Ruthin Gaol

So, after having a look around the small town of Ruthin, it was time to go to gaol (or is that jail?)

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Fortunately, it wasn’t going to be an extended stay as Ruthin Gaol, which is at the bottom of the hill on Clwyd street, is now a popular tourist attraction. There’s been a gaol here since 1654 – previously prisoners were kept in the Old Court House on the town square. The current building is a Pentonville style prison built in 1878 , although there are some remnants of the older building from 1775.

The Gaol ceased to be a prison in 1916 when the prisoners and guards were transferred to Shrewsbury. The County Council bought the buildings in 1926 and used part of them for offices, the county archives, and the town library. During the Second World War the buildings were used as a munitions factory. It opened as a museum in 2004.

The tour is self guided with one of those audio guide thingies that you point at electronic labels located at various points of interest. Rules of entry were quite clear.

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We started in the cook house, where we learned about the diet of the prisoners – not very appetising!

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Then it was down into the cells down in the basement. We were able to look inside various cells and learn about life in the prison.

It was bathtime once a week and the prisoners had to take their turn in the same bath water. Don’t think I’d like to have been at the back of the queue!

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The gaol originally housed both male and female offenders, jailed for various offences, some quite petty and sometimes simply due to poverty. Prisoners had to work to earn their keep – men picking oakum and women sewing an knitting. Prisoners may also have had to break up boulders or walk on the treadmill . If they were badly behaved they may be put in the punishment cell where they would be in the pitch black, or in a padded cell if they were violent. I think our new Home Secretary would approve. She’s probably working out how to re-introduce these practices (for those she doesn’t send to the noose!)

After looking round the basement we took the steps upstairs into the newer building.

The Prisons Act of 1865 set new standards for the design of prisons, which the old gaol, not surprisingly, didn’t meet, so a new four-storey wing was built in the style of London’s Pentonville Prison. It had a familiar look as we’d previously stayed in a similar style (but larger) prison in Oxford (not as inmates – it’s now a fancy hotel!).

A good part of the building is used by the Denbighshire County archives, but we were able to look inside a number of the cells.

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The cells were a little more spacious and the building was a lot more hygienic, with natural ventilation, a water supply in every cell and gas lighting.

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Life wasn’t exactly cushy, though. The food consisted of thin gruel, bread and scouse.

Capital punishment was still legal, but there was only one execution at Ruthin. William Hughes. a miner from Wrexham was hanged in the prison in 1903 having been convicted of the murder of his wife.

We also learned about a local Dick Turpin character (i.e. a criminal who won some public celebrity for his exploits) John Jones, also known as Coch Bach y Bala (the little redhead from Bala) who escaped three times, from Caernarfon and Ruthin Gaols. He escaped from Ruthin by burrowing through his cell wall and climbing down a rope made from his bedclothes! The authorities caught up with him after only 5 days when he was shot in the leg, and subsequently died of shock and haemorrhaging due to his injury.

We spent over an hour looking around the prison but, unlike Coch y Bala, we didn’t have to burrow our way out!

It was time to make our way back to the car for the drive over the Anglesey. Only about an hour away and the time spent in Ruthin meant that the traffic had died down so it was a relatively easy run down to St Asaph and then the along the A55 and over the bridge to Ynys Môn !

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