Old Caernarfon jail


Link to Welsh translationOld Caernarfon jail

This jail, in Gothic style, was built in stages from 1868 onwards on the site of a 1793 prison and nearby houses. The main prison block runs north-south, behind the frontage on Shirehall Street. The police station and courts were close by.

The medieval town walls behind the prison include the Hanging Tower – where convicts were executed.

Mayor Llewelyn Turner argued in May 1867 that the new jail should be on the outskirts of town, as the old site was cramped and overlooked by the castle. He was backed by a doctor who said cholera had raged at the jail in the 1830s. They were too late – builders had been invited early that month to bid for the first contract to demolish part of the old jail and build anew on the site.

Photo of Caernarfon jail frontage in 1950
The jail's frontage in 1950, courtesy of the RCAHMW and its Coflein website

In 1869 Caernarfon jail’s daily average occupancy was 36 prisoners. The cost per head was less than £26 per year, below the Welsh average of over £33. Caernarfon jail made over £84 profit from sales of goods made by prisoners in 1869.

Francis Ashby escaped from the jail in 1893 while awaiting trial for burgling the home of a Holyhead Presbyterian minister. In a Caernarfon solicitor’s house, he exchanged his prison clothes for a respectable suit. He was arrested later in Colchester, Essex, for multiple thefts. His police photograph enabled Holyhead officers to confirm Ashby’s identity by post.

By 1899 Stephen Jones of Bethesda had spent 42 prison terms in Caernarfon jail, and clocked up 72 convictions in various Glamorgan courts!

The prison governor’s 1904-1905 annual report noted a reduction in women prisoners. In the last quarter of the year, the jail had received only 15 females. “This, I think, may be fairly attributed to the influence of the Welsh Revival,” wrote the governor, referring to the recent upsurge in Christian worship.

The prison closed in 1921. The building became offices for the county council, based in the neighbouring County Hall, in 1930. Some prison features, including cells, remain intact. The old photo, courtesy of the Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments of Wales, shows the jail’s frontage in 1950. It is from the National Monuments Record of Wales.

The tower and archway over the site’s vehicular entrance display the coat of arms of Gwynedd County Council, formed in 1974. The council was replaced in 1996 by the unitary authority Gwynedd Council, which has its headquarters here.

With thanks to Richard Jones, of Caernarfon Civic Society

Postcode: LL55 1SH    View Location Map

Copies of the old photo and other images are available from the RCAHMW. Contact: nmr.wales@rcahmw.gov.uk