Ancestry UK

County Gaol and Bridewell / HMP Reading, Reading, Berkshire

The Castle Street Prison

Reading County Gaol appears to have been established in the sixteenth century. For a long period it stood on Castle Street, on the site now occupied by St Mary's Church. The building was extended between about 1768 and 1771.

After several visits to the prison between 1773 and 1776, John Howard reported:

Debtors and Felons have their court-yards separated by iron rails. The former have a kitchen: and for the Master's-side many rooms; but no free ward. Felons have a day-room for men and women. The night-room for men is a large dungeon down four steps: the Prisoners broke out lately. A separate night-room for women. The Turnkey has now a lodging-room, over the Felons dungeon, with an alarm bell: so that an escape will be more difficult. There is lately fitted up a small room for an Infirmary; and another room or two: but no provision made for separating Men-felons at night; nor for Common-aide Debtors. There is a room used for the Gaoler's poultry. Transports have not the King's allowance of two shillings and six-pence a week. No Table of Fees. Clauses of Act against Spirituous Liquors not hung up. No straw.

About six years ago a Gentleman sent to this Gaol for the Prisoners thirty-six rugs or coverlids: most of them now worn out.

When Felons come to this Prison, they are stripped and washed; and then they put on cloaths provided by the County. The men have a Russia-drab coat and breeches, a flannel waistcoat, two check shirts, and two pair of yarn hose. The women, a linsey woolsey gown and petticoat, a flannel petticoat, two dowlass shifts, two pair of yarn hose. Their own cloaths are ticketed and hung up till the Quarter Sessions or Assizes; when they put them on again to appear in on trial. Afterwards the County-cloaths are washed, mended, and purified in an oven, for the use of future Criminals. The cloathing aforesaid for twenty men and five women cost only £26 : 6 : 8.

The gaol had a street-facing grating through which debtors could beg from passers-by. Above it was written the verse:

Oh Ye whose hours exempt from Sorrow flow,
Behold the seat of Pain and want and Woe:
Think, while your hands th'entreated alms extend,
That what to Us ye give to GOD ye lend.

In 1776, the gaoler was John Hill, who received a salary of £20. His predecessor had been Widow Wiseman. After Hill's death, his widow took over as gaoler.

On a subsequent visit in 1782, Howard observed that 'the women were not only chained together by their hands, but had heavy irons also on their legs, as they were conducted to the sessions-house.' At that date, the inmates comprised 19 debtors and 11 felons. In 1789, Howard wrote that it was a clean and quiet prison. He also noted that the turnkey kept a shop and, no doubt, supplied the prisoners privately with beer.

The rules and inmates' fees issued in 1781 specified:

£. S. D.
Lodging for each debtor per week if furnished by the gaoler, for each bed0  3  0 
If occupied by two prisoners, each prisoner0  1  6 
On the discharge of a debtor, gaoler's fee on each warrant0 13 4 
Turnkey ditto0  2  6 
The turnkey to attend the prisoners three times a day to bring them such provisions and necessaries as than be required, viz. For the hour of breakfast, from nine to ten; for dinner, from twelve to one; for supper, from six to seven.

The Move to Forbury Hill

Prior to 1786, the Reading Town Bridewell on Friar Street also served as a county bridewell. In that year, a new county establishment was erected on the site of the ruined former abbey building on Forbury Hill (now Forbury Road). When visited by John Howard in 1788, the establishment had seventeen prisoners. Howard described it as:

A new prison, containing six close (called refractory) cells, nine feet and a half by seven and a half; eight solitary cells, ten feet by seven feet nine inches, with courts about the same size; and six wards for prisoners, who are permitted to be together. The rooms are furnished with bedsteads and straw mattresses, but no coverlets. The sewers make most of the rooms and courts offensive. Here is a chapel, where the worthy chaplain officiates twice a week. Allowance, a threepenny loaf daily (weight 1lb. 3oz.) and meat on Sundays. No employment. Keeper's salary £50. No fees. The names of the prisoners, and terms of confinement, are written on the doors of their cells. I observed some were for one year: a severe confinement, to be so long in solitude, unemployed, in nauseous cells, and without fire in winter.

