The empty prisons that can’t be sold: Taxpayers have paid £3.2m to secure two disused jails – including HMP Reading where Oscar Wilde was locked up – that have sat empty for SEVEN years while up for sale
- EXCLUSIVE: Sale of HMP Reading, Grade-II listed jail where Oscar Wilde was held, collapsed in November
- HMP Camp Hill, on the Isle of Wight, which was opened in 1912 by Winston Churchill, is also still redundant
- Just under £1.5m has been spent on security alone at Reading and £1.12m at Camp Hill, according to an FOI
- More broadly, sales of former prisons have raised £131million under a programme begun by David Cameron
Taxpayers have paid more than £3,200,000 to maintain and secure two prisons that have been disused for seven years due to officials failing to find buyers, MailOnline can reveal.
The sale of HMP Reading, the Grade-II listed Victorian jail where Oscar Wilde was held for committing ‘gross indecency’, and which inspired his final poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, collapsed in November after the bidder withdrew.
HMP Camp Hill, on the Isle of Wight, which was opened in 1912 by Winston Churchill, has long been linked with redevelopment plans but none have materialised.
Just under £1.5m has been spent on security alone at Reading and £1.12m at Camp Hill. Other funds have been spent on maintenance and utility bills, according to a Freedom of Information request by MailOnline.
More broadly, sales of former prisons have raised £131million under a programme begun by David Cameron’s Coalition government to decommission ageing jails, including historic sites like Holloway in north London and Shepton Mallet in Somerset.
Scroll down for a list of what has happened to all 17 decommissioned prisons.
READING: The sale of the Grade-II listed Victorian jail where Oscar Wilde was held for committing ‘gross indecency’, has been repeatedly held up. The site has cost £1.8m to secure and maintain. In the foreground of this photo is Reading Abbey
READING: The prison – pictured – has been disused since November 2013 and the Government has since struggled to find a buyer
CAMP HILL: The prison, on the Isle of Wight, which was opened in 1912 by Winston Churchill, has long been linked with redevelopment plans but none have materialised. The site has cost the taxpayer £1.4m over seven years
Reading: £106,052 (maintenance); £239,716 (utilities); £1,452,769 (security).
Camp Hill: £6,705; £308,260; £1,120,815.
A MailOnline investigation has looked into the fate of 17 prisons sold since the start of the Coalition government in 2010.
At the time, Mr Cameron said that closing old Victorian jails with high running costs and selling them to developers would help free up money to invest in modernising other sites.
HMP Reading has been disused since November 2013 and the Government has since struggled to find a buyer.
Most recently, in November, developer Artisan Real Estate withdrew its bid.
The local borough council has long wanted to turn the site into a cultural venue, but the Ministry of Justice rejected its bid last year.
How Oscar Wilde was thrown behind bars at HMP Reading at the height of his fame
Oscar Wilde was held at HMP Reading from May 25, 1895 to May 18, 1897
Oscar Wilde was incarcerated at HMP Reading from May 25, 1895 to May 18, 1897, and his time their inspired his last published work, The Ballad Of Reading Gaol.
At the very height of his fame, the celebrated writer was sentenced to two years hard labour following a showcase trial which saw him charged with acts of gross indecency after his affair with poet and journalist Lord Alfred Douglas was exposed.
Following short stints in Pentonville and Wandsworth prisons he was moved to Reading Gaol, a sprawling prison built in 1844, then home to some of the country’s most dangerous men. He was spent his time locked up in wing C number 33 on the top floor of HMP Reading. For Wilde, a sensitive and fun-loving man, the prison experience was devastating and he left a broken man.
Wilde recalled Reading Prison in his poems and said: ‘Each narrow cell in which we dwell is foul and dark latrine/And the fetid breath of living Death chokes up each grated screen.’ Historian Emily O’Neil said that Wilde was often locked up in his dark cell for up to two weeks at a time.
However, these ambitions recently received a major boost when the Ministry of Justice agreed not to consider any further commercial buyers until it had time to gather funding.
