This Sunday, at 3pm, 1,000 people from Reading Goal Hug Society will link arms and form a human chain around the outer boundary walls of Reading prison as part of a “Mass Hug”.

Five local groups have joined forces to campaign for the former jail to be converted into a community arts hub and stop the former jail from being sold to developers.

But, for the time being it will remain unoccupied, although this has happened before.

In 1969, when the building was vacant, local archaeologists were given a rare chance to dig the area near the main gate, searching for the remains of Reading’s 12th century Abbey.

They found some evidence of several chapel buildings- but there was no sign of Henry I’s burial site- he was interred nearby in a silver casket in 1136.

Originally opened in 1844, after two years of construction, it cost the town the princely sum of £48,000, replacing a county goal in Castle Street and another at St Laurence church.

The conditions for inmates in these two locations were truly horrific with no heating, kitchen, clean water or medical facilities.

Prisoners sentenced to ‘hard labour’ were placed on a treadmill which held over 30 of their number and powered a flour mill. It was calculated that the average distance walked inside the barrel of the treadmill, whilst performing this duty, was equivalent to climbing 13,300 feet- which is also the height of Everest.

The architect of Reading Gaol, Sir Gilbert Scott, designed the building in a ‘cruciform’ shape, with three floors and four ‘wings’, each cell measuring 13x7 feet.

Executions were a regular feature of prison life and occurred at various locations within the prison walls. After one renovation in 1877, two brothers from Hungerford had the dubious honour of testing the hangman’s new scaffold.

Oscar Wilde’s prison cell C33, is where he penned letters complaining of the standard of food available, writing to newspapers he described the meagre offerings as: “Entirely inadequate and most of it is revolting in character”.

On his release Wilde moved to Paris to write his last work, a long poem entitled, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” in 1898.

The outbreak of WW1 the jail was used for vital ‘war work’, with some prisoners ironically earning more wages than the soldiers who were fighting for King and country at the front.

By 1919, the building stood empty for the first time, with weeds growing throughout the area.

It was reopened in 1940, when a Borstal for ‘young miscreants’ was required to help enforce a new sentence of ‘corrective training’, this continued until 1969.

In the last 50 years the prison saw many extensions and improvements, but suffered a Boxing Day riot in the 1990’s, with damage to the interior costing many thousands of pounds to repair, it was closed again in 2014.