The Victorian Society urges Government to ensure Reading Gaol’s sale allows public access to important part of the UK’s queer history

“Something was dead in each of us, and what was dead was hope.”

Oscar Wilde The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Photo: "Ballad of Reading Gaol" by williamsdb is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. 13/09/2023

Photo: “Ballad of Reading Gaol” by williamsdb is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. 13/09/2023

The Save Reading Gaol campaign has tweeted that a sale has been agreed for the redevelopment of Reading Gaol, (former HMP Reading). While it is rumoured that the sale will be to a charitable organisation, the The Victorian Society has written to the Justice and Heritage Ministers urging the Government to ensure that the sale will ensure public access to this important listed Victorian building, one of the key physical places in the UK’s queer history.

The Government previously refused Reading Borough Council’s £2.6 million offer for the historic building where Oscar Wilde was infamously incarcerated 1895-1897, which was later immortalised in his poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The Council wished to transform the Gaol into a cultural hub, a plan which has widespread support. Grade II-listed Reading Gaol is a significant building, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott and William Boynthon Moffatt in 1842-4, it is a particularly fine and interesting example of a 19th century prison complex. The imposing, fortress-style design is an early work by one of England’s leading Victorian architects. Its ground-breaking radial plan made allowed prisoners to be kept in solitary confinement and constantly surveilled.

The Save Reading Gaol campaign, formed in 2019, has advocated for the development of the building as a community and arts venue. This would allow the building to make a strong cultural contribution to the town, and this historic site would be accessible to all. These benefits would be lost if the Gaol is developed for residential use.

The Victorian Society’s letter to Government stresses that HM Treasury’s guidance on the valuation of public sector assets for disposal requires an assessment of ‘any other social cost and benefits that may arise due to disposal’. This notes that ‘Public sector assessment of value is based upon the interests of society as a whole and is not an assessment of value to the public sector alone’.

Connor McNeill, Conservation Advisor, said “Reading Gaol as a significant historic building has the potential to generate significant public benefits and interest which in turn will create visits to Reading providing economic stimulus in the long term.”


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