Meanwhile, HMP Camp Hill has now stood empty for seven years with no buyer coming forward.
The Isle of Wight Council is agree a deal with the Government to buy the land for a new garden village.
Duncan Simpson, research director at the Taxpayers’ Alliance, said: ‘The cost of this delay is hard to justify.
‘Selling large chunks of the prison estate is of course a complex process. But the millions spent on security should have been foreseen and avoided.
‘In future, the Ministry of Justice must be more clear-eyed about the terms of sale before embarking on this process.’
By far the biggest prison sale was HMP Holloway, which was sold to property developers for £81.5m and is being turned into luxury apartments.
The famous jail opened in 1852 and held inmates ranging from the Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and upper-class fascist Diana Mitford to Moors murder Myra Hindley and Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain.
A redevelopment scheme, which is currently under consultation, includes a 16-storey tower block with up to 1,600 homes, many with affordable rent.
Developer Peabody also vows to build a women’s building to help vulnerable local women.
Four of the former jails are now tourist attractions: Gloucester, Shepton Mallet, Shrewsbury and Lancaster Castle.
Gloucester – which once housed Fred West – was opened as a county gaol in 1792 and has the remains of a large Norman castle under its exercise yard.
It carried out 123 hangings, the last taking place in 1939, for a range of offences including sheep stealing, horse theft and burglary – but only one for murder.
Prior to the Covid lockdown the site was welcoming visitors. In the future part of it could be sold and converted into mix of homes, restaurants and shops.
Shepton Mallet opened in 1610 and was the oldest working prison in England before closing in 2013.
GLOUCESTER: The 18th century prison now hosts ghost tours and has been used for filming in Hollywood films including The Informer
GLOUCESTER: The prison had a capacity of 323 men before it shut in 2013. It once housed Fred West and is thought to have more than 100 ex-criminals buried within its grounds
GLOUCESTER: The old prison’s chapel has been used as a music venue, and there are now plans to also use it to hold weddings
SHREWSBURY: The A Wing recreational yard. Originally this was walled with a high metal fence to stop inmates from escaping. The prison also held famous inmates including Robert Welch, one of the Great Train Robbers
SHREWSBURY: This railway track was given to the prison at a cost of £60,000 by an ex-inmate who left the prison to get a job in Network Rail. The ex-con then installed the track in the prison to help inmates learn to lay sleepers
SHREWSBURY: The prison, which dates back to 1793 and is on the site of an older medieval jail, will also remain as a tourist attraction
The front gate of HMP Kingston in Portsmouth, which is being turned into housing
It was sold to developer City & Country as part of a package of several jails, but it is now run by tourism company Jailhouse Tours. A C&C spokesman said there were currently no plans to develop the site.
The jail, which housed the Kray twins after they deserted the British Army, welcomed around 50,000 visitors a year and also hosted ghost tours and overnight visits.
Meanwhile, Shrewsbury prison – which dates back to 1793 and is on the site of an older medieval jail, will also remain solely as a tourist attraction run by Jailhouse Tours.
Visitors, which prior to Covid numbered around 70,000 a year, can explore the original Victorian cells, exercise yards and the execution room – with everything much as it was when the last prisoners left in 2013.
The jail is also being used for the filming of a new BBC drama called Time.
The Prison Service said its figures put the total raised by the sale of former prisons at £128m.
A spokesman added: ‘Any money spent on maintenance is to ensure taxpayers gets the best possible return when they’re sold.’
SHEPTON MALLET: The Somerset prison opened in 1610 and was the oldest working jail in England before finally closing its doors in 2013
The jail, which housed the Kray twins after they deserted the British Army, welcomed around 50,000 visitors a year and also hosted ghost tours and overnight visits
HOLLOWAY: This was by far the biggest prison sale, with the site sold to property developers for £81.5m. It is being turned into luxury apartments
From museums and business parks to luxury flats: What has happened to former prisons sold off by the Government?
