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Bid to turn Reading Gaol into Oscar Wilde landmark rejected, as government plans to sell site off to private owner

Nick Duffy April 8, 2020
Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde. (Universal History Archive/Getty)

A bid to preserve Reading Gaol, where Oscar Wilde was imprisoned, has failed after the government opted to proceed with a plan to sell off the site privately.

The playwright and poet, who had a string of male lovers, was famously arrested and sent to Reading Gaol in 1895 for for gross indecency with men under the UK’s historic anti-gay laws.

Wilde served two years behind bars in Reading Gaol, where he penned the letter De Profundis and was inspired to write his final work The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Campaigners had hoped to open Oscar Wilde arts centre at Reading Gaol.

Stephen Fry, who famously portrayed the pioneering playwright in the film Wilde, was among high-profile figures backing a Reading Borough Council bid to rescue the site, which has been out of use since 2014 and us currently earmarked for sale by the Ministry of Justice.

However, the council’s bid to acquire the site in order to open an arts centre and LGBT+ museum has been rejected by the Ministry of Justice.

According to The Daily Telegraph, the MoJ has already earmarked a commercial bidder for the site — though the department has refused to disclose any “commercially sensitive” discussions.

Campaigners fear that the site falling into private hands could kill off any hope of the Grade II listed building having a future as a public arts venue.

However, the Save Reading Gaol campaign vowed: “We will continue to campaign to persuade the, as yet, unnamed successful bidders to apportion part of the precious heritage site for the community.”

Oscar Wilde: A cell is pictured inside Reading Gaol
A cell is pictured inside Reading Gaol (JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Government slammed for selling site ‘to the highest bidder’.

Matt Rodda, MP for Reading East, said: “I am deeply disappointed with the Government’s approach and I would urge the Government to work with the council and respect the enormous historical importance of Reading Gaol.

“I am concerned that the Government still want to sell the gaol to the highest bidder and I understand they now have a preferred bidder who they are working with.

“I would ask them even at this late stage to reconsider and think again about selling the gaol to Reading Borough Council or an arts and heritage organisation.”

The leader of Reading Borough Council, Cllr Jason Brock, said: “The council’s bid rightly focused on the historical and cultural value of the Reading Prison site and it was dependent on securing significant external funds to manage the risk of taking ownership of this historic property.

We are naturally disappointed that the Ministry of Justice has rejected the council’s bid.

“The purchase of Reading Gaol comes with significant planning parameters which are fundamental to any development of the site and are designed to protect the prison’s historical, archaeological and cultural value, all of national significance.”

He added: “I intend to meet with the successful bidder at the earliest opportunity to impress this upon them and want to work closely with them to ensure the historical and cultural value of Reading Prison is given prominence as plans are developed.”

More: Oscar Wilde, reading gaol

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