Reading Gaol: Ten years of hopes and bids at Oscar Wilde prison

By Jo CouzensBBC News

Getty Images/Morley von Sternberg Oscar Wilde (1881) and his cell at Reading PrisonGetty Images/Morley von Sternberg
Wilde was condemned to his cell at the prison after being convicted of gross indecency – effectively for being gay

Ten years ago, the last inmate left a historic jail immortalised in a poem by its best known resident Oscar Wilde.

In the decade since, the local council, campaigners and celebrities have urged the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to turn Reading Gaol into an arts hub.

But in September, the government said the sale of the prison was close to completing despite thousands signing an MP’s petition against the plan.

The BBC has taken a look back at the now-empty site’s rich history.

Getty Images Reading PrisonGetty Images
It has previously been reported the empty prison costs more than £250,000 a year to maintain

The first “house of correction” on the town’s Forbury site was built by the Berkshire justices in 1785, according to the Royal Berkshire Archives.

The county record office said it had a communal day room and dormitories, no plumbing or sanitation, a treadmill for grinding wheat and an ornamental garden.

After the prison was criticised by then-Home Secretary Sir James Graham, the justices decided to build a new one on the site in 1842, based on the “model prison” at Pentonville.

Designed to hold 200 male criminals in three wings, a “handful of bankrupt debtors in a fourth wing” and a block for 25 female convicts, the jail opened on 1 July 1844.

Reading Prison
The last inmate left the prison in November 2013

Irish playwright and poet Oscar Wilde arrived in November 1895 and spent two years at the jail after being convicted of gross indecency – effectively for being gay.

He spent the last three years of his life in exile in France, where he composed his last work The Ballad of Reading Gaol, a nod to his time at the prison.

In 1978, the building was designated as Grade II listed before becoming a remand centre and young offenders institution in 1992.

Two decades later, in September 2013, it was announced that HM Prison Reading would close by the end of that year.

Getty Images Oscar Wilde on a couch in thought.Getty Images
Oscar Wilde was convicted after an affair he was having with Lord Alfred Douglas was exposed

The last inmate left the prison on 22 November and the jail formally closed in January 2014.

The idea for the building to be turned into a theatre and arts hub gained popularity after it was used for an arts exhibition in 2016, celebrating Wilde.

The campaign to give the prison to theatre and arts community use has gained support from Hollywood stars including Stephen Fry, Natalie Dormer, Kate Winslet, Dame Judi Dench and Sir Kenneth Branagh.

But the MoJ announced in October 2019 that the site was to be sold.

PA Media Banksy artwork on Reading PrisonPA Media
The artwork appeared overnight on the prison’s wall

In March 2021, artwork bearing the hallmarks of street artist Banksy appeared on the side of the prison.

He later confirmed the picture showing a prisoner – possibly resembling famous inmate Oscar Wilde – escaping on a rope made of bedsheets tied to a typewriter was his work.

Oscar-winning actress Kate Winslet, who grew up in Reading, joined the calls to turn the old jail into an arts venue, saying it was “incredible” Banksy had chosen it for his painting of an escaped prisoner.

She even promised to perform on opening night if the plans became a reality.

The Titanic star said she learned to act in scout halls, church halls and school gyms across Reading

But in May 2021 it was announced that Reading Borough Council’s bid for the prison had been rejected by the Ministry of Justice because the offer of £2.6m was too low.

Banksy stepped in and offered to match the jail’s £10m asking price by selling the stencil he used to paint on the Grade II-listed building – but only if the bid was awarded to the council.

He explained: “Converting the place that destroyed him [Wilde] into a refuge for art feels so perfect we have to do it.”

However, the MoJ said the deadline for bids had passed.

Nick Hatton Matt Rodda at Reading PrisonNick Hatton
Matt Rodda, the MP for Reading East, has urged the government to let the site become an arts hub

Last year, local MP Matt Rodda, who represents Reading East, renewed the call for the derelict prison to be transformed into an arts hub, saying attempts to sell the town’s former prison for development since 2013 “clearly haven’t worked”.

But in September this year, the MoJ said it was in the process of being sold and could be completed within months.

The government has not confirmed who is buying the site but Mr Rodda has launched a petition against the plan, which has gained thousands of signatures.

One rumour is that it will be used for “charitable purposes” by the new owner – but only time will tell.

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