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ISSUE No. 10. June 1987



by Rowland C. Williams B.A., D.A.A. Assistant Archivist (Ruthin), Clwyd County Council

The function of a gaol in the middle ages was to provide a secure place in which prisoners would await their trial and consequent punishments. For that purpose the castle and the old manor court house would have been used and punishments carried out in a prominent public place, such as St. Peter's Square, on market or fair days.

A prison was not built at 46 Clwyd Street until 1654. The building then put up by the magistrates was a house of correction, not a gaol, and was a belated response to an Act of 1576 meant to control the increasing number of vagrants and unemployed poor roaming the countryside. Such people, as the Act intended, were to be locked-up in houses of correction and put to work on tasks set by the county magistrates. However, the existence of such a secure building and changes in government legislation quickly saw the house of correction, or bridewell, as it was often termed, used as a county gaol in which vagrants rubbed shoulders with thieves.

A plan of 'the old gaol' and dated 1783 was found recently amongst the records of the county court of quarter sessions. It shows a small, rectangular, two storey building occupying a corner of the present site, between Clwyd Street and the river, and facing eastwards. The building was probably the 1654 house of correction, consisting of a kitchen, a day-room and three bedrooms. During the day, the prisoners, regardless of sex, age or crime were together, and prevented from escape by the liberal use of leg irons, manacles and chains.

The second half of the eighteenth century witnessed more and more agitation for the reform of prisons. Increasingly, they were seen as dirty, disease-ridden and immoral places, a disproportionate punishment to their inmates and a threat to the moral and physical health of the communities they served.
New legislation forced the county magistrates to improve their county gaol and in 1774 they decided to build a new prison adjacent to the old house of correction. The design and construction of this building was entrusted to Joseph Turner of Hawarden, the county surveyor. He met possible contractors and suppliers at the White Lion (now the Castle Hotel) in Ruthin in May, 1774 and in the following January submitted an enlarged plan to include in a 'cross-building', further cells and a chapel. While the cross-building has not survived, the central five bays which formed the core of the prison, stand today, looking onto Clwyd Street. James Nield, in his "Inquiry into Welsh Prisons, 1778”, described the gaol in the following terms: '...petty offenders are sent to the adjoining prison (the 1654 building?). No proper separation of the sexes. The gaoler has no view from a window into his prison. The debtors pay no chamber rent, and have the county allowance of 2 shillings a week, yet do not keep their rooms clean.' Nield also noted that the prisoners, including women, wore leg irons at the discretion of the gaol keeper. At the time of his visit in March, 1788, there were 12 debtors, 2 felons and 7 convicts imprisoned in the gaol.

The County magistrates continued to enlarge and improve the gaol buildings after 1775. The old building was completely refurbished in 1783-4 and later a well or pump was excavated in the gaol yard under what is now the branch library. In 1803, the frontage to the town side of the 1775 block, was extended. The work was again entrusted to Joseph Turner, but this time Turner encountered problems. During the winter of 1802-3, when the additions to the gaol had reached the level of the upper floor, the brick lining of the walls collapsed. The magistrates considered the workmanship to have been negligent and sought outside advice from, amongst others, Thomas Telford, county surveyor of Shropshire. Telford was unable to help so the magistrates turned to Thomas Harrison, a Chester architect. The cause of the problem was apparently the quality of the bricks used. Turner had used clay from nearby Cae Ddol, but this had been riddled with small stones. The stone-mason, Evan Evans of Ruthin, had complained of its unsuitability but had been ordered by Turner's foreman to remove the small stones where possible and still use the clay. No doubt Turner had hoped for extra profit for himself by using cheap material, but this had rebounded on him. He was removed from the project and had to pay a financial penalty.

