Ruthin Gaol: 17th century prison in North Wales is tons of fun

17-19th century mugshots at the Ruthin Gaols in WalesIf you’re travelling through northern Wales for a holiday or vacation, be sure to visit the Ruthin Gaol: a historical 17th century jail and correctional facility site – not to mention one of the most fascinating attractions in the area, if not the most unique.

While the gaol lacks the characteristic barred windows (except one), it makes up for in the authenticity of old mugshots and its centuries-old prison cells with props that are enough to send shivers down your spine.  Pair authenticity with a real-life 100-year-old Prison Break story and you’ve got yourself an exciting morning in North Wales.

Jail cell at Ruthin Gaol, WalesVisiting the Ruthin Goal in Northern Wales

Originally, the gaol was known as the House of Correction at Ruthin and is known to have existed as early as 1654. Here, the idle, poor, indebted, and unemployed would be housed to eliminate the growing vagrancy that was taking place throughout the country.  The inmates would work to earn their keep – an exercise that, in theory, would them reform their idle, disorderly ways.

Around the 1700’s, the House of Correction was used more as a place for detention.  As years passed, the living conditions and treatment of prisoners worsened until 1774 when acts of reform were introduced.  A year later, a new building was commissioned to serve as the county’s new gaol – the oldest to be found on the current site. 

Prison break! One of the most infamous prisoners held at the Ruthin Gaols was a man named John Jones, a kleptomaniac who spent more time in jail than out of jail during his lifetime – and is known to have “done time” at every single goal in North Wales and even a few in England.  Nicknamed the “Welsh Houdini,” he had escaped from prisons many times.  When he was at Ruthin, he escaped (for the second time) by making a hole in his cell wall and climbed out using bedclothes tied into a rope.  He was on the run for five days before he was shot in the leg and died soon after.  His death was so welcome that it was featured in the town newspaper.

Prisoners were put to work to keep them busy.  The first two months, they would work for nothing and later, would be paid a small wage.  Men would shred old ropes so they could be reused again or be set on the treadmill to pump water from the river for the prison.  For every 12,000 feet of treadmill, the men would receive an extra quarter-pound of bread.  Women would do washing, knitting, and sewing. 

Rules of prisoners at Ruthin Gaol, Wales

Silence is golden? In the 1865 Prison Act, the “silent system” was enforced.  Prisoners would spend all but one hour each day in their prison cell and forced to be silent.  During the hour out of their cells, they would wear “scotch cap” masks and be chained in a line while walking so they could not communicate or recognized other inmates.

Prison food is just as bad as you’d think.  Water was supplied in the cells while inmates were served oatmeal gruel, bread, and scouce (potato stew with a little meat) in their cells. Diets were prescribed based on the duration of an inmates’ sentence and for an inmates’ first month of confinement, he/she would receive only bread and gruel.

The prison closed in 1916 because it became too costly to run.  It was bought ten years later in 1926 by the county and converted for library and office use.  During the war, it became a munitions factory.  Today, half of the prison is a historic attraction while the other half is used for the city’s archives.

If you’re interested in making Welsh prison food

  • Scouce: 9 oz of beef cut in small pieces mixed with 90 lbs of potatoes
  • Gruel: for a quantity greater than 50 pints, use 14 oz of oatmeal for one pint – a typical ration for prisoners for breakfast and supper. 

Planning a trip to Wales or the United Kingdom? Check out’s Trip Builder where you can talk to local travel professionals who can offer tips, advice, pricing, and help you book your trip. 

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