In 1793, a new county gaol, designed by Robert Bressingham, was erected adjacent to the Forbury Hill bridewell. A lengthy description of the gaol buildings was provided by James Neild in 1812:

This Gaol and Bridewell, placed in a very healthy situation, a little way out of the Town, is enclosed by a boundary-wall, 210 feet in length, and 327 in depth; which being about thirty feet from the Prison, the Keeper has within it a very convenient garden, for the growth of vegetables. The wall is about 28 feet high, and has a small Chevaux de frise, about four feet from the coping. The Keeper's house, in the centre, has an alarm-bell at the top, and the Visiting-Magistrates' Committee Room fronts the Entrance Gate.

The Men-Debtors have two courts: The front is 69 feet by 57; the back-yard, 28 feet by 9, with arcades to both. They have also a Hall, or common day-room, with two iron-grated glazed windows, a fire-place, seats, two tables, and proper conveniences for frugal cookery. Here are likewise two day-rooms, for such Debtors as can maintain themselves; over which are six sleeping-rooms, fitted up with wooden bedsteads, and sacking bottoms; a straw-in-sacking bed, a sheet, blanket, and two rugs, supplied at the County cost.

To those Debtors who furnish their own beds, no charge for room-rent is made; and in the Gaoler's house accommodations are provided, for those who can pay as per Table.

Every Debtor inclined to work may be employed, on application to the Keeper, who is allowed one third of his earnings. But if the Debtor can procure work from without, he receives the whole of what he earns.

Women-Debtors have a small garden to walk in, about 14 yards square; and a sleeping-room, of 16 feet by 9, fitted up like the Men's : Or, if they can pay as per Table, they may also be accommodated by the Keeper in his house, as before mentioned.

At the back of the Keeper s house, and in the centre of a spacious court-yard, is the Chapel; a very neat building, and well adapted for its sacred purpose. Here the Debtors are seated in the galleries; the Felons and other Criminal Prisoners are placed below; and all who receive the County-allowance are required to attend Divine Service. Above the Chapel are rooms furnished by the Keeper with beds, at 2s. 6d. per week each; out of which the County receives 1s. 6d.

The worthy Chaplain is empowered to purchase books of religious or moral instruction, and distributes them at his discretion to the Prisoners.

Men-Felons have a very spacious court-yard, at the back-part of the Prison, 150 feet by 75; with a pair of large double gates opening into it, for the admission of rough timber. Within it are three double saw-pits, where those who can learn are instructed to saw; and to whom a daily additional allowance of ten ounces of bread is given, when they leave work in the evening. On Sunday they have a dinner of meat, broth, and vegetables; on Thursday, the same; on Wednesday and Saturday a quarter of a pound of bacon; and on Monday morning every working Man receives eight-pence in money, who has properly conducted himself through the preceding week.

In the Gaol-yard are two ranges of Gallery, 3 feet 3 inches wide, one story above the other; and Prisoners under Sentence of Death are executed on a platform at the West-end of the Gaol, to which the upper gallery leads. Each of these is divided in the middle by an arch, so as to form four galleries, into which the doors of eight sleeping-cells open. Each cell is 10 feet by 7 feet 6, and 7 feet 6 inches high; cased throughout with iron, and furnished with a straw-bed, in canvas case, a blanket and rug, at the County cost, each Prisoner sleeping single, these cells are ventilated by a small iron-grating over the door, and a tube, of about 3 inches diameter, in the opposite end of the cell. The aspect being South, the late Keeper said they were excessively hot in the summer, and the sewer of each, placed in one corner, useless for want of water; so that half-tubs were substituted, and emptied once a day.

They have arcades in the court-yard, and a mess or day-room, with a fire-place, a large table, wooden stools, or benches, to sit on; a cast-iron pot, frying-pan, gridiron, &c. for plain cooking: and earthen-ware for their provisions; the window glazed and iron-grated.

