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Reading Prison

The New Gaol at Reading

In 1844, Reading Prison was built on the site of the old county gaol, beside the River Kennet. The castle-like cruciform building, designed by George Gilbert Scott, was based on Pentonville Prison, London. These innovative penitentiaries were designed to keep inmates apart, a method of prison discipline known as ‘the separate system’.

The new Reading Prison had 250 individual cells; four men’s wings; one virtually self-contained women’s wing; a flat roof for performing executions; luxury housing for the prison chaplain and governor; and a turret each for the matron, deputy-governor and two other prison officers. The new goal’s first prisoner was Abraham Boswell who was sentenced to six months with hard labour for sexually assaulting a toddler. The first prisoner to be executed was Thomas Jennings. He was accused of poisoning his son but protested his innocence right up until he was put to death.

Reading Prison plans (1842) held at the Berkshire Record OfficeThe Irish author, Oscar Wilde, was probably the gaol’s most famous resident. On 20 November 1895, Wilde was transferred to Reading from Wandsworth Prison; he had been sentenced to two years with hard labour after being found guilty of gross indecency. In his poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), Wilde describes his cell as a ‘foul and dark latrine’. In the same year as Wilde’s poem was published, a newPrison Act was passed, calling for more humane living conditions and the abolition of hard labour.

Right: Reading Prison plans (1842), held at the Berkshire Record Office

A Place of Internment

During the First World War, prison populations dwindled due to wartime employment opportunities and the army’s recruitment drive. Instead of holding traditional criminals, prisons accommodated foreign nationals who were suspected of spying and/ or having anti-British sympathies. Reading Prison was re-designated as a place of internment. Internment was the act of detention without trial. Over the course of the war, Reading played host to various ‘aliens’. The majority were inmates of German origin but Latin Americans, Belgians, and Hungarians were also interned.

In July 1916, the ‘aliens’ were joined by the ‘Irish’ – a group of 37 men who had been involved (either directly or indirectly) in the Easter Rising. The gaol’s Nominal Register tells us that the majority of the men were transferred from Frongoch Internment Camp, but others came from Wakefield Prison, Knutsford Prison, Stafford Prison, and Woking Prison. They were interned without trial under the terms of 1914 Defence of the Realm Act and housed in the ‘E’ Wing which, until 1915, had been a women’s wing.

Reading Prison Today

The wing used by the Irish internees was demolished in 1969. In 1992, Reading prison was re-designated as an H.M. Remand Centre for Young Offenders, taking inmates aged 18 to 21. It closed in November 2013. 

Below: Illustration of Reading Prison (1844), from the Illustrated London News. Courtesy of Reading Central Library
Illustration of Reading Prison (1844), from the Illustrated London News- courtesy of Reading Central Library


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51 response(s) so far…

Carol Harris
Posted on the : 16 Oct 2014

I lived in a tower of Reading Prison with my Uncle John Coles, a warder there, and my aunt when I was four years old. My parents had nowhere else to live. I looked out at 'the walkers' every day. My mother always told me off, they were the prisoners walking round and round. The garden was very small and there were 'battlements' I thought we lived in a castle! I remember the river was close by and we often enjoyed a boat trip.

C. Norman
Posted on the : 16 Oct 2014

It was a Remand Centre not Reprimand Centre

Reginald Horne
Posted on the : 20 Oct 2014

I remember this evil place as a Borstal Punishment centre where every thing had to done on the double.I know I went there in the 1960s. You got bread and water just for going there.I got 15 days no 1 and 15 days cc (confined to cell)

Jennifer Scarpa
Posted on the : 26 Oct 2014

I am trying find about Edward Painter who was executed for stealing 2 heffers in the 1800

Posted on the : 27 Oct 2014

Hello Jennifer, the execution register we have covers 1893 to 1913 which is later than your query. Please email us using the online Contact Us form and we can look into this for you.

