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Architecture, Community, History, Places to visit  |  20 December 2021

Saving Reading Gaol.

Banksy's recent mural on the wall of the gaol. The street artist is now said to be "obsessed" with saving the gaol. Photo credit: @save_reading_gaol
Reading was always a town with religious ties and had a significant nunnery in 900AD
Henry I, the king of Reading Abbey
Monks from France occupied quarters at Reading Abbey
The historical Reading Gaol
The prison's design was based on Pentonville prison, with individuals cells for inmates
The gaol and abbey site today
Reading Gaol famously held Oscar Wilde when he was imprisoned for "inappropriate relations" with other men
"The Ballad of Reading Gaol" is one of Oscar Wilde's most famous pieces of writing and one of the most quoted in English literature
Inside Oscar Wilde's cell at Reading Gaol
Following news the Gaol will be sold, campaigners from across Reading and beyond joined forces to save it from developers
MP Matt Rodda gathering signatures for the Reading Gaol Petition
Large crowds gathered to support the campaign to turn the prison into an arts centre
"Indoor Rainbow" the inside of Reading Gaol as captured by photographer Matt Emmett, @forgottenheritage
An arts centre would make Reading a cultural hotspot
Stars with roots in Reading regularly speak out in support of the campaign
Kate Winslet and Sir Kenneth Branagh are amongst the famous faces supporting the Save Reading Gaol campaign
Banksy's original typewriter was painted over, but a copy appeared on the side of nearby Reading bridge a few days later. Photo credit: Hannah Gerrish Photography, @han_ger
The stencil Banksy has offered to sell to save Reading Gaol. Photo credit: ALAMY

Historic sites like Reading Gaol are “tangible recordings of a city’s story,” Isabel Morris.

Isabel Morris says historic buildings “…provide a city with a cultural identity, allowing communities to connect to the past and its influence on our lives today,” The Case for Historic Buildings.

But what happens when the future threatens to pave over the past? Should the legacy of historic buildings and sites be sold to the highest bidder — even if the funds raised replenish public coffers? Or should the “public good” recognise more than hard cold cash?

These are the very considerations that are at play in the battle to save Reading Gaol…

The battle to save Reading Gaol

The historic Reading Gaol building, has an important legacy as the symbol of “Oscar Wilde’s place in global literary, cultural and social history,” Gyles Brandreath — following Wilde’s incarceration there from 1895-1897. It is where Wilde wrote one of his greatest works De Profundis, and about which he later wrote another great work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

However, the historic significance of the site does not end there because Reading Gaol was sited within the ruins of Reading Abbey, burial place of Henry I and his family, former home of Queen Elizabeth I, basecamp of Charles I and school of Jane Austen, amongst other claims to fame.

The site is in jeopardy as the Ministry of Justice is seeking to sell it to the highest bidder despite a very strong and well funded campaign to save it. Diverse communities including the people of Reading and their MP’s and local counsellors (of all political persuasions), the international arts community, the international LGBTQ+ community, and many more, have joined forces to save it for the public good. They argue that the public good would be best served by allowing the Save Reading Gaol campaigners to save the site for the public, making it a museum and an arts venue for all.

As residents and workers of Reading, the Kiss House team sit a stones throw away from Reading’s Abbey Quarter and Reading Gaol. The campaign to save the gaol lies very close to our hearts, and in this story spanning 1,150 years, we wanted to share with you the incredible history of the site and the extraordinary story of the battle to save it.

Viking rule

“Reading's colourful history began in 870AD when the Vikings were invading the Anglo-Saxons.”

Reading Museum

Today Reading Museum explores Reading’s colourful history beginning in 870AD with the Viking invasions of the Anglo-Saxons. In 870AD The Viking campaign was in full force having already claimed the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia. Following these success the Vikings travelled to Wessex and stumbled upon the royal “vill” known as Reading — a small administrative centre for a royal estate. The battling Vikings set up camp, building a rampart or defensive wall, between the rivers Thames and Kennet to defend their new settlement.

In 871AD, the Battle of Reading ensued in the centre of the town, and historians believe that following this victory against the Anglo Saxons the Vikings claimed the royal estate of Reading as their own. Later when Viking rule ended Reading developed into a small town and by 900AD had become an important market town and religious centre, hosting an impressive nunnery.

