Thank you for your interest in Reading Gaol and for speaking to me about the sale this week.
As we discussed, I understand that the Ministry is coming towards the end of the process for deciding the future of the Gaol.
Even at this late stage, I would ask you to consider the bids not only in terms of the size of a capital receipt for the Ministry, but also to fully consider the broader economic and social value of Reading Gaol. I hope you will agree that saving the building could have significant benefits for our community and the country as a whole, and I hope you will consider the Reading Borough Council bid, alongside the generous offer of a £2 million additional donation from a leading figure in the arts community.
The Gaol has been at the heart of Reading for around 170 years. Its history is intertwined with that of our town and with international literary and LGBT+ history. It is an incredibly important cultural heritage site.
As you know, Reading Gaol is where Oscar Wilde was incarcerated following his conviction for homosexuality. Oscar Wilde was prisoner C.3.3., his cell is clearly marked and almost untouched by the passage of time, as are the chapel, the prison yard where he would have carried out hard labour and other parts of the Gaol he would have experienced as an inmate. His time in Reading Gaol was the inspiration for his poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
However, the history of the Gaol site itself stretches back much further than the current Victorian building. The Gaol was built on top of the ruins of the former Reading Abbey, founded in 1121 by King Henry I, King Henry was buried at the High Altar, which is believed to be under the current Gaol wall or car park. The Abbey was an important site in Medieval history, a range of other Medieval royal and political figures were buried on the site and it was used for a meeting of Parliament itself in 1453.
The Gaol and the surrounding heritage quarter, including the rest of the Abbey ruin, Forbury Gardens, Reading Crown Court and the Victorian Town Hall are an integral part of the identity of the town. Under the bid from the Borough Council, this important historical site would provide new community space, provide a venue for the arts and small businesses and be at the heart of Reading’s arts, culture and tourism sector.
We’ve been so lucky to obtain the support of Banksy, Stephen Fry, Dame Judi Dench, Kate Winslet, Shazad Latif, Natalie Dormer and Sir Kenneth Branagh and the Gaol is now a Banksy canvas.
There is strong cross party and cross community support for saving the Gaol, with Alok Sharma MP and David Stephens, the former Conservative Mayor of Reading working with myself and Reading Borough Council and over 8,000 people completed my survey about the Gaol to ask that this wonderful building should not be turned into luxury flats.
I do hope you will be able to use your discretion to consider the social and economic benefits to the local community and the country as a whole and explore saving the Gaol for arts and heritage use.
Matt Rodda MP