Ruthin Gaol is situated in the lovely and historical town of Ruthin in the county of Denbighshire, North Wales. The town itself is full of Georgian buildings (including a very historic Wetherspoons pub that was the former coaching inn), one of the oldest medieval houses in Wales, and a castle that’s now a hotel. Most of these are on the upper part of town on top of the hill, whereas the gaol is hidden at the bottom of the hill. The site consists of a few different buildings around a courtyard, some of the ones along the roadside have now been converted into office spaces. The part that is the museum that was once the main gaol space is quite large. A small part of it, the newer part, has been converted into the local archives, holding the records related to the gaol and its former inmates. All visitors are encouraged to view these documents if interested. As an archive enthusiast and archive assistant at my local archives in Derbyshire, I would have loved to do this if I hadn’t been on a family holiday with my parents at the time.
Parking for it is slightly tricky, but there is a nearby pay and display car park that is reasonably priced. This is located at the bottom of the hill but on the other side of the road after a little bridge located near the gaol. It is only a short walk and from this direction, you will walk past the outer buildings of the site that have since been turned into offices.
Upon entry, the simple entrance does hide what awaits the visitors. It doesn’t reveal the secrets of the history of the building and its inmates. However, the prices are very reasonable (see below).
The first room is the kitchen, where the visitor is introduced to some of the inmates by using their mugshot photographs. This was a great way to explain what you would later find out in much greater detail. It also had good interpretation of the minimal food the inmates would be fed on. In some subtle ways, it became obvious that really this daily regime of food, no matter how basic and plain, would probably be better than what most of the inmates would be able to find outside of the prison, due to them mainly coming from poor backgrounds.
The gaol, the original spelling of jail, started off as a house of correction where people convicted of vagrancy or were unemployed would be sent to work and was built in 1654. With the beginning of the idea of prisons as we now recognise them as places of punishment for crime, in the late 18th century, it became necessary to build a better building. This was the start of the building that stands today. Building work began in 1775 and by 1802 there were 4 cells for prisoners and 9 for debtors. These original cells were situated in the lower part of the prison. It is here that visitors learn more about some of the inmates, including John Jones, known as Coch Bach y Bala, who was a well-known poacher in the area. He had spent most of life in and out of prisons across Wales and escaped Ruthin twice. On his first escape in November 1879, a £5 reward, around £330 in today’s money, was given for his capture, which happened a month and a half later. The second attempt resulted in Jones tunnelling out of his cell in September 1913 and using a rope of bedsheets to escape. Within a week he was shot by a 19 year old and died of blood loss. The young man who shot him was charged with manslaughter but was never convicted when the charges were dropped. One of the oddest things found in the gaol has to be Jones’ replica coffin. It is there to interpret the infamous man’s rather fabulous funeral that was attended by lots of people interested in his criminal exploits and escapes.
The best part of the visit was in these older cells that told the hardship many of the inmates had to suffer during their lifetime, both inside and outside of the prison. The documents relating to some of them are placed on interpretation boards, quite obviously explaining that most of the former inmates were convicted of theft of things such as clothing and food, suggesting it was a crime of necessity. Again, mugshots are used to give faces to names. Intriguingly, statues of former inmates reside in some of the cells. These lifelike figures are adaptations from these mugshots. This even more than the mugshots, creates an idea of the types of conditions these people would have lived in during their time at the gaol. It creates emotions and greater understanding that this life of doing work that had no meaning, such as pulling apart rope and breaking rocks, among other tasks, were undertaken by real people.
By 1837 the prison had grown enough to hold 37 inmates but within 30 years it was deemed unsuitable as the role for the prison had changed from a small county jail to a HM Prison covering Denbighshire, Flintshire, and Merionethshire. For this reason, a 100 inmate addition was planned. This new 4 storey wing addition was built in the style of London’s Pentonville Prison. This part is where the separated gaol and archives meet with a glass wall between them. It has more modern style cells, seemingly a world away from the Victorian ones in the lower storey. The contrast is immediate as there is much more light and room to move about in. But here is told a darker and wider reaching story linked to prisons of old: that of capital punishment.
Unlike most gaols, Ruthin wasn’t known for many executions. The last one was William Hughes from Denbigh, who was hanged on 17 February 1903 for the murder of his wife. He had tried to plead insanity but it never stuck to his case. The largest cell is dedicated to the scene of the night before his execution. This makes for rather uncomfortable feelings on the visitor’s part, especially as there is no longer any capital punishment in the UK.
The gaol market themselves as ‘Ruthin gaol is the only purpose-built Pentonville style prison open to the public as a heritage attraction. People can spend time exploring its nooks and crannies and learn about life in the Victorian prison system. See how the prisoners lived their daily lives: what they ate, how they worked, and the punishments they suffered. Explore the cells including the punishment, 'dark' and condemned cell. Find out about the Welsh Houdini and William Hughes who was the last man to be hanged there.’ This description sums up nicely what you find there on a visit.
Whilst it was two years ago that I visited Ruthin, my visit there has always stuck in my mind because of it’s unusual and humanising aspect of the interpretation. The inmates wouldn’t have had that whilst they were alive there, especially as criminals in the Victorian times were deemed to be born with bad character, rather than being born of their circumstances. It’s no wonder that Ruthin Gaol has won the 2016, 2017 and 2018 Visit Wales Hidden Gem award.
Ruthin Gaol: https://www.denbighshire.gov.uk/en/visitor/places-to-visit/museums-and-historic-houses/ruthin-gaol.aspx
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Danielle Burton is a BA History and MA Public History and Heritage graduate from the University of Derby. She is an archive assistant at the Derbyshire Record Office and is involved in many voluntary projects with organisations such as English Heritage, Derby Theatre, Derby Museums and Churches Conservation Trust.
Whilst she has a wide interest in all things history which can be viewed on her blog, https://voyagerofhistory.wordpress.com/.
In September 2017, she also published an article in the Richard III Society’s publication, The Ricardian, on the Yorkist threat to Henry VII. Along the Wars of the Roses theme, she also presented an academic poster on Fifteenth Century powerhouses at the University of Sheffield Power House Conference in June 2018, adapted from undergraduate research. She also is currently researching and writing a book on Anthony Woodville, the brother of Elizabeth Woodville.