The walls came tumbling down: Cardiganshire and the 1865 Prison Act

We present another exclusive guest blog by Richard Ireland.


Richard W. Ireland is a legal historian who taught for many years at Aberystwyth University. He is the author of many articles and his books include ‘A Want of Order and Good Discipline’: Rules and Discretion in the Victorian Prison and ‘Land of White Gloves’?: A History of Crime and Punishment in Wales. He is a founding Committee Member of the Welsh Legal History Society and has made a number of appearances on television and radio.


I was asked to contribute another blog at a time when the COVID 19 virus had us all confined to our homes. Without access either to the Archives themselves or indeed to much of my own research material, I was a little daunted. It felt a little like being in solitary confinement (though I know enough about prisons to know that such a statement is unnecessarily hyperbolic). But my mind was turned to imprisonment and to the effect on the county of one Act of Parliament in particular.

The Prison Act of 1865 was a piece of legislation of major significance in the history of judicial punishment. The nineteenth century saw a revolution in the treatment of convicted criminals, the old public, corporal punishments giving way to the pre-eminence of the prison. The death penalty was in practice restricted from its previous extensive range to cases of murder only, the stocks, pillory and public whipping disappeared, the sentence of transportation was abolished in 1857. Now the sentence which was front and centre of the criminal justice system was to be one of imprisonment.

Prisons had been used against criminals from the middle ages, though not, theoretically at any rate, for the most serious of crimes, for which execution was the prescribed penalty. Prisons were kept in every county, locally administered, financed and staffed, a position which was extended to Wales after Henry VIII’s Union legislation. In addition to these County Gaols, the opening of a former royal palace, Bridewell, in 1556 formed the model for another tier of custodial establishments, which sometimes shared the name of the original building but were officially to become known as “Houses of Correction”. These confined and put to work the idle poor and petty criminals, poverty and criminality often being regarded as similar conditions. In 1609 the provision of a House of Correction became compulsory for every county. One was in due course constructed in Cardigan and another in Aberystwyth. The exact dates of the construction of these first quarters (I suspect the Cardigan one to be earlier) are unknown to me with my current limited stock of research resources, but only the naive would assume that the statute was immediately implemented anywhere in Cardiganshire. As we will see, the County was not above neglecting its legal obligations, particularly if they would cost money. The County Gaol, meanwhile, continued to operate in Cardigan. The Aberystwyth story is complicated by the fact that the House of Correction was repositioned at different times. In 1799, for example, it moved to a site on Great Darkgate Street (see map). The various locations are considered in that excellent history of the town, Born on a Perilous Rock by W.J. Lewis.

Aberystwyth_town_plan_4669578 (3)

The penal revolution of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw not only a greater use of imprisonment but also more intervention in their operations on the part of the central government. For serious offenders the state even opened its own institutions, the first being Millbank Penitentiary in 1816. More were to follow. But even the County Gaols were being touched by the desire for modernity and uniformity evidenced by the activities of central government. The Prison Inspectorate was formed in 1835 and local institutions, though still nominally independent, were under pressure to adhere to general standards and to operate more uniform regimes. Houses of Correction were becoming less distinct institutions from county prisons as time went on and the latter became more developed. Records of the Aberystwyth establishment are rare, but Dr Skarżyńska drew my attention to a few documents in the Roberts and Evans collection in the Archives, including an inventory of the material within the institution as reproduced here.

RE.PS.5.1 Aber House of Correction inventory r

Though brief and schematic as a document it provides interesting details of life in the institution. Alongside the religious literature and the handcuffs we find the record of the presence of seven spinning wheels. These would have been the objects of the compulsory labour of those who were confined. Spinning was so used in other such Welsh institutions, as at Forden and Montgomery. Although it bears no date the inventory possibly comes from 1845, as it is found in the same collection as another similar inventory relating to the Cardigan Gaol and House of Correction of that year. The failure within this latter document to differentiate between the two Cardigan institutions suggest that they were at that point combined within the same complex of buildings. This pattern was common in other towns where a County Gaol was maintained, as for example in neighbouring Carmarthen.

In 1865 the Prison Act sought to impose greater standards of uniformity on county institutions. Whereas previously persuasion had been tried, now there was recourse to compulsion. The Aberystwyth House of Correction had the dubious distinction of being one of the few establishments explicitly closed by the statute. The County Gaol was obliged, under pain of withdrawal of government financial support, to make certain changes by the act, which included a requirement for the provision of separate cells for prisoners, rather than the communal accommodation which had lingered in many gaols. The Inspector’s Reports on the institutions leading up to the 1865 Act would give an indication of the state of the buildings, but my own solitary confinement at present means that I have been unable to access them. Nonetheless, Cardiganshire’s authorities never went to the trouble or the expense of undertaking the work on the Gaol. They sat tight. An oversight of the 1865 Act was that it failed to make any provision for the fate of prisoners should an institution be closed. In 1877 the entire prison estate of England and Wales was brought under Home Office control. Carmarthenshire, which had dutifully rebuilt its own gaol after the 1865 Act, borrowing £15,000 to do so, found itself having to take in the prisoners from Cardiganshire, and also from Pembrokeshire. Only Cardigan’s House of Correction remained: its Gaol, once one of the very indicators of county status, was closed. It seems to me, and I am sure that it seemed to the authorities in Carmarthen, that they were themselves being penalised for their neighbours’ breaches of the law!

Richard W. Ireland

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