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"The Ballad of Reading Gaol"

 Trooper Charles Wooldridge and “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”

Charles Thomas Wooldridge was born in East Garston in 1865 and lived with his parents and 5 siblings on Great St. (now Front St.) In the 1881 census he was listed as a 16 year old ploughboy but later worked as a railway porter with the GWR.

In 1886, when he was 21, he joined the Royal Horse Guards based at Windsor. And it was at Windsor that he met an attractive girl, 7 years his junior, named Laura Ellen Glendall, known to her friends and family as “Nellie”.

Nellie, born in Bath, had been in the Windsor area for just on 3 years, the last 2 of which she had worked as an assistant at the Post Office in Eton High St. She and Charles decided to get married but the regulations of the regiment required that Charles seek the permission of his commanding officer. Permission which he knew would not be granted for not only was the marriage complement already complete, but neither did he have the £15 capital in the regiment’s savings bank. So the couple married secretly in St. Martin’s Church in Kentish Town. It might be wondered whether any of those in the know might have had reservations about the suitability of the marriage. Nellie was very much the extrovert and had been described by some as “flirtatious”. Charles was quieter with a jealous nature and a hair-trigger temper. Nevertheless the couple were described as being extremely happy in the early stages of the marriage even though Charles was obliged to carry on living at the barracks. Nellie continued to work at the Post Office using her maiden name. She then rented a house, 21, Alma Terrace in the Clewer district of Windsor. Here she was joined by a teenage girl called Alice Cox who was Charles’ niece and had been brought up at “Lodge Cottage” on the Maidencourt estate. Nellie employed Alice as housemaid. The newly- weds met several times a week.

In April of the following year Charles’ unit was transferred to the barracks at Regent’s Park and the couple got to see each less frequently. Over time the enforced separation placed a strain on the marriage. Nellie continued to go out during the evening, using her maiden name and a rumour began to circulate that she was seeing another soldier, a man called Robert Harvey, a corporal in the Royal Life Guards. It seems that Charles got wind of the rumour for he suddenly started to pay impromptu, unannounced visits to Alma Terrace much to Nellie’s great annoyance. Alice later described a significant change in the relationship in the early months of 1896. While Charles remained caring towards his wife, she became increasingly colder towards him. On March 27th  a violent argument took place,  during which Nellie was knocked to the floor. Despite agreeing to Charles’ request that she meet him at the barracks that weekend, on his departure Nellie wrote out a statement which she intended her husband to sign. It was to the effect that, under oath, he would swear never to approach her again or bother her in any way and this was sent to the barracks the following day. The receipt of the statement, together with Nellie’s non-appearance, led Charles to go absent without leave and travel to Windsor on the evening of March 29th.  On his arrival Nellie decided to go out. While waiting for  Alice to bring her hat and coat, Nellie stood with Charles outside the front door.  Taunted by his wife as to his inadequacy as a husband, Charles slashed her throat 3 times with such force that all the major blood vessels in her neck were severed. Nellie, supported in the middle of the road by Mr. Davies, an elderly tailor, died almost immediately.

Charles left the scene shortly afterwards and surrendered himself to PC Foster in Peascod St. P.C. Foster misread the situation initially and warned Charles to be careful what he was saying but, on closer examination of Charles’ bloodstained hands and clothing, arrested him immediately. On one of several visits to Alma terrace the police took with them Mr Wyborn, a local surgeon, who officially confirmed Nellie’s death. The weapon used, an open razor, was found in the street where Charles had thrown it. He had borrowed it from a colleague for a kit inspection 11 days earlier.

On searching the house the police found 3 letters, one of which Nellie had written to her father, a commercial traveller living in Bath. A second letter was from Nellie to Charles’ commanding officer requesting his help in getting Charles to sign the statement she had forwarded. The remaining, somewhat poignant letter was from Charles to Nellie, professing his love for her and expressing the hope that they might resume their married life when he completed his military service in 2 years’ time.

