A couple of years ago I visited Reading Prison for an exhibition prior to it being pulled down and the land sold off for development.
Reading Gaol, as it was then, was opened in 1844 and continued to house inmates until it was decommissioned in 2013.
Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde was incarcerated there from 1895 to 1897 for ‘committing acts of gross indecency with male persons’. Housed in cell C22, Wilde would suffer dysentery and endure the Separate System, a harsh penal regime that denied him contact with other prisoners, essentially an early form of solitary confinement.
During this time Wilde wrote De Profundis, a love letter to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. The Governor of Reading Gaol gave him four sheets of writing paper per day for a work that eventually reached 55,000 words. De Profundis, Latin for ‘from the depths’, can be read for free, courtesy of Project Guttenberg here.
Wilde, whose The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray, are both late Victorian classics, wrote very little after his incarceration. One notable exception is The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
‘In Reading gaol by Reading town
There is a pit of shame,
And in it lies a wretched man
Eaten by teeth of flame,
In burning winding-sheet he lies,
And his grave has got no name.’
Excerpt from The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde, 1898
The experience left Wilde with his reputation in ruins. Imprisoned at the height of his celebrity, the scandal left him with little money. He fled to France when released, and lived in various friends’ apartments and cheap hotels. He died of meningitis on 30 November 1900, he was 46.
On Sundays during the exhibition, performers would read from Wilde’s De Profundis sitting in front of his cell door on a concrete plinth, which represented the cell floor.
Reading commemorates his time there with the Oscar Wilde Memorial Walk.
Previous posts in this series.
Photos author’s own unless stated