Reading Abbey, founded by Henry I

Henry I, the youngest son of William the Conqueror declared his wish to build an abbey on the edge of Reading upon acceding to the throne of England. The result was the founding of Reading Abbey in 1121.

According to Reading Museum, he to “benefit his and his close family’s souls,” as well as provide support for the poor, plus any visitors and pilgrims travelling to the market town’s various religious sites. Reading Abbey was so important that Henry endowed it with rich lands and extensive privileges, making it a symbol of his dynastic lines.

The King’s abbey was to sit on high ground, between the River Thames and River Kennet, and was to hold an impressive church for worship as well as provide lodgings for several dozen monks from the Cluny Abbey in France to whom Henry’s family had various connections. The position by the two rivers was critical to the siting of the Abbey as it meant that goods from all over England could be easily brought there, and over time an impressive wharf was established.

“No expense was spared in building Henry’s abbey. He shipped in limestone from Oxfordshire and France and insisted on elaborate stone carvings.”

No expense was spared in building Henry’s abbey. He shipped in limestone from Oxfordshire and France and insisted on elaborate stone carvings. The carved designs included pointed animal or bird heads with sharp beaks that became known as “beakheads” amongst architects. Later this design became a widespread feature across Reading’s architecture during the 20th Century.

Reading abbey eventually became one of the largest monasteries in Western Europe, and the fourth largest church in Britain, incredibly situated on the edge of what was still only a small market town in Berkshire, England.

King Henry I and family buried at the abbey — now the car park of Reading Gaol!

Henry I of England died in 1135 before his spectacular abbey was completed. His wish was to be buried beneath it and despite dying in France, aides ensured his wish was granted. His body was brought back to Reading and he was buried before the abbey’s High Altar. Many high-profile bishops were present at the burial, during which according to Reading Museum article, “The Burial of Henry I,” “masses were sung, rich offerings were made, and charity donations were provided to Reading’s poor.”

Incredibly the exact position of his burial site was lost but experts believe that it now lies directly under the car park of Reading Gaol where today there is a plaque marking the spot.

The abbey took a further 31 years to complete (though some historians believe Henry’s vision was never fully executed), and was officially opened by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett. The abbey and its land continued to be a highly desirable location for royalty to visit and be buried and Henry’s second wife and his two sons, William and Reginald were later buried beside him.

A significant religious and royal site

Reading Museum describes a series of significant religious relics that were held at the abbey  brought there by royal visitors. Henry I’s daughter brought the hand of the apostle St James; King John the head of St Philip, and later the abbey was gifted the body and blood of St Laurence. These unusual presents were believed to have healing properties and to work miracles meaning pilgrims flocked to the abbey to witness them.

During the reign of King John (1189-1199) Reading Abbey continued to be of high royal importance. According to “Reading’s Royal Abbey” published by Reading Museum, the King “often borrowed books on law and justice from the abbey,” and even “lived in the abbey during the period of the Magna Carta negotiations” which changed English political life for ever, and continues to inspire liberty and freedom in countries across the world today. It also acted as King John’s base when he was invaded by Prince Louis of France, who at the time reigned over the surrounding areas of London and Windsor.

Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Charles I at the abbey

In 1539, 400 years of monastic life ended at Reading Abbey when King Henry VIII declared himself the head of the Church of England and ordered the dissolution of the monasteries. He ordered the closure of Reading Abbey and the removal of all the valuable possessions it housed. The abbot was executed and the monks who lived there were forced to leave.

Much of the abbey was destroyed or removed over time and many of the stones were repurposed in the building of sites such as nearby Windsor Castle. However, the Gate House still remains to this day and has had an interesting history, including being given a new purpose by Elizabeth I who transformed into a “royal palace.”

Queen Elizabeth I stayed there briefly before leasing it to her “Treasurer of the Royal Household,” and faithful servant Sir Francis Knollys. The Knollys family lived in the re-named “Abbey House” up until late in the English Civil War, 1650.

