Go Wilde

Preservationists rally to save the prison where Oscar Wilde was persecuted

A wing in Reading Prison during the Artangel exhibition Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison, 2016. (Realjv/Creative Commons)

The Reading Prison in Berkshire, England, has been put on the market and cultural figures are rallying to save the building where Oscar Wilde was incarcerated between 1895 and 1897. The Grade II-listed building closed in 2013 and is under threat of redevelopment after the U.K. Minister of Justice put it up for sale earlier this month. The local council and Reading’s member of parliament, as well as other cultural figures, are working to develop a bid for the site. 

“Sadly the Ministry of Justice put the gaol on the market and hopes to sell it to the highest bidder,” said Matt Rodda, the Labor MP for Reading East, according to The Art Newspaper. “This decision risks this wonderful Victorian building being gutted and turned into luxury flats.”

The building’s association with Wilde makes it irrevokably an important site of LGBTQ+ history and heritage. Wilde was arrested in 1895 for “gross indecency,” a crime enforced by the Labouchere Amendment and largely used to prosecute men for homosexuality. Because sodomy laws were so difficult to enforce, the amendment instead enforced a blanket term that made such arrests much easier. The amendment wasn’t fully repealed until 1967, a time when widespread LGBT rights and advocacy were just beginning to gain traction. The prison has been described as a “Mecca for LGBT people wordwide” by the Reading Borough Council.

A 2016 exhibition Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison, exemplified the building’s importance through a showcase of art by Ai Weiwei, Marlene Dumas, and Wolfgang Tillmans. A well-known admirer of Wilde, Patti Smith, paid homage by reading De Profundis, a 50,000-word letter Wilde wrote to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, while he was incarcerated in Reading. 

“It’s a hugely significant space,” said Joseph Galliano, CEO and co-founder of Queer Britain, the national LGBTQ+ museum. “We are losing heritage and cultural spaces to commercial redevelopment which will never be recovered,” he told Euronews. The Ministry of Justice promised in a statement that they would “seek the best outcome for the taxpayer.” 

Illustrating the artistic legacy produced under unfortunate circumstances, the following is an excerpt from Wilde’s De Profundis:

“When first I was put into prison some people advised me to try and forget who I was. It was ruinous advice. It is only by realizing what I am that I have found comfort of any kind. Now I am advised by others to try on my release to forget that I have ever been in a prison at all. I know that would be equally fatal. It would mean that I would always be haunted by an intolerable sense of disgrace, and that those things that are meant for me as much as for anybody else – the beauty of the sun and moon, the pageant of the seasons, the music of daybreak and the silence of great nights, the rain falling through the leaves, or the dew creeping over the grass and making it silver – would all be tainted for me, and lose their healing power, and their power of communicating joy. To regret one’s own experiences is to arrest one’s own development. To deny one’s own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul.”

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