Ever since I moved to Reading, I’ve been fascinated by the story of Trooper Wooldridge, whose execution was immortalised by Oscar Wilde in his haunting and deeply moving poem: The Ballad of Reading Gaol. This tragic tale of loss became even more poignant for me when I visited Reading Prison last year and saw not only Wilde’s cell, but the door to the ‘drop room’ through which Charles Wooldridge made his final steps.
The drama began in 1894 when Laura Glendell, daughter of a salesman from Bath, married Charles Thomas Wooldridge, a trooper serving in the Royal Horse Guards. Shortly after the wedding, Wooldridge was transferred to guard duty at Windsor Castle, but as the marriage hadn’t been sanctioned by his Commanding Officer, the couple were forced to live apart. Two years on and the marriage was on the rocks. Charles was an aggressive man who easily became enraged with jealousy over his young wife, who was living with a colleague, Alice Cox, from the post office where she worked.
In March 1896, events took a sinister turn. One evening when Charles visited his wife, a terrible row broke out between them. Laura was left with black eyes and a bleeding nose. Seemingly repentant of his violent act, Charles returned to her house days later with a letter swearing that he would never touch her again. But once Alice Cox had left the pair alone, another fight broke out and this time it would lead to disastrous consequences. At 9.10 pm, a neighbour heard shouting in the street and rushed outside to find a woman lying in the road. It was Laura Wooldridge and her throat had been slashed with a razor.
Charles confessed to his crime but, according to the Berkshire Chronicle, he justified his heinous act by stating that, ‘she had been carrying on a fine game.’ At the inquest, the coroner concluded that the murder had taken place because of ‘some misunderstanding between Wooldridge and the deceased and it looked like a case of jealousy.’
On 7 July 1896, Charles Thomas Wooldridge was hanged at Reading Gaol. A local reporter noted that he ‘walked to the scaffold with that firmness that characterised his demeanour throughout.’
Oscar Wilde, also an inmate, was watching the proceedings intently from his cell. His famous ballad laments the desperate act of a passionate lover:
I only knew what hunted thought
Quickened his step, and why
He looked upon the garish day
With such a wistful eye;
The man had killed the thing he loved,
And so he had to die.
The Oscar Wilde and Reading Gaol exhibition opens at the Berkshire Record Office on 22 October 2014, until 6 February 2015.