Reading Gaol (main building) former Her Majesty's Prison


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:
Statutory Address:
Forbury Road, Reading, Berkshire


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Statutory Address:
Forbury Road, Reading, Berkshire

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Reading (Unitary Authority)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:


County gaol, 1842-4 by George Gilbert Scott and William Boynthon Moffatt, altered c.1970. Certain buildings and parts of the buildings are excluded from the Listing, as is made clear in the List entry.

Reasons for Designation

The main building at Reading Gaol, of 1842-4 by George Gilbert Scott and William Boynthon Moffatt, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

* Architectural interest: an impressive, fortress-like design that represents an early work by one of England's foremost C19 architects;

* Planning interest: a pioneering English example of a radial-plan prison built for the newly-introduced 'separate system' of constant surveillance and solitary confinement;

* Historic interest: strongly associated with the imprisonment of Oscar Wilde, who spent eighteen months of his two-year sentence there and later immortalised the institution in 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol'.


Reading Gaol stands adjacent to the town centre, on a plot of riverside land once occupied by the cloister and burial ground of Reading Abbey. The original County Gaol was in Castle Street, but moved to a new building on the present site in 1786. By the 1840s this had become overcrowded and dilapidated, and in 1842 a design competition was held for a new prison, which was to house 200 criminals and 20 debtors, with space for 100 additional cells and a court house. The winning design by George Gilbert Scott and William Bonython Moffatt was based on the then recently-completed New Model Prison at Pentonville in London. Its plan comprised a central hub and a series of radiating galleried wings containing individual cells, which was designed to implement the ‘separate system’ of solitary confinement and regular surveillance, introduced in Britain under the 1839 Prisons Act and pioneered ten years earlier at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, USA. This type would become ubiquitous during the course of the C19, with some twenty radial-plan prisons built in England during the period 1839-77.

The building contract was initially given to John Jay of London, but his company went bankrupt three months after construction began in August 1842, and the work was completed by Messrs George and William Baker. The new gaol, with cells for 250 men and women and a debtors’ ward, was ready for occupation in July 1844, by which time the need for additional cells, a separate laundry block and the rebuilding of the old perimeter wall had driven the final cost up from an initial estimate of £24,000 to an eventual total of more than £40,000.

Reading continued as the County Gaol for the next 70 years. Its most famous inmate was Oscar Wilde, who served the latter part of his sentence there between November 1895 and May 1897; he described his experience in 'De Profundis', written during his imprisonment.

Reading Gaol was immortalised in Wilde’s epic poem 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol', first published in 1898. The poem was a critique of the Victorian prison system, and describes the execution of one of his fellow inmates. It was initially published under the name C.3.3, Wilde’s prison number. Wilde had been imprisoned in 1895 for ‘acts of gross indecency with other male persons’ and served two years with hard labour.

Wilde was convicted under the Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, known as the Labouchère Amendment (1885), which criminalised all sexual acts between men. It was part-repealed in 1967 by the Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised sex between men over the age of 21.

During his imprisonment at Reading Gaol, Wilde wrote a 50,000-word letter to Lord Alfred Douglas (also known as Bosie), who had been his lover. This was later published as De Profundis (1905). The Oscar Wilde Memorial Walk was laid out at the back of Reading Gaol in 2000 to commemorate Wilde, his work and his imprisonment.

The gaol closed in November 1915; it served as an internment centre from 1916 until 1919, and parts of it were let to various government departments during the inter-war period. In the latter part of WWII it was used as a military prison by the Canadian Army, reopening in 1946 as an overflow prison for men serving short sentences, before becoming a borstal in 1951. In 1969-70 it was returned to use as an adult prison; this involved numerous changes to the fabric, including the refenestration of the cells and the demolition and rebuilding of the gatehouse and perimeter wall. Between 1992 and its closure at the end of 2013 Reading served as a remand centre and Young Offenders Institution.

