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Iron key was used to lock Reading jail cell C.3.3 where writer was imprisoned for
homosexual offences The plain iron key to Oscar Wilde’s cell door at Reading jail, a macabre souvenir of the period that broke his health and spirit, is to be sold at a
Sotheby’s auction.

One of his most famous poems, the Ballad of ReadingGaol, recounting the sulphurous atmosphere in the prison in the weeks before a man was hanged, was originally published in 1898 under the pseudonym C.3.3, the number of his cell – cell block C, landing 3, cell 3 – where he was locked up after being sentenced to two years’ hard labour for homosexual offences in 1895.

The key comes with a letter from Leslie Portch, the prison governor who gave the key to an auction in aid of the Rotary Club in Reading in 1971, after the prison was extensively remodelled. His note identifies it as the one which locked all the doors in C wing between 1885 and 1915, including Wilde’s cell.

poemThe poem recalls how on the morning of the hanging, “the Warders with their jingling keys Opened each listening cell, And down the iron stair we tramped, Each from his separate Hell”.

“It is a very evocative piece,” said Gabriel Heaton, an English literature expert at Sotheby’s. “The heavy dark Victorian key does speak quite loudly and poignantly of the contrast between the freedom and lightness of Oscar Wilde’s wit and that terrible time in his life.”

The key was bought by the father of the present vendor, who had a little display case made for it so he could hang it on the wall of his home.

While still locked up Wilde used the single sheet of paper he was allowed each day to write a passionate and bitter letter, De Profundis, to his lover Bosie, Lord Alfred Douglas. Urged by Bosie, Wilde had disastrously sued his father for libel over accusations of homosexuality, which led directly to his own prosecution. He was released in 1897, but his health never recovered from the experience, and he died in Paris in 1900, aged just 46.
De Profundis was published after his death. The prison finally closed three years ago, and recently opened its doors to the public for the first time with tours including Wilde’s cell organised by the National Trust, and a three month programme created by Artangel – which had to be extended because the public demand for tickets was so strong – where scores of artists and writers including Patti Smith and ColmToibin read De Profundis in its entirety in the former prison chapel.

Heaton said the key had been almost impossible to value, but it has been estimated to fetch up to £6,000 at the English Literature auction in London on 13 December.
(Courtesy: The Guardian)