Micheal brown
Posted on the : 18 Nov 2014

Ello bro shame reading prison closed I got on with most of the prison staff done my time and got out on my edr reading prison would make good homes for homeless people a roof over their heads lots of cells to put em in
Posted on the : 28 Dec 2014

Dear Sir I am trying to find out whether you have any records on an inmate called Eric Vernon Purdue (he was my father in law) He died in 1973 apart from that I know nothing else Your help would be appreicated

Posted on the : 30 Dec 2014

Dear Ian - unfortunately, we do not have prisoner records for this period. I would try the Ministry of Justice - though it is possible that these records are destroyed after a set period of time has passed. Good luck! BRO

Posted on the : 14 Jan 2015

Does anyone have any news of plans for the prison buildings? One idea I've heard is for a part to be converted into a (novelty)hotel-including cells. I gather this was done successfully at Oxford

Posted on the : 23 Jan 2015

Dear Paul - we have not heard any news on the development of the prison. If you have not already done so, you may like to read the Planning Framework compiled by Reading Borough Council last year. Unfortunately the system will not allow me to put the link to it here. In your web browser type in 'planning framework reading prison'. A link to a pdf document should appear. Otherwise contact Reading Borough Council for a copy.

Diane Barber
Posted on the : 2 Feb 2015

I am trying to find out about my ancestors Mark, Solomon, Edward and Joseph Tuck. All of who I believe spent time in Reading Gaol during the 1800's.

Posted on the : 3 Feb 2015

Hello Diane, the registers we have for the prison start in the 1880s so are possibly too late for your query. However, we may be able to look into this further for you. Please use the online Contact Us form so that we can correspond in more detail.

R. Doughty
Posted on the : 18 Sep 2015

Re: Edward Painter. I have a book called 'The Story of a Prison', written by Peter Southerton. There is a list of executions from 1800. It mentions Edward Painter, executed 29 March 1802 for the theft of two heifers from Mortimer Fair. Not much more information than already mentioned, but confirmation at least.

Angela Le Mare
Posted on the : 19 Dec 2015

Do you have any information on James Tagg, Caroline Tagg or Mary Ann Tagg who I understand were inmates in the gaol at times during the second half of the 1880s? What were conditions like at that time? (I have read Oscar Wilde's description!) What did hard labour entail? (Many thanks in advance.)

Posted on the : 21 Dec 2015

Hi Angela Please do use the contact us form to get a detailed response about particular prisoners - there are prison records, court records and newspapers that might all have something. In the 1880s, prisoners were locked up for most of the day, and let out only for chapel in the morning and for one hour's exercise. There were two classes of hard labour. The hardest at Reading was turning the crank - for no purpose, for around six hours each day - while 'easier' hard labour was oakum picking - teasing out strands of tarred rope. Most prisoners did the latter. Hope that helps, BRO

Posted on the : 4 Apr 2016

I was wondering if anyone has escaped the prison?

Posted on the : 7 Apr 2016

Hello Colin You may like to take a look at the book by Anthony Stokes called "Pit of Shame: The Real Ballad of Reading Gaol"; published 2007. Mr Stokes refers to several escape attempts and successes including a group who tried to dig their way out in 1827 and more recently (in 1984) a prisoner escaped through a window in the visitors area, but was recaptured. It appears that Mr Stokes extracted most of the references to these escapes from the local newspaper, the Reading Mercury. You can access this at Reading Central Library (please see their website for details of location and opening hours - I'm afraid this comment box does not permit the insertion of website addresses). You can most likely online access it via the British Newspaper Archive. Mr Stokes also used other records for his research which are not held here such as at the National Archives (the book book provides details of these). I hope this has helped to answer your question. BRO

Jenny Barrett
Posted on the : 23 Apr 2016

Hi, I am trying to trace someone who spent time at Reading Prison in the 1960's. Would this be possible? The name is 'Mick Lovett'. Many thanks,