During the civil war, the ruined Reading Abbey found itself host to royalty again when Charles I set up basecamp within its walls. Unfortunately what then remained of the abbey was badly damaged in a parliamentarian army attack on the Kings forces. The attack lead to a royalist surrender and the end of royal inhabitancy. In fact Charles I was held locally following his defeat and capture and it was by boat from Reading that he travelled down the River Thames and to his execution at Hampton Court Palace.

After the civil war, it was unclear who owned the remaining abbey ruins. According to “History of the Abbey Quarter,” certain architectural structures survived including the Gateway. In the following years the Gateway formed a Ladies Boarding School and in 1785 was attended by a young Jane Austen for approximately 18 months.

“In the following years the Gateway formed a Ladies Boarding School and in 1785 was attended by a young Jane Austen for approximately 18 months.”

Kiss House

County Gaol to Reading Gaol

In 1786 the remains of the apse and abbey’s Lady Chapel were destroyed to enable the new County Gaol to be built over most of the abbey’s infirmary site in 1793. Government surveyors saw the building as fit to be demolished with materials valued at £200, and after this only the abbey’s inner gateway survived. A survey of the site, as detailed in David Nash Ford’s “Royal Berkshire History” describes the site of the gaol at the time, “The Fermary garden, a messuage, tenement, malt-house, garden and orchard, so-called; bounded with the River Kennett South, and butting upon the way leading to Forbury from Orte Bridge.”

The new gaol housed over 200 criminals and 20 debtors at a time and also served as a site for public executions. By 1842, the gaol had had its day due to extreme overcrowding and becoming dilapidated. A competition was organised for architects and designers to redesign it.

A design to encourage the reformation of criminal activities

George Gilbert Scott and William Bonython Moffatt won the competition, with a design that, according to The Institutional History Society, drew inspiration from London’s Pentonville prison (built 1842.) This had been one of the first prisons to house inmates in individual cells, following the introduction of this system under the 1839 Prisons Act.

The ideal of separation apparently aimed to, “encourage a reformation of criminal activities and to turn inmates towards religion and a better way of living,” according to the Institutional History Society’s article “Reading Prison. The same article states that the design went on to influence around twenty more radial-plan prisons that were built in England between 1839-1877.

Research tells us that prior to Reading Gaol, Scott and Moffatt’s projects were primarily workhouses, hospitals, and poor-law buildings. The design inspiration for the gaol came from the Tudor-Gothic details they had included in these projects, including the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park and the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancreas Station in London.

“This had been one of the first (prisons) to house inmates in individual cells, following the introduction of this system under the 1839 Prisons Act.”

Institutional History Society

Many thought the gaol’s design was too elaborate and expensive for its purpose, due to Scott taking visual inspiration from castles, including features such as turrets, mullion windows and a dramatic red brick finish. According to The Scott Dynasty’s article “Reading Gaol,” it is said to have cost around £32,959, a huge figure for the period. “The inspector of the prison Mr Russell, blamed Scott, and Moffatt for this excessive cost, to which Scott replied, “I doubt whether it was more costly than other prisons, and it is unquestionably a first-rate building.”

This was, it seems the consensus, as upon completion the London Illustrated News of 17th February 1844 stated, “standing as it does, on the rising ground at the entrance to Reading, and close to the site of the venerable abbey, this new prison is from every side the most conspicuous building, and architecturally, by far the greatest ornament to the town.”

Scott and Moffatt were later involved in the restoration of the Reading Abbey Gateway after it collapsed, and in his later years George Gilbert Scott was recognised as perhaps the most successful and influential British architect of the Victorian period.

“This new prison is from every side the most conspicuous building, and architecturally, by far the greatest ornament to the town.”

London Illustrated News of 17th February 1844

Oscar Wilde — Reading Gaol's most famous inmate

Reading Gaol’s most well-known prisoner was Irish poet Oscar Wilde. At the height of his fame in 1895, Wilde was arrested for association with male prostitutes and homosexual brothels. Wilde was convicted for gross indecency with men after his love affair with fellow poet Lord Alfred Douglas was exposed.

Wilde was first imprisoned in Newgate. London, followed by Wandsworth (also London), where he endured hard labour and suffered malnutrition and dysentery. Later in 1895 he was later moved to Reading Gaol where conditions were said to be better. According to Reading Museum’s “Tea and Talks,” Wilde had a history of “attending multiple parties in the homes of Reading’s wealthy elite.”