Building work continued apace on the gaol site after 1803 and by 1831 it contained a separate prison for women, quarters for the gaol keeper sited in the central block adjoining Clwyd Street, a lock-up for short-term custody, separate cells (as distinct from communal day rooms), a chapel, two infirmaries, kitchens, washrooms, work and exercise areas. The tread-wheel, installed in 1832, occupied a site close to the machine-house located under the former reference library, and would have pumped water from the well in the yard. The maximum use of the tread-wheel was for a prisoner to tread 12,000 feet a day, equal to climbing Snowdon three times.

Until 1865, each county had a measure of independence in how it chose to implement the limited and often general pieces of government legislation. However, that independence was lost by the Prison Act of 1865, which sought to impose uniformity by setting-out exact standards for the prison buildings, the routine of prison life, and the rules by which prisons were run. Denbighshire's response to the new Act was to build a new male block in 1861 based on the government's model prison at Pentonville, London, though on a smaller scale. The male block, or 'A' Hall as it was termed, comprised four floors, with three upper floors of cells arranged around the hollow centre. The ground floor or basement housed punishment cells, workshops and storage rooms. Of the punishment cells, three were termed 'dark', that is, no light whatsoever entered them and could only be entered through a system of double doors, which would have closed off most sound as well.

Control of prisons passed out of the hands of local government on 1st April, 1878 when the county gaol became H.M. Prison, Ruthin. The new administrators, the Prison Commissioners, built a new reception area on the site of the old kitchens in front of the 1866 block, but that was to be the last part to be built. By the 1880s, some prisoners sentenced within the county were being sent to Caernarfon and Shrewsbury prisons and in 1916, the prison finally closed its gates, its remaining staff transferring to Shrewsbury gaol. In 1926, Denbighshire County Council acquired the site from the Home Office and since that date a number of local government departments have occupied parts of the gaol buildings. Today, the old gaol is home to the Ruthin branch of the Clwyd Records Office and the Glyndwr Area library.


Ruthin School through the centuries has provided many old boys who have contributed to the social evolution of Britain. One such man, the son of the Rev. Peter Williams, Rector of Llansannan, was Sir Charles James Watkin Williams, born in 1828.

By modern standards his academic achievements were breathtaking. After leaving Ruthin School he studied medicine at University College, London, and became house surgeon under Erikson who later became President of the Royal College of Surgeons. Apparently, surgery did not give the young Williams the satisfaction he sought, for he went on to study Law at Oxford and the Inner Temple. He was called to the Bar in 1854, so by the age of 26 he had qualified as a surgeon and barrister.

To change the scene completely, in the House of Commons in 1867 Disraeli manoeuvred through the House another Reform Bill which increased the franchise throughout the country. The effect on the Denbigh Borough constituency was to increase the number of people eligible to vote from 934 to 2785. This was made-up as follows:
Wrexham 1,256
Denbigh   824
Ruthin      520
Holt        185
Total      2,785

With a new and greater electoral role, the Liberals approached this brilliant local man, Charles James Watkin Williams, to contest the seat. It may be remembered in those days that the Members of Parliament were not paid a salary so the candidate chosen had to be able to support himself financially and Williams had the most lucrative junior practice in London. He accepted the offer with alacrity and took-up residence at Plas Draw in Llangynhafal under the shadow of the Clwydian hills. In the census returns of 1871, it may be found that he had a considerable household there. Besides his wife and three children, there was a cook, butler, two housemaids, a nurse and a coachman.

Traditionally, the Parliamentary seats throughout Britain were the prerogative of the landowning gentry irrespective of whether they belonged to Whig or Tory camps. Opposing Williams was the sitting member, Townshend Mainwaring. He was a landowner of some 10,686 acres based on Galltfaenan, although he did not seem over-popular with his fellow landowners. In a letter to the Wrexham Telegraph of 14th March, 1857, Frederick West of Ruthin Castle had written: "Mr Mainwaring is of such unsettled and uncertain politics as to preclude me supporting him.' It was reported in the Wrexham Advertiser of the 4th August, 1866, that Mainwaring had a "haughty tone and empty content". These were not attributes which were likely to endear him to the poorer newly enfranchised electors.
Although Williams was not a nonconformist, it may be remembered that he was the son of an Anglican Rector. He did manage to identify himself with the poorer voters, particularly those in Wrexham. In his election address, Williams emphasised that Mainwaring could not stand on his personal popularity alone, because the people of the Denbigh Boroughs had formed different political opinions on such questions as church rates, franchise extension and the dis-establishment of the Irish Church. He also stressed that Wales had been misrepresented in Parliament.

