Professor Peter Stoneley, from Reading University, gave a talk entitled ‘In Prison with Oscar Wilde’ as part of the Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison organised by Art Angel. Other notable names giving lectures include Professor Anna Gruetzner Robins.

Stoneley’s talk was focused on Wilde’s time in jail and those he did ‘stir’ with (stir being a derivative of the Latin for prison, ‘sturiben’, e.g. meaning to be imprisoned, to be ‘doing time’). The talk took place in Reading’s chapel which was arranged with rather lovely wooden chapel seats. One could be forgiven for thinking the seats were representative of the chapel under prison times, however, they are a far cry. Not only is there light and heating (at least until the prison is sold off and demolished for housing development, thanks to Michael Gove), but there is even a tennis court marked out on the floor. Reading’s more recent prisoners clearly had a different experience to Wilde. You only have to glance at the walls, where you will see a shadow rising diagonally, to get an insight into the real prison experience.

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Pentonville separation chapel

Part of Stoneley’s talk was about the separation and isolation of prisoners, and the chapel was the most callous and coldhearted, unchristian of separations. Soulless, lacking in humanity, and devoid of any so-called Christian mission. The chapel seats would have been wooden in Wilde’s time and arranged diagonally as mentioned, they were designed to prevent communication between inmates. There are no images of Reading Gaol’s chapel from the nineteenth century but a comparative example can be found in images of Pentonville’s chapel, and for a real life taste of the experience you may wish to visit Lincoln’s prison chapel.

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Lincoln Prison Chapel

The prisoners would have walked into the chapel seats one after another, presumably filing in under the watchful eye of the prison warder. Through a small ‘door’ you entered into your extremely tight cubicle: once in your seat you were essentially boxed in, with a wooden panel dividing you from your fellow inmate. Talking would have been banned and communication impossible.

You were not able to look around, to make eye contact, to reach out in any way emotionally or physically to anyone. You were probably wearing a scotch cap which further separated you from the eyes of those around you. Prison was not just removal from society, it was removal from humanity.

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Prisoners in Pentonville wearing the ‘Scotch Cap’

Wilde’s writing, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, De Profundis, and the numerous letters he wrote to the newspapers upon his release, sought to make people break down these partitions. Wilde’s success in this is debatable and his language remained somewhat ‘us’ and ‘them’ at least when he recognised it suited his audience, but nonetheless, Wilde encouraged people to see beyond the statistics or the label of criminal  to see the face of the face-less, and to see their fate as individual and human. Wilde sought, in some small way (I confess I am less generous in my appraisal of Wilde than Stoneley appeared to be) to give the working criminal classes a voice.

Stoneley sought to illuminate the type of individuals Wilde was in prison with. In order to present his research, Stoneley gave a brief history of events leading up to Wilde’s imprisonment, which I shall further condense here.

From being a ‘dazzling celebrity’ Wilde’s downfall was spectacularly quick; he was sentenced on the 28th May, 1895 to two years hard labour for ‘Acts of Gross Indecency’.  Initially sent to Newgate, he then went to Pentonville, then Wandsworth before he was moved to Reading Gaol on the 20th November, 1895. This was a Home Office decision, seemingly taken to keep Wilde alive or rather as an attempt to reduce the chances of Wilde dying whilst in prison. Stoneley suggested this was for both publicity’s sake and for the establishment to avoid shame – the potential shame should Wilde have died – however, I am not sure ‘shame’ was really a feature of the Home Office’s language. Wilde was transferred back to Pentonville for his release on 19th May 1897, so effectively eighteen months (three quarters of his sentence) was spent at Reading Gaol in Cell C.3.3

The Victorian prison system sought to keep prisoners in isolation so they could reflect on their crimes, with only a brief period during the day for exercise in the yard, and time to attend chapel, which was, as we have seen already, hardly a spiritually uplifting experience. Stoneley’s view was a little more generous than I am on this issue: he thought that chapel could have given some comfort to some. Let us hope so. The brutality of the prison system seems overwhelming, which Stoneley illustrated through comparison of the exterior of Reading Gaol, which he described as looking more like an ‘Elizabethan Manor’, and his description of life inside. The actual building of the gaol was over budget and architecturally over the top, considering its purpose. It had originally been built with plumbed sanitation but the fear of communication between prisoners was so great, that the plumbing system was ripped out. How could you easily control a prison population if they were communicating by tapping on the pipes at night? The consequential lack of sanitation meant the prison resorted to slop buckets, resulting in poor hygiene and general ill-health.