Alas, the conditions in Reading Gaol were very far from pleasant and he and his fellow inmates suffered greatly. Professor Peter Stonely of Reading University found public records at the Berkshire Records Office which shed light on conditions:

“Wilde’s failing health is chronicled from an 1896 enquiry, which concluded that “prison life must of course be more irksome and severe for a prisoner of his education and antecedent than it would be to an ordinary one.” Stonely found that Wilde surviving his prison years at all as “down to his fellow inmates. He told a friend that for the first six months of his sentence he had wanted to die, but that seeing and communicating with other prisoners had saved him.”

The New York Times article on the campaign to save the gaol states that “For an aesthete and sybarite like Wilde, incarceration was a crushing change of fortune depicted vividly in “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” which he wrote after his release. It recounts the fate of an inmate who was hanged in the prison grounds.

“Each narrow cell in which we dwell

Is a foul and dark latrine,

And the fetid breath of living Death

Chokes up each grated screen,

And all, but Lust, is turned to dust

In Humanity’s machine”

According to the Guardian article “Oscar Wilde’s Gift to Governor,” Wilde felt he was losing his mind with the “fearful system of cellular confinement,” under the strict rule of prison governor Henry Isaacson. He struggled with the absence of writing materials, something that is considered “so vital for the preservation of mental balance.” He eventually lost weight, his good health and even permission to talk.

“Wilde felt he was losing his mind with the “fearful system of cellular confinement,” under the strict rule of prison governor Henry Isaacson.”

Guardian article “Oscar Wilde's Gift to Governor"

Oscar writes again

Things improved slightly for Wilde when Isaacson was replaced as prison governor by Major James Nelson. It is said in “Oscar Wilde’s Gift to Governor,” that one of Nelson’s first acts as governor was to “inform Wilde of the Home Office’s permission for him to access books, pens, and ink.” According to Richard Ellmann in his biographical study “Oscar Wilde,” Wilde is said to have cried “the first kind words that have been spoken to me since I have been in gaol.”

Equipped with his tools once more, Wilde resumed writing. He wrote De Profundis in 1897, a letter in which he reflected on the relationship which led to his imprisonment. The following year, under his cell identity “C.3.3”, Wilde wrote, perhaps his most famous and most quoted piece, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” a 654-line poem, dedicated to fellow prisoner Charles Thomas Woolridge, who was executed at Reading Gaol after murdering his wife in 1896.

“The Ballad of Reading Gaol” has become one of the most quoted pieces of English literature, and Wilde’s work remains incredibly influential. The Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, edited by writer, broadcaster and honorary president of the Oscar Wilde Society, Gyles Brandreth, placed Oscar Wilde in first place on their most memorable lines ever written list, with the greatest number of quotes included from a single source also being attributed to him.

Brandreth commented that Reading Gaol now symbolises the impact Wilde has had on global literature, culture, and society’s history. “There are not many literary figures whose life as well as their work, plays a part in the national story, and indeed in the international story,” he said. “We are fascinated by his rise and by his fall, and, because of the extraordinary change in attitudes to homosexuality over the century, he also has a place in social history. What we get in Reading Gaol is that transition from triumph to tragedy.”

“We are fascinated by his rise and by his fall, and, because of the extraordinary change in attitudes to homosexuality over the century, he also has a place in social history. What we get in Reading Gaol is that transition from triumph to tragedy.”

Gyles Brandreth

20th Century multiple uses and closure

Today, the building is Grade II listed for its architectural interest. The Historic Listing says it is noted for its “pioneering of confinement systems and its historical interest,” and the entire site is classified as a “scheduled monument”.

The gaol was officially closed in November 1915. However since then, it has served the community in many ways. As a detention centre, Canadian Army military prison. In 1946, it became an overflow prison for men serving short sentences and in 1951, a youth detention centre. Eventually in the 1970’s, it reverted to an adult prison, and underwent many fabric and design changes, including re-fenestration of cells and multiple wall demolitions. Its most recent role as a remand centre ended in 2013, when the doors were finally closed for good.