George Gilbert Scott (1811-78) was perhaps the most successful, prolific and influential British architect of the Victorian period. The son of a Buckinghamshire clergyman and amateur architect, he was articled to the London church architect James Edmeston in 1827 and established his own practice in 1834. His early work, until 1845 in collaboration with William Boynthon Moffatt (1812-87), mostly consisted of workhouses, hospitals and other poor-law buildings. Scott’s chief fame, however, was as a builder and restorer of churches, in which he was strongly influenced by the Gothic Revivalist polemics of AWN Pugin. Scott's reputation was firmly established in 1844 with the commission for the vast new Nikolaikirche in Hamburg, Germany, and in the decades that followed his practice became one of the largest in Britain, responsible for hundreds of new churches - from Oxbridge college chapels to the new cathedrals at Edinburgh and Christchurch, New Zealand - and for the restoration of hundreds more, where his often destructive approach drew bitter criticism from William Morris and the fledgling conservation movement. Major secular commissions included the Albert Memorial, the Midland Hotel at St Pancras’ Station, the Foreign Office on Whitehall (all in London) and the universities of Glasgow and Bombay, India. Scott was knighted in 1872, and served as president of the RIBA from 1873 to 1876.


County gaol, 1842-4 by George Gilbert Scott and William Boynthon Moffatt, altered c.1970.

MATERIALS: red brick with Bath stone dressings, mostly now renewed in concrete. Roofs originally of slate, now replaced with asbestos tiles* (not of special interest).

PLAN: the main prison building originally stood within a square enclosure of approximately three acres, surrounded by a high boundary wall with octagonal corner towers and a large, multi-towered gatehouse complex on the north side providing accommodation for resident staff (the governor, deputy governors, warders, matron and chaplain) as well as additional security. Against the north wall and alongside the gatehouse was a block containing the women’s cells.

All this was demolished c.1970, leaving only the cruciform main building. This comprises four wings, designated A to D, converging on a central semi-octagon. The upper three floors of A, B and C wings contained the male felons’ cells. Originally there were twelve on each floor in B wing and twenty-five in the longer A and C wings, accessed on the upper two floors by means of galleries connecting via the central octagon. The basement beneath A wing originally contained the prison kitchens, and – in a sealed-off area to the west, accessed via a tunnel (now demolished) leading outside the prison wall – a munitions store for the Berkshire militia; the latter space was absorbed into the prison proper in 1878 and was last used as the prison hospital. The basement under B wing contained baths, punishment cells, a knife room and an officers’ cleansing room.

D wing was aligned with the old gatehouse and formed the entrance to the main building. The ground floor and basement contained the debtors’ cells: first-class debtors on the ground floor opposite the governor’s office and visiting rooms, second-class debtors in the basement along with the reception cells and coal store. The first and second floors contained the chaplain’s and schoolmaster’s offices, a room from which the governor could oversee activity in the central octagon, and – rising through both floors in the centre of the wing – the prison chapel. Executions took place on a scaffold built against the eastern side of the wing.

As well as the rebuilding of the perimeter walls, the works of c.1970 saw the construction of a number of new buildings within the old prison yards. These are plain red-brick structures of one and two storeys, and include: a new gatehouse at the north-west corner of the site; an administration block with visiting and interview rooms, abutting D wing to the north; and, in the angle between A and B wings, an education and training building, which now also contains the prison chapel and kitchens. In the angle between B and C wings is a former workshop of c.1910, a single-storey brick building with a part-glazed roof. These structures, and the rebuilt perimeter wall that encloses them, are not of special interest and are excluded from the listing*.

EXTERIOR: Scott and Moffatt’s design displays the Tudor-Gothic details employed in their workhouse and hospital designs, here combined with castellated elements – battlements to the entrance block and central octagon, machicolations under the eaves throughout - intended to give a fortress-like aspect. The visual inspiration for the design, which was much criticised for its elaboration and expense, is said to have been Warwick Castle. The alterations of c.1970 greatly changed the building’s external appearance: the original two-light cell windows were replaced with single square openings containing barred double-glazed window units* (not of special interest), and most of the stone-dressed elements were replaced in concrete. (An unaltered original cell window survives in the basement of D wing.)