Not sold yet
Not sold yet
* Dorchester, Gloucester, Kingston and Shepton Mallet sold as part of a portfolio for £5m
** Lease handed back to the Duchy of Lancaster
Horrors that haunt Holloway: The untold stories of its infamous inmates including suffragettes, notorious murderers and even one woman who knocked off so many husbands she asked for an undertaker’s discount
By David Leafe for the Daily Mail
Mary Elizabeth Wilson was found guilty of her four husbands’ murders and spent the last five years of her life at Holloway Prison
For a woman who had buried three husbands in the space of only two years, Mary Elizabeth Wilson was a remarkably cheerful character.
At the funeral of her third spouse, a wealthy estate agent who died only 12 days after their wedding in Newcastle in the summer of 1957, she jokingly suggested that the undertaker should give her a ‘trade discount’.
Neither did her ‘humour’ appear much dimmed when, only a few months later, she married husband number four, Ernest. Some sandwiches and cakes were left over at the wedding reception, and when a friend asked what she wanted to do with them, Mary had a ready reply.
‘Keep them for Ernest’s funeral. They’ll still be fresh enough,’ she quipped.
Her new husband laughed with her, but within two weeks he too was dead — dispatched with rat poison, although not before his new bride had ensured that she would inherit his bungalow and a tidy sum in life insurance.
She might have got away with the murder, had her breezy attitude towards widowhood not aroused the suspicions of the local police. In 1958, after two of her husbands’ bodies revealed high levels of poison upon exhumation, 64-year-old Wilson was found guilty of their murders. She was spared the death penalty only because of her age.
Wilson died in 1963, living out the last five years of her life at Holloway Prison, that forbidding North London institution which for more than 150 years has been home to some of the most notorious female inmates in Britain.
In his Autumn Statement in November 2015, the Chancellor George Osborne announced that Holloway is to close as part of a £1.3billion prison reform package, its buildings sold off.
Few will mourn the passing of the grim jail that serves as a reminder of the evils perpetrated in this world, not just by such infamous 20th century hate figures as Myra Hindley but by twisted women whose crimes date back as far as the Victorian era.
Take, for example, Amelia Dyer — a Bristol-born midwife whose trial in 1896 was one of the most sensational of its time and turned her into a household name and even the subject of popular songs.
Ruth Ellis (right) was convicted of the murder of her playboy lover David Blakely and was the last woman to hang in Britain
Operating under various aliases, she purported to run a fostering service, telling unmarried mothers that for a fee of £10 — a sizeable sum in those days — she would take their unwanted babies and ensure that they were placed in comfortable middle-class homes.
Instead, she strangled the infants with lengths of white dressmaking tape and dumped their bodies in rivers. She was caught only when one of the corpses resurfaced and the police were able to make out her address from a label on the wrapping paper she had used for a shroud.
It was later suggested that she might have killed as many as 300 infants and, despite her plea of insanity, it took a jury only four-and-a-half minutes to find her guilty. Although she was incarcerated in Holloway during her trial, she had to be hanged at nearby Newgate because at that point Holloway did not have its own gallows.
This was soon remedied and a total of five women would subsequently face the hangman’s rope at Holloway.
The first two were Amelia Sach and Annie Walters, better known as the ‘Finchley Baby Farmers’ after the North London suburb in which they operated. Their motive and modus operandi were almost identical to that of Dyer but they plied their terrible trade by poisoning, rather than strangling, the dozens of babies unfortunate enough to fall into their hands.
When they were eventually brought to trial in 1903, the evidence against them included the huge quantity of baby clothes found at their homes.
Amelia Sach protested her innocence to the end. The executioner Henry Pierrepoint noted that she collapsed in her cell on the day of her death and had to be carried to the scaffold crying and screaming. By contrast, Annie Walters seemed unperturbed as she was hooded next to her accomplice.
