By Professor Helen Johnston

On this day … 19 May 1897, 125 years ago Oscar Wilde was released from prison.

The previous evening, Wilde had passed through the gate of Reading Gaol, as he was taken by rail to London, to be released via Pentonville prison, partly to avoid any media attention.[1]

Wilde’s freedom had finally arrived after serving two years’ imprisonment with hard labour. He had been sentenced for crimes of ‘gross indecency’ or laws relating to homosexuality (under the Criminal Law Amendment 1885) having been found guilty by a jury at the Old Bailey on 20 May 1895.[2] The judge remarked that he would be passing the severest sentence and did so, imprisonment with hard labour for two years’ was the maximum sentence of imprisonment permitted and only a tiny number of people each year were given such a sentence.[3]

Most people who experienced local prisons like Reading or Pentonville at this time, did so for short sentences, often a month or less.

At the conclusion of sentencing at the Old Bailey, Wilde spent the weekend in nearby Newgate prison before being sent to Pentonville. By July 1895, Wilde was in Wandsworth prison and during his time there his health appears to have declined, he was assessed by medical officers and in November it was decided he should be sent to a ‘country prison’, Reading was chosen.[4]

Therefore, Wilde served the bulk of his sentence at Reading, and since that time Reading Gaol has been synonymous with the writer. De Profundis, written page at a time during his incarceration and The Ballad of Reading Gaol, written after release when Wilde was in France, are often regarded as some of his most important works. The latter represented a scathing critique of the cruelties of prison system at the time, opening with the execution of Charles Thomas Wooldridge put to death in July 1896 for the murder of his wife. The work was penned under the pseudonym C.3.3 which was Wilde’s cell number at Reading, wing C, level 3, cell 3.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol drew a great deal of wider and public attention to the prison system at the time, but changes, were already in motion. The Gladstone Committee, a major enquiry into the prison system reported in 1895, had collated a vast amount of evidence about the operation and experience of imprisonment especially in the local prisons.

In the 1890s, the regime emphasised deterrence, through separate confinement, hard labour and sparse living conditions and minimal diet. As most local prisoners only served short periods, often 28 days or less, the first stage of the regime was most severe and only after this would prisoners slowly receive a little extra food or some small improvement and these would come gradually in stages across a sentence.

As Wilde had also discovered there was no remission in the local prison system, no ‘time off for good behaviour’, although this was possible during a penal servitude sentence. The chaplain of Wandsworth Prison, Reverend W. D. Morrison had also anonymously written in the press about prison conditions in 1894, via a series of articles that appeared in the Daily Chronicle, entitled ‘Our Dark Places’. Wilde’s contribution added to an already established critique of the prison system.

The Gladstone Committee advised a reduction in some of the deterrent elements, the removal of unproductive or hard labour, to be replaced with productive labour, for example. But it retained the use of separate confinement. Deterrence, the Committee argued needed to be balanced with rehabilitation and prisoners needed to be helped to live a ‘good and useful life’.

The Prisons Act 1898 also allowed local prisoners’ remission, for the possibility of early release, progress and hope, elements that were thought to be distinctly lacking in the former regime.

“I know not whether laws be right.
Or whether laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol
Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like year,
A year whose days are long”

(extract from The Ballad of Reading Gaol).[5]

_____________________________

Notes

[1] Southerton, P. (1993) Reading Gaol by Reading Town, Stroud: Berkshire Books.

[2] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 8.0, 13 May 2022), May 1895, trial of Oscar Fingal O’Fflahartie Wills Wilde (40) and Alfred Waterhouse Somerset Taylor (33) (t18950520-425).

[3] Imprisonment with or without hard labour was served in a local prison as opposed to ‘penal servitude’ which was a sentence of long-term imprisonment with a minimum term of three years’ was served in the convict prison system (see Johnston et al (2022) Penal Servitude: Convicts and long-term imprisonment, 1853-1948).

[4] Southerton, P. (1993) Reading Gaol by Reading Town, Stroud: Berkshire Books.

[5] Wilde, O. (1999) De Profundis, The Ballad of Reading Gaol & Other Writings, Ware: Wordsworth Classics.

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