“The site is noted for pioneering of confinement systems and its historical interest, and the entire site is classified as a scheduled monument.”

Reading Gaol — historic listing

2009 Reading Abbey Revealed project conserves the abbey ruins

For centuries the close lying remaining stones of Reading Abbey lay deteriorating. This period ended in 2009 when the site was closed to the public and the conservation of the ruins and Gateway ensued. This major project entitled Reading Abbey Revealed was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Reading Borough Council, with Historic England funding the conservation of the refectory wall.

By May 2018 the project had conserved the south transept including the founder’s chapel, the chapter house, the refectory wall and the dormitory of the abbey. Extensive work was also  undertaken to conserve the Abbey Gateway where there had been considerable water damage.

The site reopened to the public on 16 June 2018 to much fanfare and has been a huge success attracting many visitors wishing to visit both the ruins and the brilliant series of outdoor arts events that have taken place there. Undoubtedly the successful conservation of the Abbey Ruins has bolstered local hopes of preserving Reading Gaol and transforming it into an arts venue.

Artangel provides glimpse of potential new existence for gaol

In 2016, cultural production company Artangel demonstrated the gaol’s suitability as an arts venue with their widely acclaimed landmark arts programme, “Inside.” During the programme of events, the public were allowed into the gaol for the first time in its history. They joined National Trust guided walking tours of the prison and watched readings, performances and presentations from globally renowned artists, performers, and writers.

Highlights included 7 internationally acclaimed performers being were invited to read from De Profundis in the old chapel. They included Ralph Fiennes, Patti Smith and Ben Whishlaw, (Patti Smith’s reading is available to watch Vimeo or YouTube). In other highlights Rupert Everett read The Ballad of Reading Gaol (watch on Vimeo and YouTube). Writers Ai Weiwei and Jeanette Winterson (plus many more luminaries) were invited to compose a letter to a loved one from whom they have been separated by state enforcement in response. Hand-written, typed, and audio-recorded versions of these Letters of Separation are installed in cells at Reading Prison. You can also listen to a selection online.

All performances were in response to Oscar Wilde’s work or the prison architecture and focussed on the themes of imprisonment and separation. The prison corridors, wings, and cells were decorated with artwork created by Marlene Dumas, Steve McQueen, and Robert Gober.

Amazingly “Inside” saw more than 50,000 attendees come through the gaol doors, including many international visitors and it established a new vision of what the prison might become.

Hopes for Reading Gaol to become a theatre

In 2018, Theatre Arts Reading began to assess the gaol as a potential site for a new theatre for the town. However, despite their bids being comprehensive and well funded, e.g. designed to “show off other aspects of the history of a town that that was the burial place of King Henry I.” As stated in “Reading Gaol: The battle to save Oscar Wilde’s prison cell,” in the Irish Times, the town council were (and still are) unsuccessful in acquiring the plot from the Ministry of Justice.

In 2019, the site was put on the open market for the highest bidder. A Ministry of Justice spokesperson stated in the Reading Chronicle newspaper that “any sale will seek the best value for taxpayers and be reinvested into the justice system, while ensuring planning requirements for the historic site are met.”

Fears in the community rose as large housing developers began bidding and council and campaigners were unsuccessful in their bid for the site despite their “public good’ arguments and community focus.

Save Reading Gaol

The Save Reading Gaol (SRG) campaign emerged in 2019 when Reading East, Labour MP, Matt Rodda started a petition to save the gaol for the community as an arts venue rather than it becoming another housing development. When recently asked about the plan’s relevance to the town, Rodda was widely quoted as saying that, “the gaol has been at the heart of Reading for around 170 years. Its history is intertwined with that of our town and with international literary, and LGBTQ+ history. It is an incredibly important cultural heritage site.”

The campaign’s bid for the site is led by Reading Borough Council and the campaign group. Unusually the campaign has cut through social, cultural and political divides to galvanise support across the local and global community. Symbolised in 2019 when the campaigns “Hug for Reading Gaol” event saw hundreds of people surrounding the gaol holding hands. Reading West, Conservative MP, Alok Sharma stated this is something that “matters for the whole of Reading.” He added, “this is not about party politics, this is about community.”