Each narrow cell in which we dwell
Is a foul and dark latrine,
And the fetid breath of living Death
Chokes up each grated screen,
And all, but Lust, is turned to dust
In Humanity’s machine.

(Extract from Reading Gaol, see entire poem here).

This poor sanitation was on top of the labour which was more torture than anything and described as such by Wilde, who made reference to his scarred and broken fingers. The isolation and labour resulted in extremely poor mental health of many prisoners and according to Henry Mayhew there was a doubling of insanity in prisoners. Stoneley’s archive research included examination of ‘The Visiting Committee’ which recorded similar statistics to Mayhew, and Wilde himself gave one particular example which Stoneley had managed to trace.

Wilde reported after his release that one man had been lashed twenty four times. Wilde described the man in such a manner that he clearly thought the man was going mad. Stoneley’s research demonstrated Wilde was right not only in his report but in his assessment of the man’s state of mind. The prisoner, Edward Prince, did get lashed for ‘malingering’ and eventually the minutes show, he ended up in Moulsford Asylum.

Wilde was put on light labour and gardening duties, and was even allowed to put brown paper on books, the task which his wife Constance described as meaning ‘at least he was able to hold books in his hands’. These limited sympathetic improvements to Wilde’s time in jail were sanctioned by a sympathetic man in the judiciary (apologies, I forget who now). Wilde still endured hard labour and his ill-treatment was such that he damaged his ear during a fall which, despite professional care having been given, ultimately contributed to Wilde’s death from cerebral meningitis, in 1900.

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Hard labour

The systematic partitioning of prisoners caused extreme and terrible stress upon people’s mental health. Wilde’s own words describe the situation:

…while one may bear up against the monotonous hardships and relentless discipline of an English prison: endure with apathy the unceasing shame and the daily degradation: and grow callous even to that hideous grotesqueness of life that robs sorrow of all its dignity, and takes from pain its power of purification: still, the complete isolation from everything that is humane and humanising plunges one deeper and deeper into the very mire of madness, and the horrible silence, to which one is, as it were, eternally condemned, concentrates the mind on all that one longs to loathe, and creates those insane moods from which one desires to be free, creates them and makes them permanent’.

And yet some prisoners returned, again and again to jail. Stoneley had resourced some fascinating statistics which I include below:

Nominal Register for November 1893 : 78 admissions, 72 men, 6 women.

Of the 73 for whom an education level was given:

Well or superior – 13

Imperfect – 51

Read (only) – 3

Nil – 5

These figures are not representative of nineteenth century literacy rates, for these declined significantly in the late nineteenth century.

Of the 76 for whom an occupation was given:

Labourers – 32

Other working class occupations – 40

Clerical – 4

Vast majority of sentences were between 7 – 15 days. The crimes varied:

Petty theft – 23

Drunk and disorderly – 10

Trespassing for game – 0

Refusing to work in workhouse – 8

Assault – 7

Desertion – 4

Obscene language – 4

Attempt to procure under false pretences – 3

Begging – 3

Stoneley asked the obvious question: was prison an improvement for some? Stoneley had noted that one prisoner had been sentenced to jail time for sleeping in someone’s barn. Sleeping rough (or ‘lodging out’ as it was called) was more prevalent in winter time, as was the stealing of boots, and yet people did it knowingly risking jail. Many of the crimes are rather petty, and yet jail, despite its horrific brutality, was no deterrent; Wilde said ‘Crime in England is rarely the result of sin. It is nearly always the result of starvation’. Begging or stealing food were necessities, not choices. Jail time was perhaps a well-judged risk for some, after all, prison offered a bed and regular food (which post 1815 was funded locally, rather than being paid for by the prisoner). Food was reliably awful (the basic diet consisted of bread, cheese, gruel and suet) but it was present.

