As you stand at the epicentre of Reading Prison and gaze up towards the vaulted roof, with the iron gantries and spiral staircases all around, you can’t help feeling both impressed and intimidated in equal measure. One of the first Victorian prisons, built in 1844 following the Pentonville model, it is a truly magnificent building.
Despite modern developments, a strong sense of history pervades Reading Gaol. Oscar Wilde’s cell, from the late 1890s, is still in use. Young offenders still take fresh air in the exercise yard, although they were chatting rather than walking in circles wearing the infamous Scottish caps of the ‘separate system’.
The first execution took place in 1845 and on the perimeter wall, small brass plaques mark the likely burial places of those hanged at the prison. I spotted the Tidbury brothers, who murdered two policemen in Hungerford in 1876; John Carter who killed at least one of his three wives; and Charles Wooldridge, immortalised in Wilde’s ballad. One of our guides recalled ‘meeting’ the ghost of trooper Wooldridge one night near his cell, the air smelling strongly of pipe tobacco: he was the only prisoner allowed to smoke before he was hanged. And those are not the only ‘ghosts’. During a refurbishment, headless bodies dating from an early leper colony, were discovered under the exercise yard. Their heads are under the football pitch. There is even the possibility that the body of Henry I, the founder of Reading Abbey, lies beneath the site.
Walking down the corridor of the condemned is a spine-tingling experience. Its rows of innocuous doors on each side still hold a grim fascination. Now an office, halfway down on the left, a door bears the sign: ‘Point of no return’. We didn’t go in, but the room contains the bricked-up entrances to the former drop room. In the main prison, we also saw the ‘executioner’s office’, (now a store cupboard) and the original chapel where prisoners could spend their final moments contemplating their fate, before taking the short journey to the gallows.
At the end of this year HMP Reading closes its doors after 170 years. An integral part of the town’s Victorian heritage, this extraordinary building and its unique history must be preserved.