At the preliminary enquiry, held in Windsor, the jury listened attentively all day to the evidence presented by various witnesses but was out only minutes before finding Charles guilty of wilful murder. He was arraigned for trial which took place at the Berkshire Assizes in June, presided over by Mr. Justice Sir Henry Hawkins (later Lord Brampton) reputed to be a “hanging judge”. Charles pleaded “not guilty” but, as the trial progressed, his defence counsel asked the jury to consider a verdict of “guilty of manslaughter but under extreme provocation”. Called as a witness, Alice described the breakdown in the couple’s relationship earlier that year. She also confirmed that Robert Harvey had visited Alma Terrace on several occasions but he had never stopped overnight. After hearing evidence from other witnesses, including Mr Wyborn, the jury brought in an identical verdict to that of the earlier hearing but also entered a strong plea for the exercise of clemency. The Judge felt that the members of the jury had achieved the correct verdict given the premeditated nature of the crime. He also informed them that it was not within his remit to grant mercy. He then donned the black cap and pronounced sentence of death.

Despite the appalling savagery of the crime there was no lack of support for Charles Wooldridge. A petition raised by East Garston’s vicar, the Reverend Osborn-Jenkyn, was signed extensively not only in this parish but in all surrounding parishes. One raised at Reading attracted over a thousand signatures, and another, in Windsor, between three and four thousand signatures. If the Home Secretary, Sir Matthew White-Ridley, had any doubts in his mind, they would have been dispelled by a one man petition sent by Charles himself. In it he implored the Home Secretary to ignore any pleas for mercy made on his behalf. He had killed Nellie, bitterly regretted having done so and now simply wished to be left to pay the price. The Home Secretary issued a statement saying that, after full consideration of all the details of the case, he saw no reason to amend the Judge’s sentence. The execution was set for 8:00 am on July 7th at Reading Gaol.

During his detention Charles proved to be a model prisoner and by his general demeanour earned the respect not only of his fellow prisoners but also that of the warders in the condemned cell. On the morning of the execution a large crowd, mainly composed of workmen, some of whom had come from Slough, Windsor and Eton, maintained a silent vigil until just after 8 o’clock when the prison bell tolled to indicate that the execution had taken place. The Public Hangman, James Billington, later described how Charles had gone bravely to his death, his back ramrod straight as though he were on parade and he had died without uttering a sound. His request to be able to wear his regiment’s uniform had been turned down but he was allowed to carry the regimental colours to the scaffold.

Several prisoners were badly traumatised on the day of the execution including Oscar Wilde who was completing a 2 year sentence after being found guilty of gross indecency. He and Charles had never spoken to each other, the prison exercise yard being a strictly non conversational area. Nevertheless he felt a great empathy to Charles’ situation. On completing his sentence the following May, using the alias “Sebastian Melmoth”, he went into self-imposed exile to France where, at Berneval-sur-mer, he wrote the major part of his poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” which was inspired by and dedicated to “Trooper C.T.W.” Because of Wilde’s notoriety early editions were limited in number and issued under the nom-de-plume “C33” a reference to the location of Wilde’s cell at Reading. It was only on the issue of the 7th edition that the publishers felt sufficiently comfortable to attribute the work to its author by name. Wilde died, impoverished, in November 1900 of cerebral meningitis at the Hotel d’Alsace in the Latin quarter of Paris.

In “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” the poet mourns the death of Charles Wooldridge by the cold, clinical process of execution. But he also uses the work to attack the wretched conditions endured by his fellow prisoners, particularly children, at the gaol. His long letter to “The Daily Chronicle” just a few days after his release greatly influenced the drafting of the new Prison Act of 1899. Unfortunately he did not live long enough to see much of the outcome. The improved nutrition and education of child prisoners did not effectively come on stream until 1901, the year after his death. 

with thanks to local resident Dave Knight, who painstakingly researched and wrote this article following his presentation to the East Garston Local History Society.