LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Campaigners fear developers will carve bijou flats out of the British prison where playwright Oscar Wilde was jailed for the “gross indecency” of gay sex after plans for an arts hub failed.
HMP Reading, the forbidding Victorian prison that was ‘home’ to the Irish playwright from 1895 to 1897, closed in 2014 and has since hosted a raft of LGBT+ arts events, including readings of Wilde’s work by actors such as Rupert Everett.
But hopes by campaigners that a local British council might buy the jail, situated just west of London, and turn it into a permanent arts center died on Monday when Britain’s Ministry of Justice rejected Reading council’s bid.
Jason Brock, leader of Reading Borough Council, said he would now work closely with the developers, whose identity remains secret, to protect the landmark.
“I intend to meet with the successful bidder at the earliest opportunity ... to ensure the historical and cultural value of Reading Prison is given prominence as plans are developed,” he said in a statement on Monday.
Campaigners - from actor Stephen Fry to writer Julian Barnes - said the site should be preserved, not turned into flats.
“The Oscar Wilde trials and his subsequent imprisonment have global implications for LGBTQ history, culture and rights,” said Molly Merryman of LGBT+ heritage organization Queer Britain.
“The Reading Gaol represents the most significant chapter in 19th century LGBTQ history, and should be preserved.”
Wilde’s treatment threw a harsh spotlight on homosexuality laws. The playwright was brought to trial for his homoerotic writings and relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, who penned the phrase: “I am the love that dare not speak its name”.
Residents had planned a march last month to protest against plans to sell the site to private buyers but took their cause to Twitter instead after the coronavirus lockdown came into force.
“We don’t want the historical Gaol to become luxury flats, we want it to be a world-class arts and heritage site, open to all, and an asset to the whole community,” campaign group Save Reading Gaol said on an online events page.
Reporting by Amber Milne; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org
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