Britain’s prisons have featured heavily in the news recently.
And while attitudes and living conditions inside them have changed over the past 150 years, many prisoners are still incarcerated in prisons that were designed and built in the 1800’s.
One of the most famous is Reading Gaol, or the New County Gaol as it was known after it opened in 1844 – mostly thanks to one rather famous inmate.
Located in the centre of the town of Reading in Berkshire, it was used until 2013, when it finally closed its doors to inmates.
Three years later, and while it’s fate is still unknown, a project run by arts organisation Art Angel in conjunction with the National Trust takes a closer look at Oscar Wilde’s prison time in the jail and what life here was like.
For the first time members of the general public can go behind the scenes and really see what prison life was like – as well as discovering work from writers on the subject of ‘state enforced separation’ in some of the cells.
I went along to take a closer look at life inside this rather unique Victorian Jail.
Inside these four walls
It’s safe to say that I know Reading Gaol, which until 2013 was a Young Offender’s Institution, rather well.
The daunting walls with barbed wire and the large Victorian building that stretches above the town was a familiar sight for me in the six years that I lived in the town.
I lived perhaps 400 meters away, and regularly walked alongside the canal next to the imposing structure, often hearing people chatter away in the yard and knocking on windows.
But I never thought i’d actually get the opportunity to walk through the large gates and inside the prison to see for myself what it really was like…
… until recently.
And I was left aghast by the beauty of the building. It’s Victorian architecture at its finest.
Designed by renowned architect George Gilbert Scott, when it opened in 1844 it was hailed as a ‘New Model’ Prison – one designed to reform rather than just being locked up.
Unlike other prisons during this time, each prisoner had their own cell, but this meant that they were held in solitary conditions.
Locked up for 23 hours a day, prisoners jailed here in Victorian times were not allowed to speak to one another.
The only time inmates mixed was in the chapel, but even then they wore hooded cloaks and stood partitioned from others.
In the 1860s, the prison was deemed ‘too luxurious’ and all forms of in-room sanitation were removed, which meant inmates had to ‘slop out’ twice a day – this took place until the 1990s.
Eleven executions happened here, always at 8am on a Tuesday. One execution in 1845 drew a crowd of 10,000.
Reading’s most famous inmate
In 1895, Oscar Wilde, a famous playwright and a superstar of his time, was sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labour for committing ‘acts of gross indecency with other male persons’.
He arrived from Wandsworth Prison as ‘Prisoner C.3.3’ and stayed at Reading for two years.
Here he endured solitary confinement, in some instances in the dark for two weeks at a time, kept in his cell 23 hours a day.
Initially he was prevented from reading certain books and from writing his own material until a more lenient prison governor allowed him access to paper.
He was then able to pen his famous, self-revolutionary letter that’s been described as ‘one of the greatest love letters ever written’ – a 100 page document that was not published until after his death called ‘De Profundis’.
He also experienced a hanging while in Reading Gaol, which inspired him to write the famous Ballad of Reading Gaol, where he describes his experience of life incarcerated.
A prison wall was round us both,
Two outcast men were we:
The world had thrust us from its heart,
And God from out His care:
And the iron gin that waits for Sin Had caught us in its snare.
It’s believed that the brutal regime inside Reading Gaol broke Oscar Wilde. Divorced and unable to see his children and with his career in tatters, he moved to France where he died 3 years later.
But some say that it turned Wilde into a great romantic figure, with followers today still inspired by his work from Reading Gaol.
If only walls could talk
Walking around the prison, there’s a real sense of history and you can literally feel it oozing from the walls.
You can hear the echos as your feet tap the concrete floors and as you walk into the cells you can appreciate how lonely the prison must have been, even though you were surrounded by hundreds of other people.
With its Victorian design it’s a simple but very elegant prison, which apart from the odd mod-con, has hardly changed since it’s construction.
You can imagine the governor in his office watching over all the corridors and when you walk into the sports hall, which was once the chapel, you can picture the silence of the prisoners as they listened intently to their superiors.
After 2 hours at the prison, I felt ready to leave. Part of me thought it would be a little more comfortable, but even in today’s age, I struggled to imagine what it must be like for the young men who called this place home for 24 hours a day.
The project has been organised by London-based Art Angel, in conjunction with The National Trust and gives visitors the opportunity to see the prison as well as the art that is being exhibited here.
Inspired by Wilde, it’s clear that his shadow falls over the whole exhibition and it’s possible to not only see his cell, but his works and also the original door to his cell.
One of the highlights is the new sculpture by artist Jean Michel Pancin, that features a concrete plinth and Oscar Wilde’s original door, in what was formally the chapel.
Here readings of ‘De Profundis’ have been taking place during the exhibition, taking up to 5 hours at a time.
The exhibition also includes paintings, sculptures and photographs, as well as works by famous artists & activists including Steve McQueen, Al Wei Wei and Robert Gober.
The cells provide an unusual but inspiring scene for the artwork and brings the disused building to life.
While the fate of Reading Prison is currently unknown, the exhibition – which has sold out – brings to life a history that has stayed secret for many years.
Find out more here – Inside: Artists & Writers in Reading Prison
Extended until 4th December 2016 at Reading Prison, Berkshire.
I can highly recommend the National Trust tour – it provides a real insight into the Reading Gaol and is run by the Trust itself.
They will be running until Saturday 26th November 2016.