Ruthin Gaol has its foundations in the house of correction called Bridewell that was built at the bottom of Clwyd Street in 1654. John Howard, the prison reformer had travelled some 80000 miles throughout Europe in an effort to study the state of prisons elsewhere, and his work to led to major reforms in 1774, one of which abolished prisoners paying the wages of the jailers (which led to huge discrepancies in care and length of sentence), the other to an improvement in conditions. The justices of Denbighshire decided to build a new prison, on the site of the Bridewell House of Correction, and work on the new, Ruthin Gaol began in 1775.
In 1802, this new prison had four cells, and a further nine for debtors. In a Parliamentary Commissioners Report of 1834, mention was made of a curious system of treadmills with which the prisoners raised water for the use in the prison. The amount raised was measured with a gauge which was visible to members of the public, perhaps as a visible method of ensuring that the prisoners were working hard, and not sat about on their ‘ipads’.
The Prisons Act of 1865 changed much, and the establishment of the Pentonville Model was highly influential on prison building throughout Britain. Ruthin Gaol was extended in 1866-68, along these lines. In practice, this meant that prisoners were separated, and made to perform repetitive and boring manual labour. Prisoners would also attend chapel each and every day and be subjected to rigorous discipline and moral training. This was intended to create real repentance amongst prisoners, though many experts today believe it was the cause of considerable mental illness. It is not known how close Ruthin followed the Pentonville method, but at one point, at least 14% of prisoners at Pentonville Prison were suffering from serious mental disorders.
Ruthin Gaol Became HMP Ruthin in April 1878, and covered the old counties of Denbighshire, Flintshire and Merionethshire, after the closure of their own prisons. By 1891, the prison was seriously underused, incredible as that may seem today, with only 21 inmates. The prison was finally closed in 1916 with only 12 inmates and 13 staff present, the prisoners and staff being relocated to HMP Shrewsbury. The prison remained empty for some years, before being purchased by Denbighshire County Council in 1926, housing county records and the library.
The prison was used as a munitions factory during the Second World War. The Lang Pen Company of Hope Street in Liverpool (the premises are now a bistro called, ‘The Pen Factory’) were makers of high quality fountain pens, but relocated to Ruthin Gaol, probably due to the bombing of the city, and made radiators for planes and possibly tanks. Near enough 100 local people worked in the Prison at this point, but the business returned to Liverpool at the end of the War. The Prison remained in council hands and was extensively renovated, the empty Pentonville block becoming an impressive and popular tourist attraction.
While there have no doubt been many executions during the life of Ruthin Gaol, we have records of only one. The case of William Hughes is a story of brutality and tragedy, for just about everyone involved.
Hughes was a native of Denbigh, had joined the Cheshire Regiment at the age of 18. Whilst in the Army he had travelled far and wide, including India, and was known for being an excellent soldier. He returned in 1890 and left the service, becoming a collier in Wrexham and marrying his cousin, Jane Hannah Williams in 1892. By 1901, we know they had three children since tragically, one of the three died suddenly. There is nothing to explain the reasons for this death, but death was, of course not uncommon at this time. Perhaps disease, perhaps an accident, no one knows. The impact on the family was appalling, it seems, and William, could not cope. Within a few months, William had deserted his family, his wife and two remaining children.
His estranged wife could not find the means of supporting her remaining children, since it is clear that William was not in any way supporting them. She threw herself on the mercy of the Wrexham Board of Guardians, who asked the question as to the whereabouts of her husband. As a consequence, Williams Hughes was found and arrested on the grounds of ‘Family Desertion’, a criminal offence. He was imprisoned at Shrewsbury for 3 months in August 1902.
During that time his wife had gained employment as a housekeeper at the home of the widowed John Maddocks, a collier at Rhosddu Pit. Maddocks had three children of his own, and Mrs Hughes own children found their new life pleasurable. By all accounts, Maddocks was a thoughtful employer, and certainly Mrs Hughes' life had seemed to take a turn for the better.
Perhaps it was thus jealously that motivated William Hughes to do what he did on being released in November 1902, that caused him to purchase a shotgun and two cartridges. He travelled to Rhosddu colliery in search of Maddocks, but on finding that the lucky man was away on business, instead went looking for his wife at Maddocks’ house. As she opened the door, he shot her with both barrels, killing her instantly. As was reported in the Denbighshire Free Press at the time, ‘the gun had been fired at such close range that the clothing of the woman caught fire, and her body was charred’. William Hughes left the premises and gave himself up to the local police.