There was in Ruthin a strong Liberal tradition, for in the bitterly contested election of 1857, James Maurice of Plas Tirion, Ruthin, the Liberal candidate, had only just been defeated by the same Townshend Mainwaring. In Denbigh, of course, there was the radical campaigner, Thomas Gee, and therefore besides the newly created voters there was in the constituency an unfulfilled radical desire.

The role of Thomas Gee was vital throughout the campaign for through the columns of "Baner ac Amser Cymru" he helped to integrate the strong thread of nonconformity within Welsh society with the Anglican radicalism of Williams. Gee was further aided in this work by his leading reporter "Gohebydd" (John Griffith) who was also a fellow member of the Denbigh Reform Association.

In the cold November of 1868, the result was declared  - Williams won by a huge majority of 373. This may seem minute by modern standards with universal suffrage, but it was the largest majority for this seat in the whole of the 19th century. It was the opening of the door to modern politics. Previously, whether Whig or Tory, the Member had belonged to the landowning elites and now for the first time, a radical professional man had been elected to represent the Borough.

He served his constituents well. It is said he attended more divisions in the House of Commons than any other North Wales M.P. In May, 1870, he moved a resolution in the House for the disestablishment of the Welsh Church, but this was opposed by Gladstone and was defeated. In spite of all the Parliamentary involvement, he managed to take the Silk in 1872, becoming a Q.C.

There was another General Election in 1874 and he again defeated Mainwaring, but this time only narrowly by 30 votes. By the time of the 1880 election, he had decided to part company with Denbigh and stand for the seat at Caernarvon. Here, he was opposed by the influence of Sholto Douglas-Penant of Penrhyn Castle, but he was again successful, defeating him by 1,097 votes. With his election, he left Plas Draw and moved to Dolfriog in Beddgelert.
The story draws rapidly to an end. In 1880 he was made a judge of the Supreme Court of Judicature and died suddenly in 1884.

References: Bygones, June 1884, November, 1880; Dictionary of National Biography; Jane Morgan, "Denbighshire's Annus Mirabilis", Welsh History Review NO:1, 1974.


In a list of books once printed and sold by a Stuart bookseller on Old London Bridge, the following item was included -
'A WARNING FOR ALL MURDERERS - A most rare, strange and most wonderfull accident, which by God's just Judgement was brought to pass, not far from Ruthin in Wales, and shown upon three most wicked persons, who had secretly and cunningly murdered a young gentleman named David Williams.'
'To the tune of Wigmares Gilliard. No date. A ballard in two parts with two cuts.'

No information appears to be available on this ballad. Is there any reader that can shed any light on this ballad or tune ? The murder must have been of some importance at the time to attract the attention of ballad writers, printers and booksellers in Old London!

No reply was forthcoming from a similar query included in the 'Cheshire Sheaf' for 1883.

ANOTHER MURDER MYSTERY is to be found in the current Burial Register of St. Peter's Church, Ruthin 1:
'Entry NO: 106, 15th Decenber, 1818 –  Patrick McAvoy (A murdered stranger),             No abode. 22 years or thereabouts.'
Interesting questions: how and where was he murdered ? Where is his grave? Was the murderer(s) ever brought to justice ? But where did he come from?





NO: 22 is a listed building, a 19th century remodelling of an older fabric. In 1876, it was occupied by a David Williams, butcher. Owned by the Castle Estate and sold in 1913 to its occupier, Mr Thomas Jacks, where the family remained for many years. Mr J.L. Jacks is now a retired painter and decorator, and a well-known and highly respected long-serving member of the choir of St. Peter's Church.

