Oscar Wilde’s prison door to be displayed at National Justice Museum

The historic door that held the great Victorian wit, poet and dramatist Oscar Wilde in his cell in Reading Gaol is to go on permanent display at the National Justice Museum, Nottingham, from 14 December 2018.

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Wilde was imprisoned in Reading Gaol between 1895-97 for the offence of ‘gross indecency’. Since that time his prison door has become a powerful symbol in literary history, and in the history of discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community.

The pale-yellow cell door will be installed in the National Justice Museum together with a section of the wrought iron stairs from Reading Gaol. Both artefacts are vividly described in Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol, “The warders with their jingling keys/ Opened each listening cell/ And down the iron stair we tramped/ Each from his separate Hell”.

His gaol door and railings from Reading Gaol are part of a unique collection of over 40,000 objects and archives relating to law, justice, crime and punishment at the National Justice Museum

Wilde’s imprisonment resulted from his ill-fated and failed libel action against the Marquis of Queensbury. The Marquis was the father of Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas, and the action led to Wilde being tried and found guilty of ‘gross indecency’. Homosexuality was a criminal offence at that time and remained so until 1967.

Once imprisoned, Wilde’s decline was rapid. He never saw his wife or children again. He was financially ruined and the continual hard labour and unsanitary conditions in the gaol led to poor health from which he never recovered. He died in exile in France in 1900.

His gaol door and railings from Reading Gaol are part of a unique collection of over 40,000 objects and archives relating to law, justice, crime and punishment at the National Justice Museum.

Nottingham poet Leanne Mode has been specially commissioned by the National Justice Museum to re-interpret The Ballad of Reading Gaol to reflect modern prisoner experiences

Behind the cell door, Wilde was also inspired to write De Profundis to Lord Alfred Douglas, one of the most celebrated letters in the English language. After fleeing to France, Wilde wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, a poetical indictment of the British penal system and the hellish conditions of prison life.

Nottingham poet Leanne Mode has been specially commissioned by the National Justice Museum to re-interpret The Ballad of Reading Gaol to reflect modern prisoner experiences. Her new work will be on display alongside the door.