Ruthin Gaol
Ruthin Gaol

A stone's throw from historic Ruthin Castle stands a historic building of a different sort; Ruthin Gaol, built in the Victorian period as a purpose-built gaol. The Victorian prison was built on the site of an earlier prison built in 1654.

The Victorian gaol at Ruthin was built on the Pentonville model; that is, set up so that prisoners were kept separate, often isolated, and made to perform tedious, repetitive manual labour all day. Prisoners also had to attend church services daily, but could see or communicate with each other during services.

Just inside the main visitor entrance is the kitchen area. From there a passage leads to the main prison area, where cells have been set up to show different aspects of prison life.

Some of the cells have life-sized waxwork figures of prisoners, which are a bit startling until you realise they aren't real. One cell was set aside for 'dark punishment', which means that when the door was closed the prisoner was left in complete darkness.

The work machine
The work machine -
'Crank Labour'

Another cell is set up with a machine which has no purpose whatever; a large box with a handle stands on a pedestal, and prisoners could be forced to stand and turn the handle all day long.

Adult prisoners had to turn the crank 14,480 times per day (1,800 revolutions per hour), while juveniles had it easier; they 'only' had to perform 12,000 crank revolutions per day. The machine had an automatic revolution counter built in, though guards could reset the counter at any time, and inmates might be forced to do a certain number of cranks before earning a meal.

The crank only went one direction, and could be made more difficult if the wardens adjusted the setting on a friction wheel. This was done by turning a screw, and is the origin of the slang for a gaoler being called a 'screw'.

Another cell is set up with a bath, which is pretty basic to say the least. Another cell shows where condemned prisoners were given the last rites before being led to their execution.

There were fascinating displays on the real-life prisoners who were sent to Ruthin. Among these was Coch Bach Y Bala, known as The Welsh Houdini for his amazing escapes from the law. On one occasion he picked 4 sets of locks and walked out the front door of the Gaol while his guards were sitting down to dinner.

Large parts of the gaol building are used by the Denbighshire County Archives and are not open to the public, but plenty of the remainder is, and my goodness, its impressive. Or, depressive if you've got a sensitive disposition! To see the conditions in which the prisoners were kept is sobering, to say the least.

It took about 90 minutes to thoroughly explore the gaol and it was time well spent; Ruthin Gaol really does give a fascinating glimpse into our Victorian past. It's not always a pleasant glimpse, but that's not meant to put you off; I found it absorbing. I certainly would not have wanted to be incarcerated there, and that was part of the intention of the Victorian prison builders!

The bath
The prison bath
The guard chamber
The guard chamber
The gaol kitchen
The gaol kitchen

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About Ruthin Gaol
Address: 46 Clwyd Street, Ruthin, Denbighshire, Wales, LL15 1HP
Attraction Type: Museum
Location: There is a paid car park just off the A525, a short stroll away.
Website: Ruthin Gaol
Location map
OS: SJ121582
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express


Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low to exceptional) on historic interest

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Garthgynan Garden - 2.2 miles (Garden) Heritage Rating

Llanrhaeadr, St Dyfnog's Church and Holy Well - 4.2 miles (Historic Church) Heritage Rating

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