Here are also four wards, with a court-yard to each, about 30 feet square, and well supplied with water. One is appropriated to Women-Felons; another to Gaol Prisoners detained for trial; a third, to Bridewell Prisoners in the same predicament; and the fourth is for Prisoners after conviction. Attached to each ward is a common day or mess-room, with a fire-place, copper, and washing-tubs, for the Women; and the County allows five chaldrons of coals yearly to the whole Prison. For Bridewell Prisoners, Men and Women, there are two rooms above stairs; each containing three beds for two persons in each, and furnished as the others above mentioned.

In the passages leading to these wards, and on the ground-floor, are eight solitary cells, with a small court to each; and six cells for Refractory Prisoners, with wooden bedsteads and bedding as in the other cells; and in each a sewer. In the different courts belonging to these cells are arcades paved with flag-stones.

All the Gaol and Bridewell Prisoners wear the County uniform : their own clothes are purified, numbered, and deposited in the wardrobe, until the time of their trial, or discharge.

The Gaoler's house commanding a view of but a small part of this ample Prison, the Turnkey formerly slept in the Chapel; but now he has a room which effectually commands the Felons' court-yard.

Men-Felons are clean shirted and shaved every week. Convicts under sentence of transportation have not here the King's allowance of 2s. 6d. weekly, but the Prison allowance continued to them instead of it. Every Prisoner who has behaved well, is decently clothed at the time of discharge, and also receives a sum of money, not exceeding ten shillings, according to the distance from home.

Petty Offenders, in this Gaol, beat hemp, cut pegs, &c. : the Women spin. But the most productive branch of employment is the sawing of timber, by which means the Prisoner gains a new source of support, when discharged from custody.. The earnings, from Michaelmas Sessions 1805, to Michaelmas 1806, amounted to about Two hundred pounds.

In October 1806, the inmates comprised 8 debtors and 25 Felons, etc. The governor, George Eastaff, received a salary of £200. Felons paid no fees but debtors faced a variety of charges. Accommodation in the Sheriffs' or Magistrates' Ward cost 1s. a week if they provided their own bedding, or 2s. 6d. a week if it was supplied by the County.

In 1801, pauper debtors who were willing to work received a daily food allowance of ten ounces of bread, half a pound of rice, or two pound of potatoes. By 1806, this had changed to a system under which the Gaoler received 5d. per day and 4d. per week each, for which he supplied the prisoners on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, with 1½ lb. of bread; Thursday, ½ lb. of meat, and 1 lb. of potatoes, made into soup; Friday and Saturday, 1½ lb. of bread; and on Sunday (for which the additional 4d. was allowed), with a dinner of offal meat, made into soup, with vegetables.

In 1810, John Man reported that:

Behind the wards is a large court yard, surrounded by a high wall, but open to the sun; here the prisoners occasionally walk, or when sentenced to hard labor, are employed in sawing stone, wood, or such other work as can be procured for them. Round the outer wall of the prison is a garden, enclosed with another wall, but lower, where some of the convicts are occasionally employed : at such times, and I believe from their first entering the prison, they are dressed in party colored clothes, half blue, half yellow, from head to foot, except the shoes. This method has been adopted, as well to render their escape more difficult, as to prevent infectious diseases being introduced into the Gaol, by means of their own dresses; these, in the mean time, are carefully fumigated with brimstone, in an iron stove provided for that purpose, and returned to them when going to be tried or discharged.

The Castle Street site did not close immediately with the opening of the Forbury Hill building, but remained in us as a debtors' prison until 1796.

In 1822, the prison was an early adopter of the treadmill. The device, invented by William Cubitt of Ipswich, occupied its own two-storey building and cost £1700 to install. Up to 32 prisoners at a time spent up to ten hours a day climbing their own endlessly ascending staircase.

In 1831, a local magistrate named Schultz, made a bequest to the county for establishing a separate ward in the gaol for juvenile offenders. The building was opened the following year.

