The battle of Reading Gaol: residents brave heavy rain to give a hug in support of plans for new arts centre

Campaigners call on the Ministry of Justice to let the empty prison site be turned into a theatre and arts centre, rather than being sold to the highest bidder for housing

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Reading Gaol hug
Some of the 700 participants taking part in the Reading Gaol hug on Sunday, October 13 Picture: Phil Creighton/The Wokingham Paper ltd

POLITICAL allegiances were forgotten on Sunday, October 13, as people from Reading and beyond came together for one of the biggest hugs the town has ever seen. 

An estimated 700 people braved the wind and rain to gather in Reading Abbey ruins to show their support for a campaign to turn the former Reading Gaol site into an arts hub for the Thames Valley. 

And heading up the hug were, among others, Reading East MP Matt Rodda and his Reading West MP counterpart, Alok Sharma, who is also the Secretary of State for International Development of the United Kingdom.

Also setting aside their political differences were various Reading Borough Council councillors and Lib Dem Reading East parliamentary candidate, Imogen Shepherd-DuBey. 

And there was support too from BBC Radio 3 Late Junction presenter Fiona Talkington. 

Reading Gaol Hug = in action

The event was conceived by local artist Linda Saul as a way of showcasing to the Ministry of Justice, who has put the site up for sale, that there is mass support from Reading residents to ensure the site is turned into a community asset. 

To help with the bid, Theatre and Arts Reading, a group comprising leading lights from the Reading area has been set up. 

The hug started in Reading Abbey, where there was music compered by local legend Eddie Winsnip from Reading College radio station Blast 1386. And there were speeches from Reading Borough mayor Cllr Paul Woodward, Alok Sharma and Matt Rodda, Linda Saul – who received a loud cheer, Hilary Scott from Reading Theatre and Arts, and Cllr Karen Rowland, Lead Member for Culture, Heritage & Recreation, Reading Borough Council.

To brighten up proceedings recreations of medieval royalty and Oscar Wilde as a jailbird were introduced into the abbey ruins, to the delight of the crowd. 

And the local dignitaries taking part had much to say about the campaign

Reading Gaol
Reading Gaol Hug – Sunday, October 13, 2019

Reading Gaol would be of ‘enormous benefit’ to the town

Linda Saul said before the event, held on Sunday, October 13, that it would be “our chance to show how much we want the gaol to become a force for good in the community as an arts hub and museum, to redeem it after its chequered past. 

“A cultural centre at Reading Gaol would be of enormous benefit to the town – both as an asset that local people can enjoy and as a tourist attraction”. 

She added that the news of the sale is no surprise “we were expecting the sale to be announced before the Hug happened, we are not fazed by it”.

Alok Sharma: ‘Reading Gaol matters for the whole of Reading – this is not about party politics’

Reading Gaol hug
Alok Sharm and Matt Rodda share the stage in a bid to suport the Reading Gaol hug

Reading West MP was more than happy to be a jail hugger for the afternoon because he felt that the campaign to save Reading Gaol was something that “matters for the whole of Reading”. 

He added: “This is not about party politics, this is about community.

“That’s what we’ve got here: People across Reading, coming together, celebrating a wonderful site and making sure that we are able to deliver this together.”

Mr Sharma has been involved with the Theatre and Arts Reading group for three years, and has fond memories of its 2016 exhibition. 

“Just a few weeks ago, I went with our friends from Theatre and Arts to see [Robert Buckland] who is now the Justice Secretary, to talk about this particular issue.

“I think there’s a real opportunity for us to do something. I know Reading Borough Council having discussions about the proposal and I’m really happy to work together with them to deliver this for Reading. This isn’t about politics. This is about community. And that’s what comes first.”

Could Mr Sharma use his role in Government to put in a good word? 

“No,” he said. “There are rules to be followed, whether it is local government or central government, you have to follow the rules.

“What we can do is make sure that any proposal that’s put forward is one that will find favour with central government. That’s what I’m very happy to do – sit down with [Reading Borough Council’s deputy leader] Tony Page and Reading Borough Council and see what we can could put forward a proposal, which ultimately delivers both for the Minister of Justice but then also delivers for Reading and our community here.” 

Matt Rodda: “The support shows the strength of feeling from Reading about Reading Gaol”

Reading Gaol
Reading Gaol Hug – Matt Rodda gives the plans for an arts centre the thumbs up

The Reading East MP, who was elected in 2017, was pleased to support the campaigners. 

“This is about the future of Reading, and it’s very important that we all get together and preserve this amazing building for the future,” he explained. “I want the government to put their support into this project, and help Reading Council and arts groups locally to save the gaol and turn it into an arts centre for our community.”

One of his opponents for the Reading East seat is Conservative Craig Morley. Last month, he tweeted: 

“Reading prison should be sold as soon as possible to secure the best value for the taxpayer. That is why I have written to [Justice Minister] Robert Buckland  to ask the [Ministry of Justice] to accelerate the sale.”

This is something that Mr Rodda felt is a “great shame”. 

“I would ask everybody to reflect on that and just think how important it is to the town. I’d like to see support across the piece, from all political parties to this project, because it’s so important to the town and to our people.”

Mr Rodda was delighted with the support from people to the hug. He has been one of the leading lights of the campaign to save the jail, including running a petition to show the strength of feeling in the community.

“It’s wonderful [to see so many people] and it shows the strength of feeling and support to this amazing project. And we’re all very grateful for that support and the time people are putting in today.”

