Ruthin Gaol: Explore a Victorian Prison

Read more about Ruthin Gaol at

The beautiful Vale of Clwyd is an area of North Wales very few people know about. Most visitors dash through it horse-blinkered, on their way to the mountains or beaches further on. But on my recent trip with a group of bloggers it will probably go down in history as the first one where we all finished up in jail.

(Note: ‘gaol’ is pronounced ‘jail’, and is one of the few instances where English and American spellings are used interchangeably, usually without comment)

Our New Book

A ‘house of correction’ was first sited here in 1654, but it was described as being in a ‘miserable state’ in 1774, when magistrates called for a new prison to be built ‘in compassion for the unfortunate’. So, even as early as that, some attention was being paid to prison reform … predating the work of most major reformers by about 40 years.

The newer part of Ruthin Gaol, built in the 1860s was what’s described in Britain as the ‘Pentonville style’, named after a London prison of that name. It’s basically a multi-storey arrangement of cells, with a balcony outside, arranged around a central atrium. Most people will be familiar with the arrangement through movies … I was reminded of the British film ‘The Italian Job’, and it didn’t take much imagination to visualise the clashing of mugs as ‘Mr. Bridger’ made his triumphant way through the prison, to the plaudits of the inmates.

The building ceased to be used as a prison in 1916, when became a munitions factory. It’s now home to the Denbighshire Archives Service, which is located in the newer, ‘Pentonville’ part, which the public can see but not enter.

Read more about Ruthin Gaol at
The rest of the prison is preserved as a museum, to give visitors an idea of what life was like for prisoners in the olden days, There were facilities for all kinds of punishments for wrongdoers … solitary confinement cells; even a ‘blackout cell’, where an offender could be confined without light of any kind. A prisoner sentenced to ‘hard labour’ could be given nugatory, unproductive work, such as a treadmill, or even a simple box full of sand with a handle that had to be turned. The ease of operating could be altered by the warders simply by turning a screw. That’s why, to this day, prison officers are often referred to as ‘screws’

There’s even a condemned cell, although only one person was thought to have been executed here, William Hughes of Denbigh, was hanged on 17 February 1903 for the murder of his wife, his plea of insanity having failed.

Other exhibits show mock-ups of the kitchen, with samples of the prisoners’ fare. This would have been adequate, but bland and boring, the main items being bread and oatmeal porridge. Nowadays, this diet is much more varied, but, even today, someone serving a prison sentence is said, in England, to be ‘doing porridge’

Many people passed through Ruthin Gaol, but one of the most infamous was John Jones, who was a kleptomaniac and poacher who had spent more than half his 60 years in various prisons. He twice escaped from Ruthin Gaol, first on 30 November 1879 when he walked out of prison with three others while the staff were having supper — ٣ reward was offered for his capture, which happened a couple of months later.

Read more about Ruthin Gaol at
On 30 September 1913 he tunnelled out of his cell and used a rope made out of his bedding to scramble over the chapel roof and climb over the wall. He was caught the following week, after one of his pursuers shot him in the leg, Jones died of shock and blood loss.

It’s a fascinating glimpse into what conditions were like for wrongdoers in days gone by. Conditions are nothing like as harsh … and sentences are usually far less severe. Certainly, the threat of such a place would have been a great incentive to stay on the ‘straight and narrow’. Nevertheless, a good number passed through its doors. At least, they let us out again after an hour or so!

For more information to go Ruthin Gaol

Read more about Travel in England, Scotland, and Wales

Have a comment to share? Like us on Facebook - OffbeatTravelCom and post your comment.

Having written as a hobby for many years while serving in the Royal Air Force, Keith Kellett saw no reason to discontinue his hobby when he retired to a village in the south of England, near Stonehenge. With time on his hands, he produced more work, and found, to his surprise, it 'grew and grew' and was good enough to finance his other hobbies; travelling, photography and computers. He is trying hard to prevent it from becoming a full-time job.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

February 13, 2016

© 2016