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Oscar Wilde and the Palmer family
By Emma Midgley
BBC Berkshire

Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde wrote his most famous poems while at Reading Gaol

Oscar Wilde's associations with Reading are most widely known from his poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Written following his incarceration in Reading Gaol as prisoner C3-3, it is arguably Wilde's most famous work.

But a little known fact is that Wilde was actually a visitor to Reading in the years before he was imprisoned.

At the height of his fame in 1892 he toured the Huntley & Palmers biscuit factory, situated next to Reading Gaol, as a guest of the Palmer family.

He attended literary parties, went boating, and enjoyed the experience so much that in 1893 he spent the summer in Goring.

But just three years later he was to return to Reading under unhappier circumstances: as a prisoner.

1786: the first Reading gaol was built on the Ruins of Reading Abbey.
1844: a new gaol is built on the site of the old one at a cost of over £40,000.
1865: in-cell sanitation is removed, not to be replaced until 1990.
1916 to 1920: the prison was an internment camp for enemy aliens and spies.
1916 to 1937: many high profile Irish prisoners were held at Reading prison, including future Prime Minister of Ireland, WT Cosgrove, founder of Sin Feinn Aurthur Griffiths, and Terence McSwiney, the IRA prisoner who survived for the longest on hunger strike - a total of 74 days.
1925: the prison was used as an Army Surplus Store
1936: prison used as the Berkshire Driving Test Centre
1939: The gaol become the County Censor's Office responsible for the checking of all news prior to publication at the outbreak of World War II.
1943 to 1946: the prison was used as a secret Canadian Military Detention Barracks.
1951: Reading becomes one of the first Borstal Correctional Centres.
1992: Reading becomes a Remand Centre for Young Offenders
1996: Reading becomes a HM Remand Centre and Young Offender Institution.

Wilde's downfall was triggered by a series of homosexual affairs. The most notable of these was with Lord Alfred Douglas, whose father provoked Wilde into a lawsuit that led to his social and financial ruin and imprisonment for two years.

On 25 May 1895 Wilde was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years' hard labour.

He was to pass through a total of five prisons before his release, including Holloway Prison, Newgate Prison, Pentonville Prison, Wandsworth Prison and Reading Prison.

Under the strict rules of the time, called the 'separate system', the newly arrived prisoner would only have been allowed one visit and one letter every three months.

He would not have been allowed a pen, ink, paper or any book other than the bible.

His name was reduced to numbers representing his cell location.

Wilde would have worn a uniform with arrows printed on it. The arrows denoted that the prisoner was now 'government property'.

At the time Wilde was imprisoned, every prison had a visitors committee, which could visit the prison at any time and inspect and award punishments on prisoners over and above the authority of the governor.

In 1895 the visiting committee at Reading Prison included Wilde's old friend George W Palmer. He was the eldest son of George Palmer, a founding partner of Huntley & Palmers.

Wilde enjoyed favours at Reading. He was allowed to write, although he was only given small amounts of paper which was returned to the warder at 8pm every evening.

Wilde also befriended a warder on C-wing, Thomas Martin, an Irishman who was to become a very close friend of Wilde's and called him 'the poet'.

The warder supplied him with Huntley & Palmers ginger biscuits and brought him newspapers.

Reading Gaol in 1850
Reading Prison is a cross between Pentonville Prison and Warwick Castle

At Reading Gaol, Wilde was housed in cell number 3 on C3 landing in C block, hence his name was C3-3, the name under which he published The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Oscar Wilde was released from Reading Gaol late on 18 May 1897, and was taken to Twyford station a few miles away then by train to London. He was then released from Pentonville.

He left for France, never to set food in Reading again.

It was in France that he wrote his Ballad of Reading Gaol, a poem which took as its theme the last days of Charles T Wooldridge, who was hanged for murder while Wilde was at the prison.

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