Inside of Reading Gaol

Ballad of Reading Gaol

When I told people that I was going to take a tour around the Reading Prison the general question was “why?” My response is that other than Porridge and on news reports I haven’t been into a prison – not having the pleasure of being at Her Majesty’s pleasure and all that! It’s just not something that you get the opportunity to do normally.

When the Reading Prison closed in 2013 there was a lot of debate about what should be done with it, a conclusion to which has yet to be reached. The buildings are grade II listed and part of Reading Abbey lies underneath it, including (maybe), the grave of King Henry I, inevitably under the car park, so it can’t be ripped down and replaced with flats fortunately. So while the debate rages on the prison has been opened up for a couple of months for an art exhibition and for guided tours.

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I think the first thing to state about the place and this might be stating the obvious but it is pretty grim. This is partly due to the buildings dating back to the Victorian era and the warren type nature of the place. When it first opened every prisoner had their own cell. This is not as great as it sounds as prisoners weren’t allowed to communicate with anyone else, at all, ever. Breaking this rule got Reading Prison’s most famous occupant, Oscar Wilde, two weeks in an isolation cell as punishment. This was a cell in the basement of the prison that had no light whatsoever. They were fed bread and water twice a day and that was it. I spent a few seconds in the closed room and that was enough for me, it can’t have done much for the mental state of those who spent longer.

The main body of the prison looks just like it does on Porridge long corridors with cell doors off each side and netting strung between the two sides of each corridor. The cells themselves were, of course, tiny. The picture is taken from inside Wilde’s cell. Clearly the fixtures and fittings have been updated since his time.

Inside Oscar Wilde's Cell at Reading Gaol

It was an interesting experience to see a prison up close and some more than others will have deserved to have spent time in Reading but it cannot have been a comfortable experience during the days of no communications. Now we wait to see how the building is repurposed but still retains its character – that is going to be an interesting challenge.