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Reading Gaol is well known as being the place where Oscar Wilde, poet, playwright and novellist, author of The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Grey, spent two years in prison from 1895-97, where he wrote De Profundis with The Ballad of Reading Gaol being written a year after his release.
The prison was designed by George Gilbert Scott and opened in 1844. At the time it was a new model prison aiming to reform and improve the inmates. Older prisons had overcrowded dormitories whereas this had clean cells for each individual prisoner. They spent almost all of their time on their own and weren't allowed to speak to each other. Over the years new buildings and a perimeter wall were built around it. Recently it housed young offenders but in 2013 it closed down. Now it is open to the public until December.
I went to have a look.
Nowadays, the perimeter wall dominates. Oscar Wilde's words from De Profundis have been stencilled on it.
The way in. To be honest, I was a bit nervous, I wasn't sure if I wanted to visit but as it was such a significant part of Reading's history, I thought I ought to before the site is redevelopped.
Artangel, an Arts organisation, had installed a number of artworks by contemporary artists in the cells throughout the building, writers too had written letters to a loved one from whom they had been separated by state enforcement. Every Sunday in the chapel, a different actor reads De Profundis in entirety which takes over four hours. Among the project participants are Ralph Fiennes, Ben Wishaw, Maxine Peake, Jeanette Winterson, Ai Weiwei, Doris Salcedo, Steve McQueen, Richard Hamilton.
It felt claustrophobic. The narrow, see-through steps up to the first and second floors made me feel a bit wobbly. I was glad a school party was having a tour as at least their voices sounded cheerful.
The Victorian prison was divided into three wings on three floors, each cell identical, small and airless despite the window. Prisoners were only allowed out of their cells to go to the exercise wheel in the yard and had to wear a hood so they didn't make eye contact. If they were there for hard labour, this consisted of turning a crank or picking oakum - separating the strands of rope - both for no real purpose.
|The central section where the wings met|
I didn't really look at the art. I didn't want to go in the cells. I had heard De Profundis a couple of weeks previously on the radio and Wilde's sadness and despair just resonated as I walked around. I found it all rather overwhelming.
This was his cell - C3.3 on the second floor. He had no books for the first three months apart from the Bible, a prayer book and hymn book and subsequently only one book a week from the library. He wasn't permitted to write anything for the first year apart from the occasional letter.
This used to be the chapel where each prisoner had their own place to stand within a wooden box so that they couldn't see each other. The interior was destroyed in the 1950s and turned into a sports hall and library later.
There were some historical artefacts on display including some photos of prisoners leaving the prison which included men, women and boys as young as ten. They only had their photos taken if the prison thought they would return as photography was expensive in those days. The people had their hands visible to aid with any future identification issues.
Interesting to see, however, I was glad to be out in the fresh air again.
There is a lot more information on the internet.