Posted on the : 28 Apr 2016

Dear Jenny Barrett Whilst we do have records relating to Reading Prison's prisoners, most are for a much earlier period (up to the 1910s). The Governor's journals refer to some individuals and there are some for the 1960s; but these are closed due to their sensitive nature. If you wanted to see if they refer to Mr Lovett, you would need to write to us either by email via the online Contact Us form (link on the left of the website page), or by post (address on the left of the website page). If you know which court he was sentenced through, you could find out more about the case itself. If he was tried in Berkshire, we hold Petty Session court records (now the Magistrates Court) though there are gaps - it depends which area in Berkshire. If he was tried elsewhere, you would need to contact the relevant record office for that area. If you would like us to look into the Berkshire ones for you, please let us know via the online Contact Us form or by post. If he lived in Berkshire, he may be listed in the electoral registers which we hold here. Again we can search these for you if you let us know via email/post. We do charge for research; please see the Asking us to do research page under the Visiting and Using Us page for details. You can of course undertake research free of charge by visiting the BRO yourself. If Mr Lovett was not from Berkshire, you will need to contact the local record office where he lived to see if he was registered to vote and appears in their registers. Local newspapers can also help, whether to find out what happened at the time, or to place an ad asking for his whereabouts today. The BRO does not hold newspapers, they are at local libraries. Again, if he was not from Berkshire, you will need to contact local libraries in the area that he was from. To place an ad to ask for assistance in finding Mr Lovett today, please search online for local newspapers and contact them directly. I hope this is of some help to you. BRO.

Roberta Hipshon
Posted on the : 30 May 2016

My great grandmother's birth certificate states that she was born in the 'County Gaol, Forbury, Reading on March 19th 1868. I have since learned that her mother, Annie Jane Kirk was at the end of a 6 months hard labour sentence for larceny. She had been there previously under the name Jane Taylor (her maiden name) I believe!

Posted on the : 2 Jun 2016

Dear Roberta Hipshon Unfortunately the surviving Reading Prison records we have start in the late 1880s, so we won't be able to find out more on when your Great Grandmother was sent to the prison here or if there is reference to the birth. If you haven't already done so, you may like to look into newspapers in case her name is mentioned. It may say when she was at the prison and what for. We do not hold newspapers here, but you can access many via the British Newspaper Archive. This is a pay-per-view online system which you can access at home. If you want to access if for free, we have a subscription and you can use it if you visit BRO. Please see our Visiting and Using Us page for more details on how to visit. If you are not local to Berkshire, your local library or record office may also offer a similar service.

Tony Murphy
Posted on the : 16 Jun 2016

My father, Dr Frank Murphy, was MO to the gaol, 1944-53. He witnessed the Dublin rising, served as MO in Africa, but disliked the Sinn Feiners. He once shut me in Oscar Wildes cell!

C Brown
Posted on the : 9 Jul 2016

I am trying to find out about a prisoner listed in the 1911 census. William Brown aged 60 born in Clewer, thanks.

Posted on the : 12 Jul 2016

Dear C Brown We have nominal registers of admissions to Reading Prison covering 1889 to 1915 which includes one for men for 1910-12 (ref. P/RP1/1/7). We also have Records of Convictions which are not dated, but thought to be c.1908 to 1915; ref. P/RP1/2/3 covers c.1910-13. If you would like to visit to look at these items, please see our Visiting and Using Us page and the Planning a Visit page. If you are unable to visit, we offer a research service and you can find out more about it on our Asking Us to do Research page which is also within the Visiting pages. If you do plan to visit or ask us to do research for you, please send us an email via our online Contact Us form (on the left of the website) as we can correspond in more detail. Hope this helps, BRO.

Posted on the : 9 Oct 2016

re:and more recently (in 1984) a prisoner escaped through a window in the visitors area, but was recaptured. My understanding was he just walked out with the visitors because they changed the whole set up the day after such that the prisoners could leave with the visitors.

Kim Smith
Posted on the : 4 Nov 2016

My grandfather was a prison officer at Reading, probably from around the late 1960's to 1990 but is there any way I can find out more information on when, and what his role was there? I also know that he lived there with my grandma and my dad in a house that over looked the river, but then moved to a prison officer house in Earley. I'd love to find out more if possible?

Posted on the : 8 Nov 2016

Hello Kim Smith Whilst we do hold records of Reading Prison here they do not cover staff records except for a few staff pay registers covering 1909 to 1920. It is most likely that modern staff would have been employed by the Ministry of Justice. Historical records for MoJ should be held at the National Archives. Amongst the records here there are some plans for staff housing. One set covers Kenton Lane, Reading, (1949; ref. P/RP1/16/11) another Finch Road, Earley (1953; ref. P/RP1/16/12). Unfortunately these are not in a good condition so you would need to request access and the conservator would then need to assess whether it would be possible for you to view them or to have them repaired. Another set cover the 1960s and these are in a fit condition to view (ref. P/RP1/16/14). To view the plans please write in via the online Contact Us form so that we can respond directly. Details of opening hours can be found on our website under the Opening Hours link should you which to visit to see the undamaged plans. We hope this is of help to you. From BRO.

isobel cuthbert
Posted on the : 11 Nov 2016

Could you advise if the records for 1907 are available online? Am trying to trace info on ancestor Temple Frederick Sinclair who was sent there in, I think, November 1907. Thanks for any help!