Tried at Ruthin in January 1903, William Hughes attempted to plead insanity, based on a claimed family predisposition. This was denied. In the event, it took the jury only 10 minutes to find him guilty, and the death penalty was laid upon him. What followed was a curious thing. While no one tried to justify his actions, and felt that he was justly convicted of what was considered an appalling act of violence, there was an outpouring of sympathy for his plight. Petitions for a repeal of the death penalty were signed by thousands, but none were accepted. William Hughes' conviction was upheld. He was executed on February 13th 1903 in the presence of six witnesses, including the High Sheriff of Denbighshire. The attendant warders were brought in from Walton Prison in Liverpool, since those at Ruthin had no experience of an execution.
The execution was of tremendous excitement to many of the people of Ruthin, many of whom crowded around the Gaol, as if being able to see through the walls. Others waited at railway station, expecting the arrival of the Billington Brothers, hangmen in the employ of the Government. Used to such antics, the brothers are said to have been ready for such behaviour, and came to Ruthin using little used lanes, while farcically, many townsfolk followed a pair of, surely deeply concerned businessmen who happened to alight the train at Ruthin and walk towards the prison, before walking by towards Llanfwrog to their appointment.
At the end of his life, William Hughes’ actions were reported on by the Denbighshire Free Press, an article of 21st February praising his courage, while condemning his actions.
‘He was a man of character, and great pity was expressed that such natural inborn courage and will power should have prompted to follow a wrong course.’
Upon a request to his brother, Hughes’ sister-in-law came to him soon before his execution with a photograph of his family in happier days. It is said that this was one of the last things he looked upon before his death. However, true sympathy should perhaps have been kept for the remaining two children, who having lost their mother (possibly in their presence), were placed in the workhouse and disappear from record. One perhaps should keep in mind their predicament, while reading of Hughes’ 'courage'.
John Jones ~ Coch Bach y Bala
That John Jones was a thief and a poacher is not to be doubted. By the time of his last incarceration in Ruthin Gaol in 1913, he was near enough sixty years old and had spent almost half of his life in the prisons in England and Wales for all manner of crimes. He became known as something of a celebrity, by way of being incorrigible, and for his daring attempts at escape.
He became known as the ‘Welsh Houdini’, largely it seems for having escaped from Ruthin Gaol on two separate occasions, both with a considerable amount of bravado. In 1879, he had managed to pick four separate locks and simply walked out of the jail, with others, as the warders were sitting down for supper. By the time he was recaptured three months later, his reputation was cemented. He made further attempts to escape Caernarvon Prison, but was unsuccessful. On being released from Broadmoor Prison after a lengthy prison sentence for the assault of 71 year old woman he returned to North Wales, but it was not long before he was caught thieving once again, and removed to Ruthin Gaol. He was known for defending himself at his trials, and sometimes at length. On one occasion the court was forced to sit till 3am to hear him out, and one cannot have felt that would have done him any good in the eyes of the magistrate.
His escape in 1913 has become something of a local legend. Jones tunneled out of his cell, a tactic that had proven unsuccessful at Caernarvon, and climbed the walls using his tied together bedclothes. Jones was once again on the run. A £5 reward was placed on him, and several days later he was discovered at Pwllglas by a student, Reginald Jones Bateman, the son of an unpopular landlord. On pleading for Jones to surrender, and being refused, Coed Bach y Bala was shot in the thigh and subsequently bled to death.
Such was the reputation of John Jones by this stage, and perhaps the unpopularity of the landlord whose son had pulled the trigger, that many were pleased that Reginald Bateman was charged with manslaughter, and disappointed at his acquittal in less than five minutes. Coed Bach y Bala was buried in St Eliden’s in Llanelidan after a well-attended funeral, of which postcards were made and sold. In 1963 a memorial was raised to him, and vandalised some time later.
Ruthin Gaol’s Ghosts
It is no surprise to find that in a place in which misery and despair were always close, several ghost stories have surfaced over the years. Williams Hughes, the only man executed at Ruthin Gaol you will remember, is said to haunt the condemned man’s cell, a favourite of the tourists. The cell is now the scene of Hughes’s last moments, with a commentary that begins on entry to the cell, a motion sensor the reason. On many occasions, during the evening and night, security guards and cleaners have heard in the corridors, the eerie sounds of the commentary from the cell, with no one near enough to trip the sensor. More worryingly, several guests visiting the condemned cell have reported being touched by a presence, more so women, it seems.
Another ghost said to haunt the Gaol, is William Keer. He was a guard at the Prison, who one day simply vanished during his rounds. It is supposed that the inmates did for him, since he was reputed to be a particularly unpleasant individual. The laughing of a young girl has also been reported on occasion, said by some, including mediums to be the spirit of a girl trapped at the Prison, although why she should be there no one can say.