Pictures of History: Reading Prison, Where Oscar Wilde was Detained

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.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas
Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Reading Prison
Reading Prison
Oscar Wilde's Prison Books
Oscar Wilde’s Prison Books
Replica of Oscar Wilde's Prison Library
Replica of Oscar Wilde’s Prison Library
Reading Prison cell door
Oscar Wilde’s cell door

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.

Oscar Wilde
Reading Prison cell door
Reading Prison graffiti
Reading Prison graffiti
Reading Prison Graffiti
Reading Prison Graffiti

Reading commemorates his time there with the Oscar Wilde Memorial Walk.

Oscar Wilde Memorial Walk
Oscar Wilde Memorial Walk, Reading
Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde Memorial Walk, Reading

 

Previous posts in this series.

Pictures of History: Alnwick Castle

Pictures of History: Rosslyn Chapel

Pictures of History: Blair Castle

Pictures of History: Natural History Museum

Pictures of History: Tower of London

Pictures of History: Thackray Medical Museum

 

Photos author’s own unless stated

Sources:

https://www.ft.com/content/af9d1204-78dc-11e6-97ae-647294649b28

http://www.artangel.org.uk

 

 

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