Photography is one clue in unravelling the recidivism of prisoners, for mugshots were only taken of prisoners the officials assumed were likely to be habitual criminals.  Photography was an expensive technology so it had to be used sparingly, and prisons were continually, as now, finding ways of reducing their costs. Photographing known criminals aided identification, particular for adults, and although there are far fewer photographs of children (perhaps because children change more facially) the photographs did also help identify them if they re-entered jail (children who could also easily change name and location).

Jane Farrell, was only 12 years old when she stole some boots. She was sentenced to 10 days of hard labour in Newcastle prison.

Prisons like Reading housed children, and some of the archives record children being jailed for stealing bread, gravy, and soup. Stoneley had noted two interesting examples:

John Darling – an eighteen year old who had been sentenced to one month hard labour for stealing a goldfinch and a canary.

Prudence L. Ford (photographed on the 01/07/92) was sentenced to seven days for stealing boots.

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Victorian child prisoners

A prison warder, Martin, who befriended Wilde, was sacked for giving one child biscuits. The children were often known to cry throughout the night in the cold cells, which Wilde wrote about in a Letter to The Daily Chronicle.

To The Editor, The Daily Chronicle, Friday 28th May 1897.

Sir, I learn with great regret, through the columns of your paper, that the warder Martin, of Reading Prison, has been dismissed by the Prison Commissioners for having given some sweet biscuits to a little hungry child. I saw the three children myself on Monday preceding my release. They had just been convicted and were standing in a row in the central hall in their prison dress, carrying their sheets under the arms, previous to their being sent to the cells allotted to them.

They were quite small children, the youngest — the one to whom the warder gave the biscuits — being a tiny little chap, for whom they had evidently been unable to find clothes small enough to fit. I had, of course, seen many children in prison during the two years during which I was myself confined. Wandsworth Prison, especially, contained always a large number of children. But the little child I saw on the afternoon of Monday the 17th at Reading, was tinier than any one of them.

I need not say how utterly distressed I was to see these children at Reading, for I knew the treatment in store for them. The cruelty that is practised by day and night on children in English prisons is incredible, except to those who have witnessed it and are aware of the brutality of the system.
John Greening, aged 11, stole some gooseberries. He was sentenced to one month hard labour and five years at reform school.

Martin was clearly a compassionate man, for he also gave Wilde biscuits, cocoa, and newspapers – none of which were permitted.

Wilde’s relationships with the other inmates was limited, as already discussed contact was nigh on impossible / forbidden (the scotch cap being worn frequently in order to further hide identities and to de-personalise).

Wilde nonetheless, ‘liked’ his ‘pals’ and presumably the limited contact, smile, or friendly face would have bore a significance that cannot be exaggerated in its power in such an environment. Wilde saw these strangers as friends. Stoneley, in referring to his post-prison reminiscences, seemed to interpret Wilde’s affection for these men as representative of comradeship and equality, whilst failing to mention Wilde had always had an affection for the lower working, criminal, classes. Such were the young boys he bought (one way or another) during his time as a ‘dazzling celebrity’. The balance of power had shifted but it seems Wilde was surprised to discover he was no different to the men he met in prison. In jail, Wilde was just another prisoner, one who inhabited cell C.3.3. (renumbered to C.2.2. since Wilde’s time).

