Saturday, 6 February 2010

Carmarthen's Two Gaols

It was in 1774 that John Howard (the famous penal reformer) first visited Carmarthen and discovered the town boasted not one but two gaols. One was located in the remains of the castle while the other (Borough) gaol was at the East Gate, known as the Prisoners Gate, which was in the area between King Street and Nott Square.
It was in Prisoners Gate that the towns debtors were locked up and passers by could see baskets hanging from the barred windows with pleas coming from within, 'remember the poor debtors'.
Howard found that conditions in both gaols were the same and described them as being squalid and dilapidated. He also found both buildings were in poor conditions structurally, virtually no sanitation and accomodation being little more than small, damp, mud-floored cells with no drinking water. The condemned dungeon was bitterly cold and damp with water running down the walls.
Interestingly the gaolers lived far from the gaols and received no pay, existing on the discharge fee and other tolls extracted from prisoners or their families/friends.
Inmates were not allowed any furniture, not even a stool. Men, women and children were crowded together in cells but after rapes becoming increasingly worse the women and children were separated from the men but still doors between them remained unlocked.
The windows had no glass, with no fuel permitted even in the coldest months of winter and little food. It was worse if prisoners had no family to provide sustenance because then they had to depend on charity and the mercy of the 'Poor Law Guardians' for bread and medicines. Not even water was in reach to the miserable inmates and could only be obtained when the Head Gaoler was present. And this was not always possible because he lived away from Carmarthen and thus could not help even in emergency.
Gaolers had no scruples about oppressing those individuals who were entrusted with their mercy. Disease was common due to terrible sanitation and personal cleanliness never entered anyone's thoughts.
Segregation of class was unheard of and both old and young were herded together irrespective of their crime. Doctors only visited when absolutely necessary and care for spiritual welfare was never seen to.
These conditions were part of every gaol in the 18th century and Carmarthen was no exception. On John Howard's return to the town around 14 years later in 1788 he found to his horror that conditions had not improved in either gaol. If anything things had got worse and as a result he was able to report to Parliment: 'That the Justices, Gentlemen, Clergy and Freeholders of Carmarthenshire, together with the Mayor, Justices, Burgesses and inhabitants of Carmarthen begged that a Parlamentary Bill be brought in for the demolishing of the two gaols and that a new single gaol be built to serve the Borough and County.'
Plans were submitted to Parliment for the reconstruction of Carmarthen Gaol which were approved and authorised. With the building of the new gaol, the East Gate was closed. However it was still felt that the town needed a town gaol and in 1803 the Borough Order Book reported that on 14th January the Corporation subscribed £400 towards the construction of a new small town gaol (or 'Lock-Up'), known as 'The Roundhouse'. It was completed in 1810 on the 'Old Bowling Green', later the John Street and Cambrian Place area.
Debt were the primary offences but Carmarthen had a reputation for drunkenness and brawls were frequent. However it never appeared to have a high crime rate and even with poor housing conditions, murder, theft and house-breakings were uncommon. So it was debt that many were held for.
At the County Gaol, prisoners were worked on the tread wheel (which supplied water to the building), in stone breaking for the surrounding roads, brick cleaning, cooking, sewing, clog making, cleaning and mending. At the Borough Gaol there was very little employment. Debtors were left to waste their days away and it was considered inferior to the County Gaol. It was described as having four rooms and a yard but no day room. The average number of debtors was seven, but frequently there were between twelve and eighteen locked up at the same time.
As for the inmates of the County Gaol, there were eight cells with a day room and a yard for exercise. Women and children had the same but the yard had been converted into a garden for the gaoler.
Following the intervention of John Howard, work on the new Carmarthen Gaol began in 1789 and completed in 1792. John Nash recieved the commission as the chief architect to build the new gaol; he later became famous for his design of Buckingham Palace and Brighton Pavillion.

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