Rhys Williams

Life inside Brecon jail

The prison cells were pretty bare with just basic furniture and utensils – a table, a water pitcher and a few shelves for storing essential crockery, wooden spoons, soap, comb, etc. Prisoners slept on a hammock (hung from hooks in the wall), but those serving hard labour had the hammocks replaced by solid boards.

The day at prison started at 6 o’clock in the morning, with hard labour prisoners put to work, mostly on deliberately pointless tasks. There were various kinds of dull, mind-numbing jobs. One was called "The Crank" where prisoner turned a large handle many thousand times a day (see picture on the right). The crank wheel could be tightened by the warders to make it harder to turn and this is the origin of the nickname for prison workers – the "screws".

Oakum-picking was another typical meaningless form of labour. It involved separating out the fibres in old tarred ropes, a job which could be very hard on the fingers. These various forms of punishment were abolished in 1898.

Another pointless exercise was the "treadmill", where prisoner simply ‘walked the wheel’ (see picture on the left). Sometimes this could be channelled  for a useful purpose, but for most of the time it simple served as prison punishment. At Brecon, in the first hour or so in the morning, the treadmill was actually used to pump water from a well to storage tanks in the roof.

The food for those on hard labour was intentionally monotonous with a daily allowance of eight ounces of bread with a pint of oatmeal for breakfast and supper and just bread for dinner – barely enough to sustain life. Clearly, with this diet coupled with the tedious daily tasks, life behind bars was not a particularly happy one.

As is the case today, magistrates were required by law to appoint (from their midst) representatives to visit prisons on a regular basis and to report on any problems or grievances. Every visit had to be recorded in the Visiting Magistrates’ Journal ― understandably perhaps, there were rarely many complaints. Hugh Bold (Rector of Llanfihangel Talyllyn and living at Broughrood Castle) inspected Brecon prison on the 7th August 1875 when Rhys Williams was serving the final couple of weeks of his sentence ; he wrote [16] :

Visited the prison and found everything in good order and the prisoners – 31 – all well and orderly.

The situation may have been ‘orderly’ but hardly ‘well’ under the conditions in existence at that time, particularly, for those serving hard labour. Further information about the Brecon goal may be found in Peter J.R. Goodall’s book entitled ‘Ring the Bell in the Goals of Brecon’ [17]


The life story of an old Elenydd shepherd . . . continuation from page 3


[15]  Peter J.R. Goodall, Ring the Bell in the Goals of Brecon, Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 2006, p 56

[16]  Powys County Archives, Brecon County Goal (Vol 3), Visiting Magistrate Journal, 7th August 1875

[17]  Peter J.R. Goodall, Ring the Bell in the Goals of Brecon, Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 2006

Life inside Brecon Goal for Rhys Williams must have been hard and uncompromising. In 1874, the County Times described the discipline within the prison as the most rigid . . . in the country with its ‘separate and silent system’ regime. The latter was, in essence, a regime of total silence, where prisoners were kept in separate cells with no contact with any other human being. This was, in effect, solitary confinement. According to the County Times, the idea behind all this was that prisoners could not ‘infect’ each other with criminal ways :

The distinguishing feature of the system . . . is to bring about the perfect isolation of prisoners so that, no one man in confinement should know anything about another. During our visit we heard no one word spoken by any prisoner, everything seemed to be stamped with mechanical air ; this latter is the most deterring or terrifying part of the punishment. Everything seemed to be done with the regularity and precision of clockwork, one terrible round of monotonous labour.

Prisoners were placed in such

 positions that it was impossible for them to talk to each other . . . It was in these conditions that prisoners both male and female went mad with many having to be restrained in the straight jacket . . . It was for this reason

 that the silent and separate

 system was (eventually)

 abolished [15]


Page 4

To read about Rhys Williams’ life after prison, go to page 5