Amelia Dyer — a Bristol-born midwife whose trial in 1896 was one of the most sensational of its time and turned her into a household name and even the subject of popular songs
‘Goodbye, Sach,’ she called calmly as Pierrepoint opened the trapdoor and dispatched the two of them in what became the last double female hanging in Britain.
The next woman to be hanged there was 29-year-old Edith Thompson, a scarlet woman who took a rather imaginative approach to murder. In 1923, the fashion buyer from London was convicted of inciting her lover, an 18-year-old sailor named Freddie Bywaters, to kill her husband Percy.
In love letters produced by the prosecution at her trial, she admitted lacing her husband’s mashed potato with fragments of glass from a crushed lighbulb, along with a hefty dose of poison.
When this failed to do the trick, it was agreed that the Thompsons would attend a show at the Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly Circus, and that Bywaters would drag Percy into a bush as they made their way home and stab him. This he did, paying the price when he and Edith were hanged simultaneously — she at Holloway, and he at nearby Pentonville — in 1923.
Of course, it was not only murderers who passed through the door of Holloway. A number of famous political prisoners were incarcerated, some receiving more favourable treatment than others.
Suffragettes, including Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, had been force-fed after going on hunger strike during their time there. But Lady Mosley, the beautiful wife of British fascist leader Oswald Mosley, had a rather different experience of prison life.
When the former Diana Mitford was imprisoned for her fascist sympathies during World War II, her friendship with Winston Churchill ensured that she and her husband were allowed to live in a cottage in Holloway’s grounds, with other inmates acting as their domestic staff. It was said that the handsome Sir Oswald drove the female inmates to distraction by stripping off his shirt to sunbathe, and their more lenient treatment caused great controversy at the time.
There was little such outcry when, in 1954, a Greek Cypriot woman named Styllou Christofi became the fourth woman to hang at Holloway, convicted of killing her daughter-in-law by bashing her across the back of a head with a shovel.
It was far from the perfect crime to begin with, given that it was carried out in the home they shared. Blood was spattered everywhere, and Christofi’s fate was sealed when she tried to get rid of the body by dousing it in paraffin and setting it alight in a misguided attempt at cremation.
She set the whole house ablaze, and the discovery of the battered and charred corpse led to her mounting the scaffold at Holloway in December 1954, just seven months ahead of Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in Britain.
A 28-year-old mother of two, she was convicted of the murder of her playboy lover, David Blakely, after shooting him four times outside the Magdala pub in Hampstead, North London.
Crowds gathering outside Holloway Prison on July 13, 1955 for Ellis’s execution, including several anti-capital punishment activists
A similar fate might have awaited Myra Hindley, perhaps Holloway’s most infamous resident. But in November 1965, a month after she and her lover Ian Brady had been arrested for the Moors Murders and while they were awaiting trial, the carrying out of the death penalty was halted, ahead of its abolition in 1969 — partly owing to the outcry over the death of Ruth Ellis.
Many would have been glad to see her on the gallows but Hindley clearly believed that she did not deserve even a life sentence, at one point attempting one of the most audacious escape attempts in Holloway’s history. In this, she was helped by Pat Cairns, a lesbian police warder who became her lover.
The plan, hatched in 1973 but only revealed decades later when official files were opened, was for the two of them to flee to Brazil, which had no extradition treaty with Britain.
They took passport photos of Hindley, who wore a wig when posing for them in the prison chapel, and also made impressions of the prison’s master keys in bars of pink Camay soap, smuggled out of the prison in an old tea packet.
The idea was to have metal copies made by an accomplice outside, and the plan was foiled only when the parcel was intercepted by police, suspicious that it might be a bomb at a time when the IRA were terrorising the British mainland.
Hindley would later be moved to other prisons, ending her days at Suffolk in 2003, but there would be no shortage of other evildoers to take her place — most notably the serial killer Rosemary West, who was convicted of ten murders in 1995. Her husband, Fred West, killed himself in his cell while on remand at Winson Green prison in Birmingham.
She has long been transferred elsewhere but for the moment Holloway remains a hulking and formidable presence.
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