By the 1840s, complaints were growing about the overcrowding and poor conditions in the prison. Following a critical report by the Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, a meeting of the county's magistrates in 1842 decided to proceed forthwith with the rebuilding of the prison on its existing site. While this was being done, the existing inmates were housed in the recently opened 'model penitentiary' at Pentonville in north London.

The 1844 Prison

The new building, designed by the partnership of George Gilbert Scott and William Bonython Moffatt, was one of the first new prisons to adopt the radial layout introduced at Pentonville. Its four wings, four storeys in height with internal open galleries, provided a total of 250 cells. It adopted Pentonville's 'separate' system where, as far as possible, inmates were isolated from one another — eating, working and sleeping in their cells and only leaving for exercise and attending chapel. Even then, they were kept separate and not allowed to communicate with one another.

Reading County Gaol, 1840s.

Interior of East Wing, Reading County Gaol, 1840s.

Following the nationalisation of the prison system in 1878, the site was officially referred to as Her Majesty's Prison Reading, though was still informally known as Reading Gaol.

Oscar Wilde

On 20 November 1895, the prison received its most illustrious inmate, the writer Oscar Wilde. During the previous six years, Wilde had achieved huge success with plays such as Lady Windermere's Fan and The Importance of Being Ernest, his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, and children's books such as The Happy Prince. Although married, with two sons, Wilde began a homosexual relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, the son of the ninth Marquis of Queensbury. Such activities were then illegal and Queensbury's intense disapproval of the relationship led to his labelling Wilde as a 'Somdomite' (his misspelling of sodomite), in response to which Wilde brought a charge of defamation against the Marquis. Following the case, Wilde was arrested at the Cadogan Hotel, Bayswater, his then residence and, after two trials, was sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labour.

In May 1895, Wilde was initially placed in Pentonville Prison. Two weeks later, he received a sympathetic visit from one of the Prison Commissioners, Richard Burdon Haldane, who was also a Liberal MP, a lawyer and a philosopher. Despite being strictly against the strict prison rules of the time, Haldane used his influence to get Wilde a supply of books and writing materials. Wilde's subsequent transfers to Wandsworth Prison in July 1895, and then to Reading on 20 November, both seem to have been orchestrated by Haldane in the hope of obtaining more tolerable treatment for him. Reading Prison's Visiting Committee included George W. Palmer — who, as a former Liberal M.P. for the town and the son of one of the founders of the Huntley & Palmer biscuit company, was a man of considerable local influence. However, the prison governor at Reading at that time was Colonel Henry Isaacson, who was a stickler for the rules and not a man to make concessions. Under the 'separate' system that was in operation, therefore, except for exercise and attending chapel, Wilde stayed in his single where he slept, ate, and worked at oakum-picking and turning a stiff metal crank. The toilet facilities consisted of a chamber pot that was emptied three times a day.

Wilde's health and mental state began to seriously deteriorate but, in July 1896, perhaps due to behind the scenes petitioning by Palmer and Haldane, Colonel Isaacson was suddenly 'promoted' to the governorship of Lewes prison. He was succeeded at reading by Major J.B. Nelson, who was a more liberal and human governor. After Nelson took charge, things quickly improved for Wilde, who was excused all hard labour, allowed to receive £10 of books, made prison librarian. In addition, was given small amounts of writing paper on which he began to write, among other things, De Profundis — an extended letter to Lord Alfred Douglas — though each completed page had to be handed in. Wilde's time at Reading was also made easier by the actions of a a warder, Thomas Martin, who smuggled a daily newspaper and ginger biscuits into his cell.

Wilde was release from Reading on 18 May 1897, and was finally given back the whole of his De Profundis manuscript. He was transferred back to Pentonville, from where he was freed the following morning. Not long afterwards he moved to Berneval-sur-Mer, not far from Dieppe in northern France. Here he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which describes the events surrounding the execution of Charles T. Woolridge, who spent his final days at Reading while Wilde was an inmate.

