FOR an idyllic rural retreat renowned for its flowers, it is one of life’s little quirks that the history of Usk is also the history of incarceration.

In 1842 a House of Correction opened in the picturesque town. A little over 26 years later its guarded walls became known as the Monmouthshire County Gaol.

Although home to hardened villains and career criminals many of Usk’s inmates were simply tragic figures who were down on their luck and struggling to survive in a world and time where being poor was seen as a punishable offence.

Pre 17th century it is estimated that about 80 percent of all crimes went unreported. The victims were reluctant to report them for fear that the offender would be dealt with savagely or sentenced to death by an unforgiving and stony-faced court.

If unlucky enough to find themselves in the grim confines of Usk Gaol, prisoners had little else to occupy their time except for hard labour. When they weren’t breaking rocks in the hot sun or futilely wasting their time untwisting rope they were vacantly killing time on the treadmill or endlessly turning the arm of the crank machine and wondering where it all went wrong. Each prisoner was forced to complete a certain amount of revolutions per day and prison wardens would often tighten the screw to increase the resistance and make the convict’s lie harder. Hence how ’screw’ became the slang term for a prison warden.

Either way, you slice and dice it the futile, and forsaken existence of prison life was hardly rehabilitative and the punishment often far exceeded the crime.

Prisons or houses of correction were once known as Bridewells. The name stems from King Henry VIII’s pleasure Palace of Bridewell. Once used to entertain foreign monarchs, by 1550 Bridewell had become a poor house which also doubled up as a makeshift gaol.

Menial tasks and punishment went hand in hand in Bridewell and it was a handy place to keep all of society’s undesirables under one roof. The trend soon caught on elsewhere in the UK.

A Bridewell-type institution in Usk was first recorded in a 1630 Town Survey.

Up until the early 1780s, prisoners were left to contemplate their confinement in the prolonged twilight of bone-idle wretchedness. This all changed when some resourceful entrepreneur types realised there was money to be made in other people’s misery and put the convicts to work for the good of the country.

A prisoner
(Public Domain)

Smashing stones to smithereens and Oakum picking were just a couple of the opportunities on offer that prisoners could use to better themselves. Oakum picking, in particular, was a vile and loathsome chore that could paralyze a prisoner’s mind quicker than watching paint dry. It involved picking away at large disused ropes until individual fibres were picked clean and the picker’s hand was red raw. The fibres would be cleaned and used for mattress filling or mixed with tar and used as a material to water-proof boats.

Gwent Records Office still has a copy of Usk’s House of Correction Keepers Book for 1821-1834. It is a revealing read and shows you didn’t have to be particularly bad to end up in that dark satanic mill, just unlucky.

For example, one poor unfortunate from Llanfoist called Mary Howard was sentenced to hard labour for a year for the crime of giving birth to a child outside of wedlock.

Vandals were also given short shrift. William Morgan was banged up for a month simply because he vented his “unlawful and malicious” rage upon “one chestnut tree and one gooseberry tree in a certain garden.”

Being idle and disorderly could land you in hot water too. Llangibby’s Richard Powell also spent a month under lock and key for not providing for his family.

And just imagine the indignity of being given three months for stealing three cabbages. That’s a month per vegetable. James Williams was left to stew on that whilst going stir-crazy in 1827.

Even a spot of angling could lead to uncharted waters. In 1822 William Matthews was carted away for a two-month stint after “having used a hook for the destruction of salmon in the River Usk.”

Usk Prison
(Tindle News )

Times were hard and hard times were even harder, but it was about to get worse in Monmouthshire with the building of a new gaol which was run according to an enforced regime of complete silence and separation known as the Pentonville Model.

The original Pentonville prison was built in North London in 1842. Based on American penitentiaries, the Islington ‘nick’ soon became the gold standard for all other prisons in the UK, including the freshly built grey granite edifice in Usk.

Although life was grim in the old Bridewells, it was a bearable hell where you could converse and pass the time with your fellows whilst doing penance in the belly of the beast. The Pentonville system on the other hand took a keep them quiet and keep them separated approach.

Prisoners were not allowed to speak or mingle with one another because it was believed that it would lead to a decline in their spiritual and moral well-being. Mingling with their muckers was also considered detrimental to their rehabilitation.

Solitary isolation in dark, dank, and vermin-infested cells was considered the way forward. Naturally, forcing humans not to do what they do best, namely, communicate, converse, and cooperate, led to minds being lost, moral compasses being broken, and a blanket erosion of a person’s finer sensibilities. In other words, complete mental and moral deterioration held sway.

Even when spending their days plodding wearily on the soul-crippling and mind-paralyzing treadmill, prisoners were not allowed to talk to one another to relieve the tedium. All they had to look forward to at the end of another ‘working day’ was a bowl of gruel and some stale bread tossed into their cell, much like you would toss a dog a bone before the door banged shut and the sun set on another cycle of misery and deprivation.

