Nestled in the historic town of Ruthin, Denbighshire lies an unexpected attraction drawing in visitors – the former Ruthin Gaol. With a colorful past as a prison for over 130 years, this imposing stone structure saw its share of infamous inmates and tragic events. Now renovated into a local history museum, the building continues to captivate the curiosity of all who enter.
From Prison to Museum: Ruthin Gaol’s Transformation
The first prison was established on the site in 1654 as a House of Correction or “Bridewell.” As ideas about incarceration changed over the next centuries, Ruthin Gaol underwent major reconstructions and expansions. The current structure largely dates from a 1875 rebuild in the “Pentonville” design used for Victorian era prisons. For the next century, Ruthin Gaol held inmates not only from the local Denbighshire region but also further afield.
Expanding to Hold More Prisoners
The original 1654 building could only accommodate a few prisoners. As philosophies on imprisonment evolved, facilities needed upgrading. Construction in 1775 enlarged capacity to over 30 cells. But further legal reforms set more rigorous standards, requiring a full modernization. The 1865 Prisons Act mandated prisons follow the model of London’s Pentonville. So in 1875, Ruthin Gaol saw the completion of a major £12,000 redevelopment to implement this more advanced “Pentonville style” layout.
Infamous Prisoners and Notorious Escapes
With expanded capacity for 100 prisoners by the late 1800s, Ruthin Gaol held inmates from across northern Wales. A few notorious individuals passed through the prison gates. One was John Jones, known by his nickname “Coch Bach y Bala.” A habitual thief and poacher, he served multiple sentences in Ruthin and eluded capture more than once after dramatic escapes.
On September 30, 1913, Jones made a bold breakout by tunneling through his cell wall into adjoining rooms. Using handcrafted ropes, he scaled the roof and cleared the perimeter wall. Despite a weeklong manhunt and gunshot wound from a watchman named Jones-Bateman, Coch Bach evaded rearrest. The injuries he sustained proved fatal however, costing him his life just days later.
Only One Execution in Ruthin Gaol History
In over 130 years operating as a jail, Ruthin saw only a single execution within its walls. In 1903, William Hughes faced the gallows after murdering his wife despite pleas of insanity. The rest of the facility’s history carried out punishments primarily through incarceration and hard labor. The last inmates left Ruthin Gaol in 1916 as the site ceased operations as an active prison.
Closed as a Prison, Ruthin Gaol Finds New Roles
After closing, Ruthin Gaol initially provided space for Council administrative offices and the county archives. During WWII, the buildings even briefly hosted munitions factories. After the war, the complex headquartered Denbighshire libraries for decades. While these new civic uses kept it actively occupied, the jail’s infrastructure deteriorated over time. Talk increased of preserving the site’s heritage.
New Life as a Museum
In 2004, plans were approved to renovate the Ruthin Gaol into an historical museum. Funding initiatives restored exterior stonework and upgraded interior spaces to accommodate exhibits. Since opening, the museum has displayed artifacts, records, photos and audiovisual displays capturing the jail’s history. Museum programming includes:
- Guided tours showcasing cells, isolation areas and staff quarters
- Regular events like ghost walks, crafts fairs & dinner theater
- Temporary exhibits on crime detection methods, inmate life, etc.
- Featured on several paranormal investigation television series
A Unique Piece of Ruthin’s Identity
While small in size, Ruthin Gaol looms large in the history and tourism profile of the town. As a remarkably intact Victorian-era correctional institution, the architecture itself draws interest from visitors. Its compelling backstory of notorious criminals, daring getaways and macabre executions fuels fascinating exhibit content for both children and adults alike. Though once abandoned and deteriorating, the revived museum is now rated as one of Ruthin’s top attractions. The prison-turned-tourist destination remains an iconic landmark showcasing a pivotal aspect of both local heritage and wider Victorian history.
The long journey of Ruthin Gaol from a 17th century House of Correction to its current incarnation as a historical museum displays the possibility to rediscover value in the most unexpected places. While its previous use punished lawbreakers from the past, the cultural treasure of this site now elicits reward and appreciation from modern visitors. As we uncover more forgotten gems hidden throughout towns and cities, what other prisons, asylums or workhouses might find renewed purpose giving insights into ages gone by? The unfolding story of Ruthin Gaol suggests more echoing old halls could yet reveal their rich potential with the right caretakers to guide their restoration.
When did Ruthin Gaol close as an operational prison? The last prisoners left Ruthin Gaol in 1916 when it ceased functioning as a working jail.
What notorious prisoner escaped twice from Ruthin Gaol? The prisoner Coch Bach y Bala (John Jones) broke out successfully in 1879 and 1913, evading recapture for days despite large manhunts and rewards offered.
How many inmates were executed at Ruthin Gaol? Over a period of about 130 years as a prison, only one execution took place – convict William Hughes hanged in 1903 for murdering his wife.
What TV shows featured Ruthin Gaol? Due to alleged paranormal activity reported there, several ghost hunting programs came to investigate, including Most Haunted in one 2005 episode.
When did Ruthin Gaol reopen as a museum? After being unused or partially repurposed for decades, major renovations restored the Ruthin Gaol to open as a historical museum in 2004.