Heritage body gives weight to campaign to save Reading Gaol

Matt Rodda (centre) with representatives from Historic England at Reading Abbey ruins. Reading Gaol is in the background.

THE CAMPAIGN to protect Reading Gaol for future generations has been given a boost after a visit from a body that seeks to preserve the nation’s heritage.

Before the lockdown started, Reading East MP Matt Rodda invited representatives from Historic England to come and visit the site.

The jail was closed in 2014, and the Ministry of Justice has been seeking to sell the site to the highest bidder. However, a campaign has been launched in a bid to save it and turn it into an arts centre.

It is backed by both Mr Rodda and Reading West MP Alok Sharma.

Although it is well-known that Oscar Wilde was incarcerated at the site, there are other reasons why the site is thought to be worth preserving.

It has been partially built on the ruins of Reading Abbey, and was once the focal point for the country’s monarchy. The oldest known musical composition featuring six-part polyphony – Summer Has Come In – was found in the ruins.

And it’s thought that King Henry I was buried in what is now a car park.

Mr Rodda, whose constituency includes parts of Woodley and Earley, led the tour, explaining the situation to the experts from Historic England and follows an announcement that part of Reading town centre has been awardedHigh Street Heritage Action Zone status.

The funding will help refurbish rundown shop fronts and improve the town’s design so that the historic parts are better connected to the modern parts of the city.

Historic England said that the scheme’s aim is to increase footfall and create a more joined-up community feel.

A spokesperson for the public body told Wokingham.Today: “We were glad to meet with Matt Rodda MP recently to discuss Reading’s rich historic environment, and our shared resolve to champion local heritage.

“The exciting new High Street Heritage Action Zone is getting off the ground and it was great to see Matt’s enthusiasm for the scheme, which is set to boost three conservation areas in the centre.

“We also spoke about Reading Gaol as a landmark building with considerable historic and architectural significance, and the need to find a sustainable long-term future for it.”

They added: “We are supportive of using the prison site for cultural and community uses, and remain committed to working with the purchaser and Reading Borough Council to secure a new use that safeguards the building and the important archaeology buried beneath it.”

Mr Rodda said that the meeting had been beneficial.

“I was delighted that experts from Historic England were able to meet me at the Gaol on a fact-finding visit to Reading,” he said.

“We looked at the layout of the Gaol from the Abbey Ruins and Richard, who leads on archaeology, explained where he believes the most important remains lie on the site.

“King Henry I is believed to be buried under the prison car park, I believe this is hugely significant for Reading and underlines the importance of the site.

“We also discussed Oscar Wilde and the Victoria Prison and the historic importance of the prison building.

“I was particularly grateful to Historic England for agreeing to rearrange their visit so that I could see them just before the current lockdown started.

“Their visit was helpful and assisted me as I continue to campaign to save the Gaol and to turn it into an arts and heritage hub.”

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