Life in Reading Prison
Please click on each tab below to view the content, and head to the bottom of this page to view the gallery of photos.
Life in Reading Prison was very different depending on the length of your sentence, the offence committed and your personal circumstances. From the Reading Prison records, it appears that prisoners were mostly serving short sentences as out of the sentences given during the nineteenth century, four out of five sentences were for a month or less. The Chaplain at Abingdon Prison reports, that ‘many have acknowledged to me that they are happier in prison than out’ and this may mean that lesser offences could have been ploys to find some warmth and food during the gruelling winter months.  However, most of the individuals we’ve located for being sentenced for sex between men within Reading Prison are serving longer sentences. For those individuals serving hard labour for longer than four months, prison life was hard; their diet consisted of for four days a week, one pint of gruel, eight ounces of bread. For dinner: four ounces of cooked meat without bones, a pound of potatoes and six ounces of bread, with alternative days substituting cocoa for breakfast and soup for meat.
Reading Prison became Berkshire’s only prison in 1868 when the Abingdon Prison closed. Towering over the town, the Prison was built utilising the separate system that had been first designed for Pentonville Prison. This system kept prisoners inside their cells for 22 hours a day, with only one hour for exercise and one for chapel. The prisoners even inside chapel were isolated from each other, kept separated inside their own pews from the next person. Time spent in the exercise yard was also designed for isolation; the prisoners would walk around a ring of the prison with no option for talking. The prison uniform was further designed to keep the prisoner in isolation from the others; the famous ‘scotch cap’ kept their vision low, preventing them from seeing much in eyesight. This ‘separate system’ was intended to prevent corruption that was deemed to occur as a result of prisoners mixing together. As a result, they believed the prisoners would pass ‘through a season of remorse in the seclusion and their own bitter reflections’ to reform their behaviour. For those serving sentences involving hard labour, their time in prison was physically draining and demeaning with the use of a hand crank to mill flour and a baker’s oven being introduced for labour from 1854, with stone-breaking from 1863. When numerous prisoners suffered injuries to their eyes from flying chips of stone, protective glasses were provided in 1883.  If you were inside Reading Prison for longer than a month, it’s likely that you would have had lessons in reading and writing and time spent in religious instruction, as these sessions would take place daily, with the chaplain as the teacher for men and children, and the matron for the female prisoners.  It is noted within the records that there was a clear ignorance surrounding religious values, the strongest ‘especially among the agricultural labourers.’ 
The bulk of this research was completed by Geoff Sawers, and our thanks go to him for his involvement to the Broken Futures History Group, as well as to the Berkshire Record Office for the access to their collections and input. To read more of Geoff’s fantastic research, please see: Amy V. Hitchings, Geoff Sawers and George H. J., Stokes, ‘Before and After Oscar Wilde: Life in the Berkshire Prisons, 1850-1920’ 58 Wildean Journal.
 Peter Stoneley, ‘“Looking at the Others”: Oscar
Wilde and the Reading Gaol Archive’ (2014) 19 Journal of Victorian Culture 466
 Berkshire Chronicle, 11th September 1852
 Berkshire Record Office, Q/SR 464
 Anthony Stokes, “Pit of Shame: the Real Ballad of Reading Gaol’, (2007, Winchester, Waterside Press) 30
 Berkshire Record Office, Q/SO 23
 Berkshire Record Office P/RP1/6/1
 Berkshire Record Office P/RP1/11/2/1
 Berkshire Record Office Q/SO 23