Picture: 123RF/R FRANCA
Picture: 123RF/R FRANCA

London — Reading prison — a forbidding Victorian jail turned LGBT landmark — is for sale, Britain said on Thursday, offloading a deserted site best known for housing playwright Oscar Wilde for the “gross indecency” of gay sex.

Campaigners had hoped to turn the austere brick prison, which lies just west of London, into an arts centre to preserve a site of gay pilgrimage and honour Wilde’s literary legacy.

“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 that will never be recovered.”

Reading jail housed the Irish poet and author — whose homo-erotic writing shocked Victorian Britain — for most of the two-year sentence he served for gross indecency. During the sensational trial he was questioned over his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, a poet who penned the immortal line: “I am the love that dare not speak its name.”

The prison closed in 2014 but has since hosted arts events, including a readings of his work by actors and musicians such as Patti Smith and Rupert Everett.

The prison became a magnet for Britain’s LGBT community, just as New York’s Stonewall Inn draws crowds commemorating its key role in the US fight for gay rights.

History for sale

It is the latest prison to be sold by the government as it seeks to turn state assets into money to bolster its budget. Britain’s justice ministry said it will invest money from the sale back into the prison system and would consider all bids. “We will always seek the best outcome for the taxpayer,” the ministry said in a statement.

Paul Johnson, professor of sociology at the University of York, said that Britain has a bad record of marking its historic persecution of gay people and that the prison was important to many people around the world. “It does crystallise what hundreds of thousands of people suffered, it isn’t just about one person — it’s about what so many people suffered over time.” 

In July, Britain announced plans to honour Alan Turing, a code breaker who helped the Allies win Second World War but who committed suicide after being convicted in 1952 for gay sex.

Victorian values

Wilde was imprisoned in 1895, months after his play The Importance of Being Earnest was first performed in London, and his case threw a spotlight on Britain’s draconian laws on homosexuality.

He wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, inspired by the hanging of an inmate, a poem that made it one of the most famous prisons in the world, according to the Oscar Wilde Society. “In Reading gaol by Reading town, There is a pit of shame, And in it lies a wretched man, Eaten by teeth of flame,” the poem reads.

England and Wales repealed anti-homosexuality legislation more than 70 years later, in 1967.

Thomson Reuters Foundation