D wing is the main focus for architectural display. The projecting frontispiece at the northern end is fully crenellated and features tall ridged and corbelled chimney stacks, diapered brickwork and mullion-and-transom windows. The ground-floor entrance doorway has been lost, absorbed into a single-storey addition of c.1970. The wing behind is dominated by the tall chapel windows with their simple Gothic tracery. Beneath these, on the western side, are more mullion-and-transom windows, originally to the administrative offices. On the eastern side are the smaller pointed windows of the debtors’ cells. In the centre is a larger archway, now bricked up, through which condemned prisoners were led out onto the scaffold.

A, B and C wings have pitched roofs over the central galleried section and flat roofs over the cell blocks on either side. The latter have the square concrete-framed windows installed c.1970; the former terminate in gabled projections with very tall mullion-and-transom windows (of concrete replacing the original stone) which are the main source of light to the internal galleries. There is a similar (and likewise renewed) window where each wing abuts the octagonal hub, the cell blocks terminating in quadrants here to allow light to penetrate the central space. The octagon itself has a crenellated parapet and a tall central turret, also crenellated, which forms the main stack for the plenum ventilation system.

INTERIORS: these have been much altered, with original features removed and a variety of modern fittings and finishes* applied; the latter are not of special interest. The original cells with their jack-arched brick vaults mostly survive, but have in the majority of cases been doubled up by removing the wall between each pair, while the Tudor-arched entrance doorways now have flat concrete lintels, and renewed doors* (the doors not being of special interest). The metal gallery structures with their curved supporting brackets and cross-braced balustrades are original. The ceiling over the galleries is a pointed brick vault, while the central octagon has a brick vault with moulded stone ribs and corbels, and lozenge-shaped ceiling lights cut through the webs of the vault. Air extracted from vents in the cells originally passed through the space above the vaults and out through the plenum tower. Suspended at first-floor level within the octagon was a glazed Gothic pavilion structure from which prison staff could keep watch on movements in A, B and C wings and (via the tall side windows) in the prison yard outside; the pavilion has been replaced with a modern prefabricated cabin* (not of special interest). In the basement under A wing, the layout of the former munitions store is still legible, despite the inserted ceiling* (not of special interest) and the demolition of the access tunnel. Beneath B wing some original cells survive, including high-security ‘punishment’ cells for the confinement of violent inmates.

The chapel, later used as a games room, is a double-height space with an arch-braced queen-strut roof and central skylight. It originally contained a multi-tiered timber gallery structure that allowed each prisoner to observe the service from within an enclosed box; this arrangement, designed to minimise contact between prisoners in accordance with the ‘separate system’, can still be seen at Lincoln Castle but has been completely lost at Reading along with all other fittings and decoration. Elsewhere in D wing the layout of the offices survives, as do some of the debtors’ cells.

* Pursuant to s.1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’) it is declared that these aforementioned features are not of special architectural or historic interest.

This List entry was subject to a Minor Enhancement on 27/06/2017


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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Books and journals
Alford, R G, Notes on the Buildings of English Prisons, Volume 2, (1909-10), 91-100
Brodie, Croom, Davies, , English Prisons, (2002), 96-116
Cole, D, The Work of Sir Gilbert Scott, (1980)
Southerton, P, Reading Gaol by Reading Town, (1993)
Stokes, A, Pit of Shame: the Real Ballad of Reading Gaol, (2007)


This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

The listed building(s) is/are shown coloured blue on the attached map. Pursuant to s.1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’), structures attached to or within the curtilage of the listed building (save those coloured blue on the map) are not to be treated as part of the listed building for the purposes of the Act.

End of official listing

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