the time of the first census in 1801, Bodmin was a little town with a population of fewer than 2,000 people. However, the population grew rapidly in the first half of the 19th century. By 1851 it had more than doubled to over 4,300. Growth then slowed and it was only a little over 5,300 in 1901. Bodmin became less important once Truro was made a cathedral city.

St Lawrence’s Hospital was built as a Lunatic Asylum in 1820. The Shire Hall was built in 1837. Bodmin Market House was built in 1839 and a workhouse was built in Bodmin in 1842. Life inside was made as unpleasant as possible to discourage ‘idlers’.

A railway from Bodmin to Wadebridge opened in 1834. A railway from Bodmin Parkway to Bodmin opened in 1887.

In 1856 an obelisk was erected for a soldier, Sir Walter Raleigh Gilbert.

Lanhydrock was first built in the mid-17th century. However, most of the building was destroyed by fire in 1881 and had to be rebuilt.

The Public Rooms were built in 1891. The library in Bodmin was built in 1897. Meanwhile, the Turret Clock was erected in 1845. Asylum Clock was built in 1925.

H C McNeil the writer who created Bulldog Drummond was born in Bodmin in 1888 and East Cornwall Hospital was built in 1910. n Bodmin was a key town in the run-up to the D-Day landings in June 1944. Many servicemen (mostly from the USA) were stationed in the town. n St Mary’s Catholic Church opened in 1965.

During the 20th century, Bodmin became a thriving tourist destination. It is famous for its wells. These include Eye Well, whose waters were supposed to be good for diseases of the eye. Bodmin also has a military museum, the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry Museum, which dates from 1925. Shire Gallery opened in 2000.

During the 20th century, the population of Bodmin grew much larger. By 1951 the population of Bodmin was 6,000. In the second half of the 20th century, the population doubled.

Today Bodmin has a modern Industrial estate, Callywith Gate. In 2022 the population of Bodmin was about 15,000.

Bodmin Moor