Anglesey’s Beaumaris Gaol.

By John Grainger

 

Beaumaris was established from the small village of Llanfaes, an important port on the shore of the eastern entrance to the Menai Strait. The English king, Edward I, also known as Edward Longshanks because of his height, moved the Welsh population from the town a mile to the south at Beaumaris.

He added the castle there in 1295 following the Magod ap Llywelyn uprising. Work ended in 1330 with the work being incomplete, long after the king had died.

As far as can be established, no formal executions took place at the castle, although there were many such deaths as a result of uprisings and retaliation, not least that of Roger de Pulesdan, the unpopular and extortionate sheriff of Anglesey, who was hanged. The hanging was the work of two Anglesey men, Goronwy, the rhingyll of Twrcelyn and Trahaearn ap Bleddyn of the commote of Talybolion. Both Goronwy and Trahaearn were later executed and their lands in Bodewyrd and Dronwy escheated to the crown.

Prior to the Beaumaris Gaol being erected, Gallows Point was the location for the only five recorded public hangings there. Shipbuilding was a major industry in Beaumaris, this was centred on Gallows Point — a nearby spit of land extending into the Menai Strait about a mile west of the town. Gallows Point had originally been called "Osmund's Eyre" but was renamed when the town gallows were erected there — along with a "Dead House" for the corpses of criminals dispatched in public executions. See photo of Gallows Point as it is today.

Gallows Point executions: April 1744 – Joseph Jones – for sacrilege, April 1744 – Robert Ellis – for housebreaking, May 1747 – John Hoult – for highway robbery, 17 September 1785 – John Williams – for sheep stealing. Notes for John Williams: on 11 July 1785 in the parish of Llanbedrgoch stole 2 ewes the property of Robert Pritchard, value 8/-, 1 ewe the property of John Thomas, value 4/-, and 1 lamb the property of Robert Pritchard and John Thomas, value 2/- (WALES 4/255/1). At the Hilary Quarter Sessions for Anglesey, 10 January 1786, the Treasurer was ordered to "pay the Revd Maurice Lewis, Clerk, 3 guineas for his call and attendance in the county gaol on John Williams who was afterwards executed" (QS Order Book). Hanged September. May 1786 – John Ellis – for stealing in a dwelling house

Beaumaris Gaol was closed in 1878, but it remains largely unaltered and is now (2013) a museum open to visitors, with around 30,000 visiting each year. Each visitor is given an audible aid to direct and inform, the speaker claiming to be one Richard Rowlands, the last person to be hanged there!

The jail was designed by Joseph Hansom, designer of the Hansom cab and was built in 1829. It was expanded in 1867 to accommodate approximately 30 inmates. The building then became a police station until the 1950s when it became, oddly, a children's clinic and lastly a museum in 1974. During World War Two the town's air raid siren was located in the gaol and was kept in operation during the Cold War in case of nuclear attacks. The gaol's chapel is not original to the building and the pews and pulpit were brought from a chapel being renovated elsewhere on the island. It is possible to tell that the pews are not the original ones as the numbering sequence is out of order and they are not fixed to the floor.

The prison regime may appear brutal to a modern visitor, but in its day it was seen as humane improvement on earlier gaols. Even so, methods of keeping criminals in check included chains, whippings and isolation in a dark cell for up to three days. It has one of the last working treadmills in Britain. The treadmill at Beaumaris is unusual in that it pumped water to the top of the building for use in the cells, meaning that the prisoners were not forced to work for no reason.

There were numerous felons sentenced to death at the gaol but only two hangings took place at Beaumaris. The rest were given hard labour, usually breaking rocks for various periods of time, or transported to Australia. The first execution was that of William Griffith, in 1830, for the attempted murder of his first wife. He reacted badly to the news that he was to hang and on the morning of his execution, barricaded himself inside the cell. The door was eventually forced open and he was half dragged and half carried to the gallows. The second and final execution was that of Richard Rowlands in 1862, having been found guilty of murdering his father in law. He protested his innocence right up to the final moment and legend has it that he cursed the church clock from the gallows, saying that if he were innocent the four faces of the nearby church clock would never show the same time. Indeed for a while they did not, although this has been attributed to the wind buffeting the southern face.

Both men were buried in within the walls of the gaol in a lime pit, but the exact location of their burial is unknown.

The condemned cell (photo) is on the top floor of the gaol and the prisoner was escorted along the corridor for about ten paces before going through a door at the end. This door was normally permanently closed and latched on the outside, a 15-foot drop being on the other side. Directly opposite, a distance of about eight yards, in the gaol’s surrounding wall, was an identical door, also normally latched shut.
Photo of the last walk and of the door in the outside wall through which the condemned emerged onto the gallows. Close up of door.

On execution day both doors were opened and a bridge placed connecting the two openings, allowing the prisoner and escort access to the gallows and noose which dangled over the street. The metal rivets which held the gallows in place, along with the two doors which the condemned man passed through can still be seen from the street outside the gaol walls. It is a rare location where a prisoner was hanged without first climbing steps.  Drawing of the gallows and bridge and photo of the narrow street where the witnesses stood.

Throughout its time as a gaol there was only one instance of a prisoner escaping. The prisoner, John Morris, escaped on 7 January 1859, using rope he had stolen whilst working with it. Although he broke his leg whilst escaping he did make it out of the town, before being recaptured a few days later in a nearby wood.

 

William Griffith – Newborough, Anglesey, 15th of September 1830.

William Griffith was the first man to be hanged in the new Beaumaris prison. He was condemned to death for the attempted murder of his wife, Mary Griffith.