Life inside a prison
(Public Domain )

A former prisoner commented, “Unless one has experienced it, one can have no conception of the effect of close confinement upon the nervous system. People who have not tried it are apt to say, ‘Well, it’s only for 28 days.’ But if they were to try what it was like having nothing but white-washed walls to stare at day after day, and neither book nor employment to take one’s thoughts, as it were, out of one’s self, I don’t think they would say anything more about it being ‘only 28 days’."

For those few who tried to keep their heads up and buck the system, their daring disobedience was met with the stinging lash and harrowing humiliation of the cat-o-nine tails. When facing the discipline of the whip, even the most hardened convict would tend to scream in pain by the third lash and fall into moaning like a soul abandoned and forsaken by the seventh. Before the ninth lash came down most men were rendered still and silent. However, the sweet relief of blessed unconsciousness was denied them as every time they passed out a bucket of ice water was thrown into their face so they could continue to feel every inch of their drawn-out degradation. Eventually, there was little skin left to flay, and the hand that carried out the flogging was stilled and given extra coins for services rendered.

As the beaten and broken prisoner was carried back to his cell, fellow convicts would bow their heads and turn away, remembering the cries and screams that had filled these unforgiving corridors earlier.

Although most prisoners made it through their captivity to liberation, their time behind bars had a lasting effect. Yet freedom offered little relief when faced with the poverty, strife, and lack of opportunities that life in the wider world usually entailed. A vicious circle of petty crime and incarceration would play out in ever-decreasing circles.

For the most part, the general public thought the prisoners got what the prisoners deserved, yet, as was the case with the Bridewells, these weren’t hardened criminals who were being exposed to the sharp end of man’s inhumanity to man. They were everyday people down on their luck.

A woman prisoner
(Public Domain )

Take the case of Joanna Betts. On February 24, 1871, the Monmouthshire Merlin reported that Joanna’s two boys, William Clements Betts (15) and James Betts (11) were charged with stealing a lump of coal from a railway wagon at Newport’s Cork Wharf. The two lads were given a day behind bars to dwell on their mistakes and twelve strokes apiece with a birch rod. Here’s where justice gets rough to non-existent. Johnna was sentenced to 12 months of hard labour simply because the boys were her responsibility. A few months after her release the 35-year-old died after falling down the stairs.

And then there’s poor old Sarah Hone. As a 12-year-old, Sarah got her first taste of hard labour at Usk prison for the crime of stealing a scarf. A short while later she was sentenced to five years at reformatory school for sleeping in someone’s outside toilet merely to escape her drunk parents’ mistreatment of her. Her ‘rehabilitation’ led to her dying in a Monmouthshire workhouse in 1899.

The list goes on. Jane Ann White was given three months of hard labour for stealing some rashers of bacon. Randolph Pearcey got six months for stealing six pieces of wood. Gardener George Pegler stole a pair of brass candlesticks and was handed three years for his brassnecked cheek. Sailor Olaf Hansen stole a mouth organ and was given a sentence to the tune of seven days. Ragman Will Wiltshire blew a horn in the street and was silenced for seven days for disturbing the peace, and barman Sam Winkworth found himself on the wrong end of a three-year stint after forging a postal order.

Usk’s most famous prisoner was Viscountess Rhondda - then Margaret Haig Thomas who would later marry Sir Humphrey Mackworth and become Lady Mackworth. This woman of gentle breeding found herself in the brutal confines of Usk prison after becoming involved with Emiline Pankhurst and the Suffragette Movement. On July 15, 1913, she was found guilty of placing a bomb in a letterbox at Newport. As a wealthy woman, she was given the choice denied to most of the convicted - pay a fine or be banged up for a month. Being a high-minded sort, Lady Mackworth stuck to her guns and chose imprisonment. After six days of refusing food and coming face to face with the stark reality of prison life, her wretched predicament proved too much for her husband Sir Humphrey, who forked out for the fine of £20 and got her released.

In 1858 a report stated that Usk prison housed a total of 770 prisoners, 559 males, 211 females, and six children under 12 years of age. 230 of the prisoners were said to be completely illiterate.

However, the winds of change had begun to blow softly across the land as some influential and social figures demanded that something should be done.

In April 1878 the Prison Visiting Committees group was established upon the orders of the Secretary of State. The group would report on prison conditions and the treatment of prisoners. Slow and steady, with this benign group at the helm, things began to take a turn for the better.

The First World War changed everything and prison life was no exception. With all able-bodied men sent to France to die as the Generals saw fit, crime levels dropped as did the prison population.

In 1918 30-year-old prostitute Mabel Dale became the last female to be imprisoned at Usk.

Since 1990 it has been an Adult Category C prison housing inmates mainly convicted of sexual offences.

Although both times and regimes have changed, this Victorian Gaol continues to cast a brooding shadow over Usk and stands to remind all of how crime and punishment have and continue to shape society.