Save Reading Gaol Campaign

Enter the Ballads for Reading Gaol poetry competition!

Sharp eyed visitors to the new Grayson’s Art club exhibition at Bristol Museum may notice that Banksy’s contribution – the original stencil used to paint on Reading Gaol – is credited as coming ‘from the collection of Reading Council’. We are delighted to confirm that Banksy has indeed pledged the artwork to the people of Reading on the understanding that all the proceeds from its sale are used to secure the purchase of the Gaol and convert it into an arts centre.

The stencil, which could potentially be worth millions of pounds, will hopefully be enough to convince the Ministry of Justice to accept Reading Council’s bid. A spokesperson for Banksy said that the Culture Secretary had been made aware of the pledge of funds, but that no response has yet been received.

Create Escape by Banksy

Write to Dominic Raab, Secretary of State for Justice and Victoria Atkins, Minister of State for Prisons and Probation, demanding they take action.

PDF letter
Download here

Dear Mr Raab & Ms Atkins

I understand the Ministry of Justice is again marketing Reading Prison for sale after it decided the local Council’s £2.6 million bid was not of a high enough monetary value.

It would be a disastrous mistake if the Ministry of Justice were to go against the swell of local opinion and the wishes of the local council and sell this valuable historic site to the highest bidder to convert into housing or a hotel.

This would be a triumph of a blinkered short termism against a more imaginative and ultimately more economically beneficial decision. The site of Oscar Wilde’s incarceration would draw people from afar, economically benefitting the wider region and creating a significant tourist attraction. We urge you to embrace the unique chance to make Reading Gaol the world class destination it deserves to be.

This opportunity will never come around again.

Yours sincerely,

[Your Name Here]

Background

Reading Gaol is a Victorian prison, situated in the centre of Reading town and owned by the Ministry of Justice. Built in 1844 it sits on top of part of the medieval Reading Abbey – once one of the largest and most important monasteries in Europe and where King Henry I is known to have been buried. The prison itself was designed by William Bonython Moffatt and George Gilbert Scott, one the most prominent architects of his age.

Through the bars Matt Emmett, Forgotten Heritage

It is famous as the place where author, poet and playwright Oscar Wilde was imprisoned, in 1895, for having a relationship with a man. It is therefore significant in terms of LGBTQ history. Whilst imprisoned at the Gaol, Oscar wrote his work De Profundis (From the Depths) and would later pen ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ upon his release, which would be his final work.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Oscar Wilde wrote his dark ballad, which describes the execution of a prisoner and the effect it has on the other prisoners, after his release from Reading Gaol.

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The Two Rivers Press edition of The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Henry I by Carole Stephens

King Henry I Burial Site
The site of Reading Gaol lies on the Scheduled Ancient Monument of Reading Abbey. Reading Abbey was founded by King Henry I in 1121. After Henry died in 1135 from “a surfeit of lampreys” he was buried in front of the High Altar in an area now covered by the St James School and the the prison car park.

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Reading Gaol was closed by the government in January 2014, since which time it has sat unused. The site is now on the market ‘to the highest bidder’ and is at threat of being sold to developers to turn into luxury flats

Artangel “Inside” Reading Gaol

In 2016 the doors of Reading Gaol were opened for an exhibition “Inside” put on by Artangel. This included works by world renowned artists and performances of Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol and De Profundis read by Rupert Everett and Patti Smith.

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The Campaign

Reading Gaol is a crucial piece of heritage, not only for the town itself, but for Berkshire and the UK. It is significant for its unusual architecture (grade II listed) and the wealth of archaeology buried beneath it, not to mention the stories linked to it.

In 2018 Theatre and Arts Reading (TAR) started to evaluate the Gaol as a possible location for a new theatre in Reading.  The Save Reading Gaol Campaign emerged in 2019. Local MP Matt Rodda started a petition to Save the Gaol for the community rather than having it sold for housing development.

Our campaign objective is to convert Reading Gaol into an Arts and Heritage centre for the community and accessible to all. The vision is to see as much of the grade II listed building as possible repurposed, housing a range of arts and community serving functions, including spaces for art exhibitions, music, theatre, crafts, educational workshops and places for people to socialise such as a café and restaurant.

One such vision is the OSCAR proposal by Kirsten Sinclair.

OSCAR – The Open Skies Centre for Arts in Reading

OSCAR is a multidisciplinary creative hub designed by Kirstin Sinclair to transform the site of the former Reading Gaol from an unwelcoming institution, to a buzzing artistic haven full of performance and inspiration.

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Reading Gaol Hugged

On Sunday 13th October 2019, about 1000 people joined hands surrounding Reading Gaol in a physical demonstration of the wish for it to be saved as an Arts and Heritage centre. It was a wet day, but that didn’t deter them, although it did deter the BBC drone. Fortunately, back in 2019, nobody had yet outlawed joining hands with strangers and hugging.

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Luxury flat C.3.3 by Martina Hildebrandt

Despite the campaign, supported by both Reading MPs, the Ministry of Justice tried to sell the Gaol to the highest bidder at the end of 2019. Reading Borough Council made a bid for the prison with a view to an Arts and Heritage centre but, not surprisingly, was outbid by a housing developer, Artisan Real Estate.

Cyber March

In March 2020, campaigners had organised a parade through the streets of Reading to protest the sale of the gaol to developers. Several hundred people had signed up, banners were made, performers were on standby to fill Reading’s streets with music, theatre, dancing, giant puppets and circus arts.

Sadly, like so many things, the event was cancelled due to the Covid 19 pandemic, but organisers were able to move the event online as a ‘Cyber March’ instead.

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credit : Reading Hot Air Balloon Society

Bid falls through
The sale to Artisan subsequently fell through and Reading Borough Council was given an exclusive period to bid for the Gaol, which they did on March 15th 2021 offering £2.6m. The Ministry of Justice rejected this bid.

A new round of bidding was announced in June 2021. Reading Borough Council’s previous bid remaining on the table.

Celebrity Support

The campaign to convert Reading Gaol into an Arts and Heritage centre is supported by many prominent individuals from the arts and media world.

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Banksy’s Create Escape

On the morning of 1st March 2021 Reading residents awoke to find an artwork painted on the prison wall at Reading Gaol. This lifted the spirits of young and old, at a time when partial Coronavirus restrictions were still in place.

The general view seemed to be that it was a Banksy and a few days later this was confirmed on Banksy’s Instagram account which showed a video “Create Escape”.

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Reading Gaol Inspires Creativity

Reading Gaol and its connection with Oscar Wilde has already inspired creativity, which is just one reason why we think it would make an amazing Arts and Heritiage centre.

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Current Status

The date for submission of bids has now passed. The Ministry of Justice is now evaluating bids that were submitted. Reading Borough Council have submitted a bid of £2.6 million pounds for Reading Gaol. Banksy has pledged the stencil for his Create Escape artwork that is to the people of Reading on the understanding that all the proceeds from its sale are used to secure the purchase of the Gaol and convert it into an Arts and Heritage centre. We wait with bated breath…