The Reading Culture and Heritage Strategy 2015-2030 has this as its vision: “By 2030, Reading will be recognised as a centre of creativity with a reputation for cultural and heritage excellence at a regional, national and international level with increased engagement across the town.” Certainly transforming the Grade II listed “to house a range of arts and community functions such as art exhibitions, music and theatre shows, craft and educational workshops and places to socialise like cafes and restaurants.” Moreover the project will honour Oscar Wilde’s experience of incarceration for homosexuality by becoming an LGBTQ+ centre of excellence.

If the plans come to fruition it will provide a fantastic educational resource becoming a facility that can respond to “pressing social and environmental issues” and will provide a tourism hub for Reading with retail space for local artists, plus countless jobs for the community.

The provision of a “cultural hub” is something that Reading is sorely lacking — Reading’s is the UK’s largest town but does not have an arts centre! Reading residents would benefit significantly from the project moving forward.

“The gaol has been at the heart of Reading for around 170 years. Its history is intertwined with that of our town and with international literary and LGBTQ+ history. It is an incredibly important cultural heritage site.”

Matt Rodda, Labour MP

A blow to hopes of saving the gaol

Despite the campaigns enormous support and a strong bid Reading Borough Council’s bid was not successful. In 2020 property developers Artisan Real Estate, who describe themselves as “regeneration specialists,” had their offer for the site accepted. Their aim stated aim being to focus development of the site around a hotel.

However, in a further twist of fate Artisan have since pulled out of the deal “due to heritage issues.” Other bids from property developers with dreams of creating acres of housing, offices, gyms across the site, continue to be considered by the Ministry of justice despite local and international opposition. Meanwhile repeated attempts by local MP’s and counsellors to persuade the MOJ to reconsider continue to fall on deaf ears.

“They have an ideal opportunity here to create what I think will be one of the best facilities, certainly in the southeast, possibly in the country.”

Councillor Keith Baker

Global recognition for the campaign

“If living art can rise up from the place where Oscar and so many others suffered then how perfect that will be, for Reading, for Britain and for us all.”

Steven Fry

The SRG campaign has received global recognition. In 2021, The New York Times ran the article,

“OSCAR WILDE’S PRISON SOON TO BE TORN DOWN: Reading Gaol, Where the Brilliant Poet Suffered, Will Give Way to Modern Flats — A Heartbreaking Poem Made It Known Throughout the World.”

The piece decried the decision to sell to developers and not protect such a valuable historic asset. Beyond this the campaign has attracted the support of many influential arts, cultural and political figures globally. Some have a direct connection to Reading, many don’t. All understand the historical significance of the gaol and site.

Stephen Fry, who played Oscar in the 1997 biographical film “Wilde,” perfectly captured this by saying in an article for Berkshire Life:

“this too I know — and wise it were if each could know the same — that every prison that men build is built with bricks of shame, wrote Oscar Wilde in his Ballad of the Reading Gaol. But flowers can grow out of manure, and if living art can rise up from the place where Oscar and so many others suffered then how perfect that will be, for Reading, for Britain and for us all.”


“Reading is an amazing place. It deserves to preserve and transform its world-renowned link with a unique piece of social, political and artistic history.”

Sir Kenneth Branagh

Reading born actress Kate Winslet, has backed the campaign after being contacted by Toby Davies from Reading’s Rabble Theatre who help lead the campaign. Having been brought up in Reading she is aware of what this arts centre would bring to the town and was reported by the BBC talking about her own experiences growing up in the town and how “she learnt to act at drama clubs held in scout halls, church halls and school gyms because there was no real central space for creative communities to be built.” She went on to explain “shows start at those out-of-town venues, then maybe transfer to London. How exciting for something like that to begin in Reading, something that increases local employment and encourages people to join in…”  She has since tweeted a promise to perform at the arts centre’s opening night — if plans become a reality.

Sir Kenneth Branagh, patron of Reading’s Progress Theatre, which he joined as a teen, is passionate about the project too. He believes, as he stated in an open letter to the theatre in 2020, that Reading Gaol will be “a cultural hub that exponentially develops remarkable stories of the people of Reading.” The Progress theatre, founded in 1946, has had great impact on the arts community in Reading. They continue to back the Save the Reading Gaol campaign, believing as Branagh went on to say in his letter, “Reading is an amazing place. It deserves to preserve and transform its world-renowned link with a unique piece of social, political and artistic history.”