Post 1900

In the early years of the nineteenth century, a major refurbishment and upgrade of the prison took place, largely stimulated by the 1898 Prison Act. A new gatehouse was erected to allow the passage of larger vehicles, such as those carrying prisoners into and out of the site. A new classroom was installed and new workshops constructed, where prisoners could associate during their work time. On the less positive side, a new execution centre was built, with four condemned cells adjacent to it. Its use was relatively short-lived as the last execution at Reading was in 1913.

When George V became King in June 1910, there was a general amnesty which granted special remission and immediate release for seventy male and four female prisoners at Reading. In 1915, after a steady decline in the number of female prisoners at Reading, it was made a male-only institution.

In 1916, to help cope with the large number of 'enemy aliens' who were being detained in Britain under the 1914 Defence of the Realm Act, Reading was redesignated His Majesty's Place of Internment, Reading. The internees were housed in the now vacant 'E' wing. The inmates included a group of 37 Irish republicans who had taken part in the Easter Rising in Dublin, when Dublin Castle and the Dublin Post Office had been seized. In March 1919, all the internees were returned to their homelands and the institution was closed.

In January 1920, the site took on the role of a secure food store. In January 1920, it was reported that the prison then contained over 100 tons of tinned salmon. Over the following two decades, the buildings were also employed for a number of purposes, such an army surplus clothing store, a driving test centre, and an army recruiting office. In 1937, the governor's house at the right of the gatehouse, was adopted as an ARP (Air Raid Precautions) headquarters.

In August and September 1940, the prison house a party of borstal boys transferred from the Portland Borstal in Dorset after it had been bombed. In 1943-4, the buildings were used as a military prison by the Royal Canadian Air Force. A report from the time noted that the buildings were in a poor condition and still had only gas rather than electric lighting.

In August 1946, the site re-opened as an overflow prison, housing prisoners from all across the country. In 1951, e site took on yet another new role as a Borstal Institution. Reading acted as a correctional establishment, providing a particular strict regime for boys who had caused problems as other borstals, for example by absconding or being disruptive or non-cooperative. After a period of correctional training at Reading, such boys would complete their sentences at other borstal institutions. In 1961, Reading also became the first borstal recall centre, for those who had re-offended during their period of supervision while on release under licence. In 1967, following reports of brutality and torture inflicted on trainees at the prison, a board of inquiry found that there had been 'irregular behaviour by certain officers'. The establishment was closed in January 1969 and the site once again became a local prison.

The first new inmates were all tradesmen who were employed in modernising and refurbishing the buildings. At the front of the site, the exterior turrets, old gatehouse, and governor's and chaplain's residences were demolishes and a modern new gatehouse erected. 'E' wing, the old female wing, was demolished and the front wall was extended towards the road. All the cells were updated with modern lighting finally replacing the old fas lights. A new gymnasium and an new industrial were constructed. The prison could now house up to 350 men.

The prison finally closed in 2013. A number of schemes have since been proposed for the future of the buildings.


Note: many repositories impose a closure period of up to 100 years for records identifying individuals. Before travelling a long distance, always check that the records you want to consult will be available.

  • Berkshire Record Office, Berkshire Record Office, 9 Coley Avenue, Reading, Berks RG1 6AF. Holdings include: Nominal registers (1889-94, 1905-18; index cards, 1971-1980); Comvictions of prisoners (c.1907-1915); Recommital books (c.1903-14); Remission and discharge books (1900-15); Photograph albums of prisoners (1883-1914); Visitors books (1946-2001); Registers of execution (1893-13); Plan of burial ground (1923); Register of graves (1845-1910).
  • The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 4DU. Has a wide variety of crime and prison records going back to the 1770s, including calendars of prisoners, prison registers and criminal registers.
  • Find My Past has digitized many of the National Archives' prison records, including prisoner-of-war records, plus a variety of local records including Manchester, York and Plymouth. More information.
  • Prison-related records on Ancestry UK include Prison Commission Records, 1770-1951, and local records from London, Swansea, Gloucesterhire and West Yorkshire. More information.
  • The Genealogist also has a number of National Archives' prison records. More information.



  • Prison Oracle - resources those involved in present-day UK prisons.
  • GOV.UK - UK Government's information on sentencing, probation and support for families.