James Osmond Nelson, the son of James Henry and Elizabeth Nelson, was born in London in November 1859 and was baptised four years later at St. Marylebone’s Church in Westminster.
Deciding against following in his father’s footsteps by undertaking a career in law, he joined the army, serving in the 3rd Volunteer Batallion Lancashire Fusiliers and the 1st Batallion 20th Regiment of Foot. He had a successful career in the army, becoming a Second Lieutenant in 1880 and later becoming a Major. In March 1880, whilst a Second Lieutenant, he attended the Queen’s Levee at Buckingham Palace.
In 1892, Nelson retired from the army and undertook a new profession intheprison service. He would later become governor at HM Prison, Knutsford but it is his time as governor at Reading Gaol that is the most interesting due to the infamy of one of its inmates – Oscar Wilde.
In May 1895, Oscar Wilde, the playwright was sent to Reading Gaol after being found guilty of ‘gross indecency.’ He found prison life tough as the governor would remove his books as a punishment.
This regime would end, though, in July 1896, when James Osmond Nelson became governor of Reading Gaol as, under his tenure, the number of punishments carried out dropped drastically. It was decided that Wilde should have access to paper, pen and ink and also any books he chose to read. If the books were not available in the prison library, they were to be obtained.
Nelson went to see Wilde, saying, “The Home Secretary says you are to have books. Here is one you may like; I have just been reading it myself.” At this, Oscar Wilde burst into tears, saying that they were the first kind words spoken to him since arriving in gaol.
On the evening before he was due to be released, on 18th May 1897, Wilde was taken to the main entrance where Nelson was waiting. Wilde wanted to thank him for his kindness and also wanted to discuss injustices in prison but time was limited. Nelson handed Wilde a large envelope containing a manuscript of De Profundis, something that the writer had been working on since January of that year.
After his release, in a letter written by Wilde to W R Paton, he stated, “Though he (Nelson) cannot alter the rules of the prison system, he has altered the spirit in which they used to be carried out under his predecessor… Indeed he has quite altered the whole tone of prison life.” In another letter, he also described Nelson as, “… a man of gentle and humane character greatly respected by all the prisoners.”
James Osmond Nelson, a man who had played an important role in the life of one of the world’s most celebrated playwrights, died on 9th October 1914.
Neil McKenna, The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde, Two Letters, May 28 1897
Oscar Wilde, Complete Letters