Posted on the : 14 Nov 2016

Hello Isobel Cuthbert I'm afraid that we do not have digital images of our records online. However, we do have catalogues available online. If you click on the Search the Catalogue link on the left of the main BRO home page, you can access our online catalogue. If you select Advanced Search and type in P/RP1 into the catalogue reference section, it will show a result for the catalogue. Click on the P/RP1 shown and it will provide a 'tree' of all records we have for the prison. You should be able to search these for any records you are interested in for 1907. You can then visit us to look at the items free of charge, or commission a search by emailing us via the online Contact Us form if you cannot visit in person. Again, there are links to all this information on our website under Visiting and Using Us. Hope this helps. Regards BRO.

Stephen Terry
Posted on the : 9 Dec 2016

My Great grandfather was a guard/warder at Reading Gaol in the late 19th century. His name was Samuel Terry and he served at the prison when Oscar Wilde was held there. There were 25 members of staff at this time including 3 women who I think were warders too. I have a photograph that is dated 1897 showing all the staff including the governor who is wearing a summer boater. If you have any information or records of Samuel Terry and possibly his son Roderick, I would be very grateful. Many thanks

Posted on the : 13 Dec 2016

Hello Stephen Terry Unfortunately there is not much relating to staff amongst the Reading Prison archive. We have a few staff pay registers covering 1909 to 1920, but nothing earlier. If your Great Grandfather was still a guard in 1909, we could look for you (for a fee) or you could visit and look yourself free of charge. Please see our Visiting and Using Us page for more information on our fees and how to visit and contact us via the online Contact Us form to commission research or make a booking. Thank you. If he was a local man, there may be reference to him in other records held here. Again we could investigate for you or you could visit and do it yourself. Please email via our online Contact Us form where we can respond directly (and privately) to you. You could also try the National Archives in case there is anything in their Ministry of Justice records on staffing. Hope this helps. Regards BRO.

Sandra Winter
Posted on the : 7 Jan 2017

Hello, I'm doing some research into Reading Gaol. I have two books our of the LSL by Peter Southerton which I have found very helpful. Is there any chance Mr Southerton is still alive and able to be contacted? Apologies if this is an inappropriate question.

Posted on the : 11 Jan 2017

Hello Sandra Winter Afraid we cannot answer your query regarding Mr Southerton. If you have not already done so, you may be able find out about him. You could also ask the publisher of his books. If you would like to look at any of the archives of Reading Prison as part of your research, please do visit us. Please see our Visiting and Using Us page for details. If you are unable to visit, we may be able to carry out research on your behalf. The Using Us page also provides information on how we can do this. Please do email us via our online Contact Us form should you wish to book a visit or commission a search. Thank you. Regards, BRO.

Posted on the : 11 Jan 2017

Apologies Sandra Winter our post to you should read "you may be able to find out about him online".

Stella Clark
Posted on the : 22 Mar 2017

I am trying to work out if a Robert Aldridge, who was tried in Reading on 2nd July 1852 and sentenced to 6 months imprisonment for larceny from the person, is my relative. Is there any way I could find more information? Thanks for your help.