Imogen Shepherd-DuBey: ‘Reading Gaol’s history is important, private ownership would be a tragedy’

Reading Gaol
Reading East Lib Dem candidate Imogen Shepherd-DuBey

The recently confirmed Liberal Democrat candidate for Reading East wanted to ensure the Gaol site is kept as a public asset, due to its history. 

“I think it’s very important that buildings and assets like this are kept in public use and available for the public to use,” she said. 

“This building has such a lot of history. I mean, it’s Oscar Wilde, and various people who’ve been incarcerated in over the years, Quakers and all sorts. 

“To see going into private ownership would be quite a tragedy for Reading, Reading needs to maintain its historical assets and look after them.”

She added: “I’d very much like to see this being kept as an art centre or something in public use. But of course, we have concerns over how it should be funded as well. That’s something that still needs to be sorted out and I’m glad to see lots of people out supporting this today.”

Keith Baker: ‘Support is amazing and shows the demand for an arts centre’

Reading Gaol
Cllr Keith Baker, the leader of Woodley Town Council, supports the arts hub plan

The Woodley Town Council leader was one of those who joined in the hug, because he believes in the importance of centres specifically for arts. He wants to see Reading Gaol converted and can picture its potential to be one of the best in the country. 

“I think providing the arts and facilities for the arts is a must for every large town, particularly east Reading. They have an ideal opportunity here to create what I think will be one of the best facilities, certainly in the south east, possibly in the country. 

“We all have to work together to try and make sure that actually happens.”

He was delighted with the number of people who turned out, despite the heavy downpours. 

“It’s amazing, but it just shows you the underlying strength of demand for arts facilities,” he said. 

Reading Gaol’s support from BBC Radio 3 Late Junction presenter Fiona Talkington

BBC Radio 3 Late Junction presenter Fiona Talkington in Reading Abbey ruins next to a plaque commemorating Sumer Is Icumen In, the first round ever to have been written down, back in 1250AD

BBC Radio 3 Late Junction presenter Fiona Talkington is Reading born and bred, and understands the importance that the gaol site, and neighbouring Reading Abbey have, as they have seminal memories for her. 

“It’s a childhood walk past the jail,” she recalled. “As a teenager, I would come and hang out in the Abbey Ruins. And I’ve been just so moved by the strength of feeling among people in Reading as to what’s going to happen or what is happening or what might happen to the gaol.

“The arts are so important and Reading is such a cultural hub.”

Ms Talkington said that it was important for the town to be a hub so it could support “the diverse community of Reading and all that follows in the years to come, just as I did when I was a child”.

She added: “I think people love the gaol as a landmark. Since the Abbey was reopened last year there is a real awareness of what’s going on in Reading that we have to have this Cultural Heritage Centre. And we don’t want to lose it.

“Coming out to hug in the rain on a gloomy Sunday shows that people of Reading are absolutely passionate, and we’re going to achieve something and we really care about each other. It’s a very compassionate town as well as being a cultural town. 

“The sky is absolutely the limit. Great things are going to happen.”

Reading Abbey is home to the earlier-known six-part harmony: the song Sumer is icumen in, which dates back to about 1240. 

Ms Talkington, who was interviewed in the Abbey ruins, felt that this provided an extra link for Reading’s arts hub. 

“Just standing here and imagining the sounds of centuries and centuries ago, and also to be able to tell other people, important things happened here,” she said of the importance of the site. “This is where the first round was written down.

“You can imagine the monks in this Abbey where we’re standing right now, and imagine the sound that they would have made as they processed around just this beacon for the whole of the South of England. 

“We see today [groups] like the RBL Theatre Company that perform here. When when I was a child, we used to do performances here – Progress Theatre performs here – so much goes on. 

“And it’s also a place that’s open to the whole town. 

“So it’s thrilling to know that going back centuries, there’s already a history of important things happening.”

Linda Saul was delighted with the turnout, and to see Reading Gaol hugged

Reading Gaol hug
Time-travelling visitors at the Reading Gaol Hug

Speaking afterwards, organiser Linda Saul expressed her delight that so many people attended, saying that having around 700 “given the weather” was amazing. 

“We had 1,300 registered, but the weather would have [put some off] and also there were real problems with traffic this morning,” she said. 

“I’m so very, very pleased we had enough people and we achieved the hug – that was the aim. It was absolutely fantastic.”

Ms Saul added that the event sent a message to the Ministry of Justice that people want Reading Gaol to be an arts centre. 

“We don’t want just some more houses there,” she said. “It seems to be sacrilege – if the gaol, an important heritage site,  the Abbey ruins just got handed over to developers, that would just be so sad and that’s what so many people turned out today.”

As the hug encompassed a large area, no one was able to capture the entire event, but Ms Saul was pleased with the way in which it happened. 

“None of us actually saw the entire hug. But what I saw happening was just fantastic. 

“And everybody was so patient because it took a while to get into position. But it was so good-natured. It was good fun. And I really enjoyed it. 

“It was great.” 

Matt Rodda’s petition to save Reading Gaol

Some of the hundreds of people who turned out to support Reading Gaol

The petition launched by Reading East MP Matt Rodda now has more than 5,000 signatures. 

He said: “Thank you to everyone who’s signed up and put their energy behind this campaign. 

“We couldn’t have reached this point without you. Another big thank you goes out to all the volunteers who have spent hours delivering petitions, attending street stalls, writing to celebrities, sharing on social media, organising Facebook groups, creating artwork, putting posters up around town, and badgering their friends and family to sign (this is not an exhaustive list!). 

“The amount of talent, enthusiasm and goodwill in Reading is incredible.”

The petition can be read and signed at https://mattroddamp.com/stopreadinggaolselloff/

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