Could Banksy be the key to saving the gaol?

The story took a very exciting turn in March 2021 when the media spotlight fell on the campaign again because street artist Banksy created a work on the wall of Reading gaol. It appeared from no where one morning, alongside a genius video parody of Bob Ross posted to social media, having been created under cover of darkness. The piece “Create Escape” shows an escaping prisoner, with a typewriter tied to bed sheets, which could be interpreted as a reference to Oscar Wilde. You can view the video here.

The appearance set the town and campaign on fire with the world’s media taking greater notice than ever of the jeopardy the gaol is in. There were more twists and turns as shortly after its appearance the artwork was vandalised and the typewriter covered over with the “Team Robbo” tag appearing in its stead; this was a reference to King Robbo, the late street artist who held a longstanding feud with Banksy.

A similar looking mural of a typewriter then appeared on nearby Reading Bridge, as well as an image of a boy next to the slogan “cherish, love, hope”, and the typewriter later reappeared under Banksy’s original piece at Reading Gaol. These pieces were attributed to local street artist Peachy who later explained to the Reading Chronicle that “the piece was too important to leave in that way.”

Banksy pledges £10 million to help save the gaol

“Wilde was the patron saint of smashing two contrasting ideas together to create magic… Converting the place that destroyed him into a refuge for art feels so perfect we have to do it.”


It is said that Banksy first caught sight of the Reading prison wall while riding a rail replacement bus service through the town. Legend has it Banksy clambered over the seats to get a closer look. The street artist stated in an article for the BBC last year that “it’s rare to find an uninterrupted 500m-long paintable surface slap bang in the middle of a town,” and despite knowing nothing about the gaol, Reading town, or the campaign to save it, Banksy vowed to paint on the wall.

It has now come to light that once the SRG campaign became known to Banksy, Banksy became “passionate” about it. Banksy is quoted across various news sources to have said, “Wilde was “the patron saint of smashing two contrasting ideas together to create magic… Converting the place that destroyed him into a refuge for art feels so perfect we have to do it.”

In a brilliant twist for the campaign Banksy has now pledged to raise millions of pounds (estimated at £10 million), to “match fund” the gaol’s £10m asking price by selling the stencil he used to paint on the Grade II-listed building’s wall, and to support it becoming an arts centre and community asset.

With this enormous boost the campaign has gone back to the Ministry of Justice to increase its bid and secure the site. However in a devastating blow for the community the Ministry of Justice rejoined that “the deadline for bids has passed.” “We are currently considering the ones (bids) we received (prior to the second deadline).”

What next?

As it stands the future of this site of such deep historic, social, political and religious significance hangs in the balance!

Thanks to the incredible efforts of so many people in the Reading community, international arts, cultural and literary community — and to Banksy’s creativity and generosity, there is a real opportunity to save Reading Gaol. The site which has been seized by Vikings, been the resting place of kings and an important destination for religious devotion. Which has seen the dissolution of the monasteries, seizure of its assets and removal of its stones to build Windsor Castle. Which was home to Elizabeth I and basecamp to Charles I, and school to Jane Austen. Which later became a place of brutal confinement to so many including Oscar Wilde — simply  because he loved a man.

This amazing site could be saved for the community as an arts venue, but only if the Ministry of Justice applies a less narrow summation to the question — what is the public good.

As Banksy says “Converting the place that destroyed him (Wilde) into a refuge for art feels so perfect we have to do it.”

Old buildings reflect our history and help us to understand and respect what has come before us. They are the faces of cities and reflect their changes, conflicts and heart. Join us and the Reading community in supporting  the campaign to Save Reading Gaol by signing the petition below:

Click here to sign.

For more on the campaign visit social accounts below:

SRG: Instagram / Twitter / Save Reading Gaol Facebook

Or contact:

You can also contact MP Matt Rodda about the campaign here:

Phone: 0118 466 1252

Office hours: 10am to 3pm, Monday to Friday.

Matt Rodda: Facebook / Instagram / Twitter

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