Saturday, 14 December 2019

Caversham Heights Society

SURPRISINGLY, there was only one event for the Caversham Heights Society during last month.

This was on October 16 when members were enthralled by a talk given by Terry Dixon on “The history of Reading Gaol”.

Terry is an enthusiastic local historian and tour guide leader for different parts of Reading.

There has been much discussion about the fate of Reading Gaol during the past few years, especially since the involvement of Reading East MP Matt Rodda in pressing the Government to preserve it as an important piece of the town’s history rather than allowing if to be sold to the highest bidder for potential housing development.

As of now, no final decision has been made.

Before talking specifically about Reading Gaol, Terry talked about other gaols in the town, such as St Mary’s in Castle Street, which was used briefly to imprison John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, in the late 17th century, and Greyfriars Church, which was used as a gaol from the late 1640s until 1862 when it was bought and restored as a church that was reconsecrated in 1863.

This prison was for both men and women who were shackled to pillars and had to endure no roof in parts of the building.

At the time it was regarded as one of the most inhumane prisons in the country.

Reading’s growth in the 19th century, largely because of the expansion of the railways and businesses such as Huntley and Palmers and Suttons Seeds, meant that the need for more prison capacity also grew. The town’s population in 1801 was 10,000. By 1901 it had reached 50,000.

It is currently 250,000 and by the middle of this century the figure is expected to reach 500,000. It is already the largest town, as opposed to a city, in the UK.

In America, the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia opened in 1829, designed like a wheel with a hub and corridors (spokes) off this.

This became the model for more than 300 prisons around the world, including the Berkshire County Gaol that was designed by George Gilbert Scott and was opened in 1844.

It had a forecourt used for hangings, the first taking place in 1845.

The hangman, William Calcroft, is supposed to have executed 450 prisoners in this way.

The youngest prisoner was only seven years old. His crime was arson.

There were 250 cells and prisoners were in cells along corridors with others who had committed similar crimes.

Reading Gaol was unique in so far as it had a plumbing system until one governor decided that this was too luxurious so slopping out was introduced. This lasted until the Eighties.

The status of Reading Gaol was changed in 1973 to be a holding place for young offenders and illegal immigrants, although many of the latter ended up in Huntercombe in Oxfordshire.

It was during the Seventies that the prison was largely rebuilt so that the present site is not as it would have looked like previously.

The chapel is one of the few parts that has hardly changed and where numerous inmates have made professions of faith and had their lives turned around.

Perhaps the most famous prisoner was Oscar Wilde, who knew Reading well from his frequent visits to Huntley and Palmers.

He was imprisoned from 1892 to 1897. On his release he moved to France, got married and had two children. He wrote his famous Ballad of Reading Gaol in 1898 while in France.

During 2016, Reading’s Year of Culture, more than 50,000 visitors saw the inside of the prison.

Its future is still to be determined as competing ideas are being weighed up. It is hoped that it will be preserved in some form as a lasting part of Reading’s history.

Meetings of the society are held at Caversham Heights Methodist Church hall in Highmoor Road on alternate Wednesdays at 8pm, preceded by coffee and biscuits from 7.15pm.

Newcomers are always welcome. For more information, visit www.caversham .

Keith Watson

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