Reading Gaol – best known for Prisoner C3.3, or Oscar Wilde, is now a young offenders’ institute housing hundreds of criminals.
I’ve often passed it and, having a long-standing love of all things Oscar, wondered what it was like on the other side of the wall – not only in his day, but now as well. So when I got the opportunity to visit Reading Prison, as it is now known, on an Oscar Wilde Society trip, I jumped at the chance.
While I was a reporter many of the court cases I covered at nearby Reading Crown Court involved boys who’d been imprisoned there. And they are boys, really – aged between 18 and 24. ‘Children’ was how the principal officer, Tony Stokes, referred to them once during our visit, though he reiterated some have committed evil crimes.
When Wilde was serving his two year sentence for gross indecency in 1895, he was shocked by the amount of children serving sentences at Reading Prison. One 11-year-old just three years earlier had been sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour and 12 strokes of the birch for stealing a rabbit, to use just one example.
Wilde was so sickened by watching the preparations for the execution of Charles Thomas Wooldridge from his window that he began to form the ideas for what would become The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
When we actually got inside and the iron gates swung shut behind us, my chest suddenly tightened. The sense of rising panic lasted for about the first half-hour of the trip, as door after door was firmly locked. The sense of claustrophobia to know you cannot escape was hard to overcome.
We visited the chapel, which is now a recreation room, and one member of the group asked and was allowed to read out the ballad.
The imagery of hanging: ‘It is not sweet with nimble feet to dance upon the air’ in the poem chillingly resonated around the room. Tony Stokes confirmed although scholars have disputed Wilde’s claims he could see from his cell the unconsecrated ground where bodies were thrown, he knew Wilde was right because the outhouse now blocking the view was more recent than the rest of the prison.
Inside, the cell blocks were exactly like every in film and prison TV show – noisy, dark, metallic stairs, nets everywhere. Cell 3.3. was being used so we could not go in, but there was a plaque outside in memory of its most famous resident. We went into one empty cell and it was tiny, particularly given prisoners are located two to a cell to reduce the suicide risk.
One of my favourite stories as a reporter involved this rescue of a parrot by a 21-year-old on day release. It shows how if young people are given another chance once inside they can turn their lives around and gain new opportunities. The prison’s Kennet Unit does fantastic work getting the inmates trained, with a focus on how their life will be when they are released.
Looking out of the window in the new chapel, it was strange to see The Blade and Reading’s other landmarks from such a different angle. Outside, alongside the wall housing a 5-a-side pitch and exercise area is a plaque to each of the people executed in Reading Gaol. The razorwire above the thick walls is truly imposing and although the staff and activities deserve praise, it is a million miles away from the type of luxury living the tabloids would encourage belief in.
I think, in some ways, the improvements from Wilde’s day to the present only emphasise what a terrible time he truly had while inside.