Reading Gaol: A Very Short History


The New Gaol at Reading

In 1844, H.M. Prison, Reading, was built on the site the old county gaol (built in 1785), beside the River Kennet. The castle-like cruciform building, designed by George Gilbert Scott, was based on Pentonville Prison, London (built two years earlier in 1842). These innovative penitentiaries were designed to keep inmates apart, a method of prison discipline known as ‘the separate system’. The new Reading Prison had 250 individual cells; 4 men’s wings; 1 virtually self-contained women’s wing; a flat roof for performing executions; luxury housing for the prison chaplain and governor; and a turret each for the matron, deputy-governor and two other prison officers. The new goal’s first prisoner was Abraham Boswell who was sentenced to 6 months with hard labour for sexually assaulting a toddler. The first prisoner to be executed was Thomas Jennings; he was accused of poisoning his son but protested his innocence right up until he was put to death. The Irish author, Oscar Wilde, was probably the gaol’s most famous resident. On 20th November 1895, Wilde was transferred to Reading from Wandsworth Prison (via Newgate and Pentonville); he had been sentenced to 2 years with hard labour after being found guilty of gross indecency. In his poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), Wilde calls the prison a ‘pit of shame’ and describes his cell as a ‘foul and dark latrine’. In the same year as Wilde’s poem was published, the 1898 Prison Act was passed, calling for more humane living conditions and the abolition of hard labour.


Courtesy of Reading Central Library

Courtesy of Reading Central Library

A Place of Internment

In 1915 Reading Prison was re-designated ‘H.M. Place of Internment’. Over the course of the war, Reading played host to various ‘aliens’; the majority were inmates of German origin but Latin Americans, Belgians, and Hungarians were also interned. As detailed in my previous blog post, in July 1916, the ‘aliens’ were joined by the ‘Irish’ – a group of 37 men who had been involved (either directly or indirectly) in the Easter Rising and were interned without trial under the terms of 1914 Defence of the Realm Act.


Reading Prison Today

In 1992, Reading Prison was re-designated as an H.M. Remand Centre for Young Offenders, taking inmates aged 18 to 21. ‘B’ and ‘C’ wings were demolished to make way for a football pitch, other recreational areas (housing gym equipment, pools tables, computers, and televisions), and educational facilities. The Centre now holds young men up to the age of 26 in their stage 2 resettlement unit.

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