NO. 23: Our earliest recorded use of the premises is by the Nantclwyd Hall Lime and Coal Company, about which there is little knowledge, although it may be surmised that it sprang from the arrival of the railway in 1862. A Mr Lewis Thomas managed the company in 1876 and a Mr David Jones was secretary in 1883. The company issued tokens and one was found recently in Prion (‘Y Bedol', December, 1986). This too was in the ownership of the Castle Estate until 1913, when the occupier was the Rev. John Pierce. By that time the office of the Nantclwyd Hall Lime and Coal Company had moved to Market Street, nearer the railway station.

NO: 24 & 26 These too are listed and date at least from the late 16th or early 17th century or even from the 15th century. The building was described by the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales as a three unit house with central back-to-back chimney; adapted, presumably in the last century, into two dwellings; half-timbered.

This was part of the Castle Estate until 1913, when the occupiers were Messrs R. and P. Roberts and Mr Morris Roberts. In the 1930s, the lower part of the premises were occupied as a private residence, and the upper bay was a small shoe shop. The Trade Directories tell us that Mr John Jones was a boot and shoe maker here in 1876. In 1883, Mr Owen Owens, painter, was in occupation with William Roberts, joiner. In the 1960s, the shop was occupied by Mr Emlyn Roberts, the watch and clock maker and jeweller. That business passed to Mr Gareth Lynch in 1966, who has recently very successfully restored the whole premises, including the house, thereby considerably enhancing the character and appearance of the street. No doubt there are other properties in the street of similar construction and appearance hidden behind 19th century facades.

NO. 25 has doubtless served many different owners and occupiers, but the Trade Directories tell us that Miss Mary Thomas, milliner, dress and straw bonnet maker, was in occupation from 1856 to least until 1883. The property was sold as part of the Castle Estate in 1913, when the occupier was Mr G.W. Shierson.

NOs. 28 and 30 ‘Eagles Stores’ and the ‘Eagles’ Inn have functioned in their present capacities for very many years. The premises are listed by the Welsh Office, and are said to be of the early 19th century or the late eighteenth.

In 1883, the directories list Mr George Price as basket maker and grocer at NO. 30 while John Jones plied his craft as boot and shoe maker.
In 1829, the Innkeeper was one Robert Pierce and there were new innkeepers in 1835, 1844, 1850, 1856 and in 1883, when the property was in the ownership of one John Goodwin, late of Rusholme, Manchester, who claimed to be 'free from brewers; the most noted house in Ruthin.’
An advertisement appeared in the local paper of 1849 inviting 'active, judicious, and respectable married couples, possessing a moderate competency' to apply for the tenancy of this ‘much frequented House'. The accommodation offered was: ‘one front and one back kitchen, two parlours, a Bar, two first rate cellars, a Brewhouse, six bedrooms and Dining Room; a pump of good water, a Malthouse and Maltkiln together with a Gig-house, Stables, Cow-house, Piggeries and a garden etc. Located in the centre of the horse fair, candidates could not 'fail to command a thriving custom and a comfortable livelihood. Respectable persons only will be treated with on reasonable terms on application personally or by letter prepaid'.

NO. 29, The ‘Talbot’ Inn first appeared in the licensing register in 1798. By 1850, Mr Roger Williams, plumber and glazier, was in occupation until 1876, when his place was taken by Mr John Price, baker and flour dealer. Seven years later, Mr R. Roberts was advertising the following services: 'saddle, collar, harness maker and upholsterer; riding accessories; horses carefully fitted.' This was part of the Castle Estate in 1913 when Mr Roberts was still in occupation. The Roberts eventually moved to Rhyl, where Mrs Roberts kept a boarding house. Now Mr Edwin Jones the Butcher's shop.



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