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Monmouth Gaol: life inside

 

 ‘The debtors and other prisoners in the County Gaol desire to present their best thanks to Joseph Price esq. for their Christmas treat of one pound of beef, one quart of beer, and a quarter- loaf to each prisoner now confined. Mr. Price has long been a benefactor of the imprisoned.’

Many Chartists had spent Christmas 1839 in Monmouth gaol, but the Merlin’s report of Christmas behind bars gave a false impression of how the Chartists were treated. Zephaniah Williams especially was a shadow of the ‘wanted man - 5ft 8 inches, of strong, square build, a bold talker with a blunt manner and a swaggering walk’. Chained to a gaoler at night he was suffering from sleep deprivation and malnourishment, and having suicidal thoughts. All the prisoners were fed a debilitating diet of potatoes, bread and gruel, which caused many digestive disorders. Frost  wrote that his stay at Monmouth Gaol was ‘the greatest misery I have endured’, although, in the presence of the Governor, Frost’s wife and daughter had been allowed to visit him.

Once the death sentence had been delivered, the editor of the Merlin hoped that the last scene would not end in bloodshed. He was quick to back the petition to the Queen from the inhabitants of Monmouth, although this didn’t stop him from reporting the scene as the Chartists awaited execution, detailing the offer of a local surgeon to act as headman!

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Text and artwork from Voices for the Vote: Shire Hall and the story of Chartism in south Wales. Reproduced by kind permission of Monmouthshire County Council/Shire Hall, Monmouth. The book costs £4.99 and can be obtained from Shire Hall Monmouth, Newport Museum or Gwent Archives