Posted on the : 23 Mar 2017

Dear Stella Although there are no records of prisoners in the prison archive for that date, you might be able to find out a bit more about him through other records. Do you know which court it was? If you use the 'Contact Us' link on the left, please do send us a message. Hope that helps BRO

Posted on the : 17 May 2017

Hope you can help. Some years ago there was a man who went to Reading prison but I cant remember his name. I think he was done for tax evasion. It was a well know man and i dont think he was there very long, but its driving me mad that i cant remember his name :)

Posted on the : 18 May 2017

Hello Tracey I'm afraid that without a name to look for in the records we can't really help. Also we only have records of admissions, convictions and photo albums for the late nineteenth to early twentieth century (with gaps). So if the person you are thinking about was sent there in more recent living memory, it is likely that we won't hold anything here. There is a card index of prisoners for 1971 to 1980, but this is closed until 2081. Perhaps you could look through newspapers for an article on the person, either online through the British Newspaper Archive or directly through the British Library. If the prisoner was local to Berkshire, they may be mentioned in a local newspaper. These are held at local libraries - for example Reading holds those for Reading, Slough for Slough etc. If you do remember the name and date, please do get in touch again to see if we can help. Always worth using the online Contact Us form via email as this is private and more readily checked than the website and social media sites. Hope this helps. Regards, BRO.

Paul Mason
Posted on the : 10 Aug 2017

I was wondering if it would be possible to confirm whether Charles (or Chas) W Farrant was Governor of Reading Prison? The 1901 census has him as Governor HM Prison and living in Forbury Road. Thanks.

Posted on the : 10 Aug 2017

Hello Paul Mason Frustratingly, not many records have survived for the period you are interested in. The Governor's journals only begin in 1940; there is gap in the admission registers between 1894 and 1905 (not sure it would say the name of the governor anyway); the staff pay registers start in 1909. Governors were most likely appointed at high government level so it may be worth asking the National Archives (TNA). Their website indicates that they have superannuation records for 1834 to 1925 (ref. PMG 28) and prison staff appointment books 1887 to 1898 (ref. HO 160). The latter is just before 1901, but if he was made governor before 1901 he could be listed. These comment boxes do not enable us to provide a link to the website, so you will need to search online for the TNA. Curiously the TNA website states that a good place to look for staff and prisoners alike is the census. You may well find that the census entry you have is the only reference to him being governor. Hope you manage to find out. Regards, BRO.

Amanda Sudborough
Posted on the : 8 Jan 2018

I would like to find out about a governor of reading jail with the surname Morris . I imagine it would have been mid 1900s. Where would I be able to find irecords for this ?

Posted on the : 10 Jan 2018

Hello Amanda Sudborough There is a book by Peter Southerton called 'Reading Gaol by Reading Town' which has a list of governors at the back. It does not state where the information has been obtained from though. Unfortunately, the name Morris does not appear in it at all. Perhaps Morris was not a governor, but held another position at the prison. We have registers of staff pay 1909-1920. We can search these for you for a fee. Please write to us via the online ContactUs form to the left of the webpage and we can provide a quote for you. Alternatively you are welcome to visit us and consult the material free of charge. Just let us know when you would like to visit (via email) and we'll book you in. Hope this helps. Regards, BRO.

Posted on the : 17 Mar 2018

An amazing prison with so much history

Posted on the : 17 Mar 2018

An amazing prison with so much history. Will it ever open again?

Posted on the : 20 Mar 2018

Hello Karen Afraid we don't know what will happen to the prison. Believe it is still Ministry of Justice property so you could always enquire with them. Regards, BRO.

Nick Short
Posted on the : 26 May 2018

Is there a record of where the execution shed was built, as described by Wilde? Are there any images or plans>?

Posted on the : 15 Jun 2018

Hello Nick Short – apologies for the delay in this response, but we have been having some issues with our comments box. Hopefully this will get through this time. There is a reference to a sketch by Colonel A.B. Hardy in his "Notes on a few borough and county prisons, England and Wales, Oct & Nov 1877 [A.B. Hardy 23 Nov 1877]. It merely says that the 'notes' came from the 'Prison Library Service'. We don't have a copy of it here. Although the Ministry of Justice own the site, we're not sure if they would have a copy of this. Perhaps it would be worth asking them or the National Archives where higher level government archives end up? If it was published, the British Library may have a copy. Hope this helps. Regards, BRO.

John Smith
Posted on the : 28 Jun 2018

A very interesting page

Posted on the : 2 Jul 2018

Thank you John Smith.

John Bull
Posted on the : 3 Jul 2018

What has happened the building now

Posted on the : 3 Jul 2018

Hello John Bull As far as we are aware it is not in use at present. We believe that it remains Ministry of Justice property so you could always enquire with them. Regards, BRO.


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