He had been separated from his wife but one night, the 2nd of April 1830 he went to the house in Newborough where she resided with her daughter. He must have become violent as his daughter ran out to summon a neighbour’s help. When they returned to the house Griffith had left but his wife was found with her head beneath the fire grate covered with the hot coals. He had also tried to strangle her and force a stick down her throat. She was very severely burned and wounded, but still alive.

After his trial, where he was found guilty, he was taken to the new prison, and his wife visited him. Frequent visitors were also the clergy, The Revd H.D. Owen the Gaol’s Chaplain and the Revd Mr Hughes of Beaumaris. All their efforts were in vain however, as he ‘died as he had lived, without any manifestation of Christian feeling or even of manly firmness’.

While he was incarcerated he was observed to be mentally disturbed and on the morning of his execution, while he had been left alone for a few minutes, he tore up the wooden bench on which his bed was placed and used it to jam the door of his cell shut. This gave him but little time, as the door was at length forced open and he was secured. Uttering the most agonising cries and groans he continued to struggle and attacked the executioner until he was pinioned and brought to the gallows.

An immense crowd had gathered to watch Griffith die, many believing that the death penalty should not have been passed since he had not actually killed his wife. Local men would not work on the scaffold, so labour was brought in from Liverpool. He was hanged on the 15th of September 1830 by Samuel Burrows from Chester.

The execution cost a total of £61.12.0 (£61.60).

Richard RowlandsLlanfairfaethiu, Anglesey, 4th of April 1862.


Rowlands was born the son of a farmer in the village of Llanrhyddlad, north-west Anglesey. His father was Roland Williams and his mother was Sydna Williams. He had three brothers. Richard took after his maternal grandfather and became the area’s ‘bad boy’. In 1842 he married Emma Owens of Llanbadrig. Then he disappears from history. He emerges in 1861 as a farm labourer in Camog Bach, Llanrhyddlad, where he is described as ‘widower’.

 

Everyone was a bit puzzled when 45-year-old Richard Rowlands married a widow but continued to sleep alone at his parents’ home. What was the purpose of that, they asked?

 

In 1861 he married Elinor, after making her pregnant sometime in the February of that year. Elinor, herself a widow with four children, went to live on her father’s farm, Garnedd in Llanfaethiu.

                                                           

Elinor’s father Richard Williams (70 years of age) had denied Rowlands access to Garnedd but he relented and allowed him to visit occasionally, on the condition that he and Elinor moved out by All Saints (November 1st.) At the time Rowlands had no permanent job, but followed the threshing machine from farm to farm. There was no evidence of quarrelling between father and son-in-law; however, this was more likely because they avoided each other.

It was soon clear. In November 1861, four months after the probably unconsummated marriage, Rowlands waylaid his 70-year-old father-in-law, farmer Richard Williams, as the old man was on his way home after an evening out. He was found by Elinor’s son, Richard, who found him dead with his feet in a ditch at the bottom of the field. His head had been battered in, possibly with a hammer and suspicion soon fell on Rowlands.


“He must have had a fit on his way home and never made it,” Rowlands told police. Then, naively, he added: “I don’t think he was killed with a hammer.”

 

He was charged with murder and at Anglesey Assizes the prosecution deduced that the motive was to gain control of his father-in-law’s Llanfairfaethiu, Anglesey, farm, through his new wife.

 

The Trial, Saturday, 22nd of March 1862.

Presiding was His Lordship Sir Henry Keating, prosecuting was Mr McIntyre and Mr Trevor Parkin, defending was Mr Morgan Lloyd. These were prominent barristers on the North Wales Circuit. There was a significant difference between the evidence given at the inquest and that given at the trial in terms of what people saw and times etc. One thing the police needed to do was to place Rowlands incontrovertibly at the crime scene at about the time the murder was thought to have taken place. This they did in an extremely clumsy and unconvincing way, using the witness William Jones, Brynteg to say he had seen a spot of blood on the prisoner’s ‘whisker’. The problem being that Rowlands had returned home on the night of the murder without a speck of blood on him; this according to the main witnesses.

The jury retired and considered its verdict. Ellen Hughes’ evidence weighed strongly with them i.e. that
Rowlands had been out about the time that the murder was committed. They asked to hear her evidence again. They finally brought in a unanimous verdict of ‘Guilty’ and Rowlands was sentenced to death by hanging. The execution was set for Friday, 4th April.

In the condemned cell.

All the while
Rowlands had protested his innocence and now with ministers of the Gospel urging him daily to confess ‘for the sake of the jury’ as one minister let the cat out of the bag (the jury was made up of prominent landowners and gentry) he still held steadfast in his protestations.

His wife, his son by his first marriage and his brothers came to see him on the Wednesday before he was hanged. Elinor fainted and his son was so distressed he had to be taken out.

However, during his time in the condemned cell,
Rowlands was able to convince the ministers of his innocence, even though a petition for clemency prepared by them was declined.

Execution.

At 8 o’clock on the morning of the 4th of April 1862,
Rowlands was hanged in public by William Calcraft outside Beaumaris Gaol. It was said that his death was instantaneous and was witnessed by a huge crowd. He never confessed to the crime. Popular legend says that Rowlands cursed the church clock, saying it would never show the right time. This is probably untrue, because he said nothing on the scaffold, having been persuaded not to do so by the ministers. It does, however, show that popular legend judges him innocent.

Comments.

After the execution of Richard Rowlands (also known as Dic Rolant), chaos broke out in the Press, some maintaining his innocence others agreeing with the verdict. What is obvious, however, was that many people were worried that a man could be found guilty and hanged on such flimsy evidence, all of it circumstantial.

Rowlandslegend lives on. The consensus of opinion today is that he was innocent, but that does not mean to say that he actually was. To a jury guilt must be proven beyond reasonable doubt. Today Rowlands’ innocence will have to be proved beyond the shadow of a doubt for it to be convincing.

 

Back to Contents Page