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For sale: Reading jail, where Oscar Wilde was punished for gay sex

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A general view shows razor wire surrounding the former Reading prison where Oscar Wilde was gaoled for gross indecency with another man, in Reading, Britain September 1, 2016.
A general view shows razor wire surrounding the former Reading prison where Oscar Wilde was gaoled for gross indecency with another man, in Reading, Britain September 1, 2016. -
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REUTERS/Eddie Keogh
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The victorian jail where gay playwright Oscar Wilde served most of his two-year sentence for "gross indecency" is for sale, Britain said on Thursday.

The move drew criticism from campaigners who had hoped to turn Reading jail, just west of London, into an arts center to honour the Irish writer's legacy.

The site had become a magnet for Britain's LGBT community, just as New York's Stonewall Inn draws crowds commemorating its key role in the US fight for gay rights.

"It's a hugely significant space," said Joseph Galliano, CEO and co-founder of Queer Britain, the national LGBTQ+ museum.

"We are losing heritage and cultural spaces to commercial redevelopment which will never be recovered."

Government seeks 'best outcome for taxpayer'

It is the latest prison to be sold by the government as it seeks to turn state assets into money to bolster its budget.

Paul Johnson, Professor of Sociology at the University of York, said that Britain had a bad record of marking its historic persecution of gay people and that the prison was important to many people around the world.

"It does crystallise what hundreds of thousands of people suffered, it isn't just about one person — it's about what so many people suffered over time," he said.

Britain's Justice Ministry said it would invest money from the sale back in the prison system and would consider all bids.

"We will always seek the best outcome for the taxpayer," the ministry said in a statement.

Anti-homosexuality legislation

During his sensational trial, Wilde was questioned over his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, a poet who penned the immortal line: "I am the love that dare not speak its name".

Wilde was imprisoned in 1895, months after his play 'The Importance of Being Earnest' was first performed in London.

Napoleon Sarony [Public domain]
Irish writer Oscar WildeNapoleon Sarony [Public domain]

His case threw a spotlight on Britain's draconian laws on homosexuality.

He wrote the poem 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol', inspired by the hanging of an inmate, which turned the facility into one of the most notorious in the world, according to the Oscar Wilde Society.

"In Reading gaol by Reading town, There is a pit of shame, And in it lies a wretched man, Eaten by teeth of flame," the poem reads.

England and Wales repealed anti-homosexuality legislation more than 70 years later, in 1967.

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