As far as can be concluded, Wilde was the only man in Reading Gaol for ‘gross indecency’ during his incarceration but the crime itself was not unheard of. Stoneley pondered whether Wilde would have been marked out as being gay to prisoners or warders but I think it seems unlikely. I wonder if our own relationship with the aphoristic glamorous playwright means we prefer to view him in this way, whereas the reality was the poor people who had to steal gravy for sustenance would have had very little interest or appetite for such men as Wilde – unless it had been in order to profit, by means fair or foul. Wilde may have been the ‘Somdomite’ of Cadogan Hotel, but in prison he was presumably just another prisoner. This would not have been the same for the warders or officials though, as Martin’s kindness testaments.

Wilde’s ‘crime’ was well publicised but it was partly, surely, his stupidity and culpability in his own downfall which made the case so well documented. Wilde’s demise was a self-driven car crash, a tragedy of love, arrogance, and blindness. Stoneley described Bosie ‘as the man who destroyed Wilde’s life’ but I take issue with this laying of the blame at Bosie’s hands. Wilde was an intelligent well educated man who knew the risks and still undertook to take the Marquis of Queensberry to court for libel. Wilde, not Bosie, did this. I don’t doubt for a moment that Bosie made things difficult, seemingly impossible, but Wilde’s demise was his own responsibility. He misjudged and paid the price.

Albert Kipling (or perhaps Kipping) had also been sentenced to hard labour, for ‘buggery’. Kipling did get released early on petition, unlike Wilde, but it is important to note that the sentence was not rare for the crime.

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Henry Bushnell

Wilde’s response to these men seems rather typical of him. One rather attractive man, Henry Bushnell (variously called Henry Harry or Bushell etc. in the records) seems to have caught Wilde’s eye and although a regular in Reading, he seemed to have been perhaps a little more calculating than Wilde ever managed. Stoneley concluded Wilde had been attracted (saying it seemed ‘evident’) to Bushnell who was a mere five foot two inches, and was first placed in jail for burglary, although at the time Wilde was incarcerated, Bushnell was inside for stealing nuts off a tree.

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Another mugshot of Henry Bushnell

Bushnell seems to have graduated out of trouble, and worked as a gardener until his death at the fine old age of 74. Stoneley had tracked many photographs of Bushnell in the archives and he seemed to fare surprisingly well, not particularly ageing or looking ill in any of the images displayed. The latest photo Stoneley showed merely captured Bushnell with a thick dark beard, and still with an obviously twinkling eye. He looked mid-thirties I would have said. Bushnell obviously lived precariously though, so much so, that Wilde even sent him money after he (Wilde) was released from jail.  Ironic, when Wilde died penniless himself.

Plaque commemorating Wilde’s place of death at the Hôtel d’Alsace, now L’Hôtel

Stoneley’s talk concluded with reference to The Ballad of Reading Gaol, asking why a ‘ballad’ and examining the fraternal language within the poem. Wilde used ‘us’ and ‘we’, even wanting The Ballad of Reading Gaol to be printed in Reynolds Paper which he knew was most popular with the working (criminal) classes of which Wilde was now a member: ‘I shall be read by my peers – a new experience for me’. As an aside, Stoneley made little of Wilde’s change of diction when he wrote to The Chronicle which adopted a language that distanced himself from his new found ‘peers’.

Regardless of these petty details and quibbles, Wilde’s time in jail enriched his literature albeit it destroyed his health. We are the better for Wilde’s most powerful text De Profundis, but we have to acknowledge that society lost a great writer through the gravely unfortunate and petty-minded laws concerning an individual’s sexual practice. We cannot say prison was the making of Wilde, for on his release he ended up still entangled with Bosie, but had he lived, he seemed to have developed a new gravitas which would no doubt would have inspired few air born passing quips, and would have delivered more universal texts, perhaps more of the quality of De Profundis. Who knows perhaps it would have made his voice more political.

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Wilde in Rome, post his release, 1900

I will conclude with Wilde’s own remarks upon his time in prison:

But the only really humanising influence in prison is the influence of the prisoners. Their cheerfulness under terrible circumstances, their sympathy for each other, their humility, their gentleness, their pleasant smiles of greeting when they meet each other, their complete acquiescence in their punishments are all quite wonderful, and I myself learnt many sound lessons from them.