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Sunday 8 December 2019

For sale - jail where Oscar Wilde served time over gay sex

Oscar Wilde served time
Oscar Wilde served time

Reading Prison - a forbidding Victorian jail turned LGBT landmark - is up for sale.

The deserted site is 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, chief executive and co-founder of Queer Britain, the national LGBTQ+ museum.

"We are losing heritage and cultural spaces to commercial redevelopment which will never be recovered."

Reading jail housed the Irish poet and author, whose homoerotic 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 readings of Wilde's work by actors and musicians such as Patti Smith and Rupert Everett.

Magnet

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.

It is the latest prison to be sold by the British government as it seeks to turn state assets into money to bolster its budget.

Britain's Justice Ministry said it would invest cash 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.

Paul Johnson, professor of sociology at the University of York, said that Britain had a poor record of marking its historic persecution of gay people and that the prison was important.

"It does crystallise what hundreds of thousands of people suffered. It isn't just about one person," he said.

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

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.

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