On 7 July 1896, trooper Charles Thomas Wooldridge was executed at Reading Prison. The hanging was immortalised by Oscar Wilde, in his haunting and deeply moving poem: The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
Charles Wooldridge was born in 1864, in East Garston, Berkshire. A labourer’s son, he began work as a plough boy, together with his younger brother, Albert. By 1891, Charles had joined the Royal Horse Guards and was stationed in Farnborough, Hampshire. Three years later, he married Laura Ellen Glendall, a salesman’s daughter from Bath. Shortly after the wedding, Wooldridge was transferred to guard duty at Windsor Castle, but as the marriage hadn’t been sanctioned by his commanding officer, the couple were forced to live apart.
In 1896, Charles was living at Hyde Park Barracks, where he was on duty at Buckingham Palace and Laura, known as Nell, shared rooms with Alice Cox, a colleague from the post office where she worked, in Windsor. A jealous and possessive man, Wooldridge was suspicious of his wife and he would arrive at the house unannounced to try to catch her with another man. On 16 March, Charles visited Nell and a terrible row broke out between them, culminating in Charles punching her repeatedly in the face. She was left with black eyes and a bleeding nose. Seemingly repentant of his violent act, he returned to her house a fortnight later, with a letter vowing that he would never touch her again. But as soon as Nell’s housemate went upstairs to get her hat and coat, leaving the pair alone, another fight broke out.
At 9.10 pm, a neighbour heard shouting in the street and rushed outside to find a woman lying in the road. It was Laura Wooldridge – her throat had been slashed with a razor. Soon after, Charles handed himself in at the police station and confessed to his crime but, according to the Berkshire Chronicle, he justified his heinous act by stating that, ‘she had been carrying on a fine game.’ At the inquest, the coroner concluded that the murder had taken place because of ‘some misunderstanding between Wooldridge and the deceased and it looked like a case of jealousy.’
On 7 July 1896, Charles Thomas Wooldridge was hanged at Reading Prison. A local reporter noted that he ‘walked to the scaffold with that firmness that characterised his demeanour throughout.’ Oscar Wilde, also an inmate, had watched Wooldridge from his cell and the story was well known throughout the prison. Wilde was deeply affected by the tale and its tragic consequences. His famous ballad laments the desperate act of a passionate lover:
I only knew what hunted thought
Quickened his step, and why
He looked upon the garish day
With such a wistful eye;
The man had killed the thing he loved,
And so he had to die.
When I took a tour of Reading Prison, I saw Wilde’s cell, and the door to the ‘drop room’ through which Charles Wooldridge made his final steps. I also met a warder who recalled ‘meeting’ the trooper’s ghost one night near his cell, the air smelling strongly of pipe tobacco – he was the only prisoner allowed to smoke before he was hanged.
Images reproduced with permission from Reading Borough Libraries