And we’re all treading, tread, tread, treading,
And we’re all treading at fam’d Brixton Mill.
(Nineteenth century street ballad)
In 1822 the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline – the most influential lobbyist for penal reform of the time – published a drawing of a dozen or so prisoners ranged upon a large, elongated wheel at the recently opened Surrey house of correction in the village of Brixton. It was accompanied by a detailed description of this new form of punishment, christened the treadmill. The article was to be the catalyst for its proliferation across the country.
The Surrey house of correction had been built in 1819, a time when hard labour in prison was emerging as the popular form of punishment in the place of public displays of justice such as the pillory and the stocks.
But it was also a period of disquiet about how prisons were run. They had been exposed as overcrowded, disease-ridden places where inmates spent their time in idleness – to be found drunk, playing games and gambling. It scandalised a public cowed by a seemingly unrelenting rise in crime.
The men who had commissioned the house of correction at Brixton – the Surrey magistrates – wanted it to be the envy of the land. A modern prison, though, demanded a modern means of punishment. Hard labour most commonly involved picking oakum – pulling apart old rope. Critics argued it was difficult to discipline and did little to deter.
But then news came to the magistrates of a system of labour newly employed in a house of correction in Suffolk. It was said to be easy to run, conducive to good discipline and productive. Moreover, it was work the prisoners dreaded.
The treadmill was a machine of somewhat sadistic ingenuity. It was the brainchild of William Cubitt, an engineer who had been disturbed to see prisoners at his local gaol in Bury St Edmunds ‘idly loitering around’. He imagined a kind of elongated water wheel – with prisoners made to perpetually climb its revolving boards.
His final design consisted of two wheels employing up to 30 people at a time. Ingeniously, the wheels connected to millstones. The prisoners were not only being punished, but helping to make their daily bread.
Impressed, the Surrey magistrates commissioned a design from Cubitt for a treadmill at the house of correction in Brixton. It was fully working by the end of 1821. Its ten wheels could occupy up to a hundred men, women and children at a time. They were connected to two giant millstones. A miller and baker were employed and the surplus loaves distributed to the other prisons of Surrey.
For the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline the treadmill was a potential panacea for a penal system struggling to reinvent itself after centuries of stagnation: ‘Not only can every prisoner work on the mill’, it wrote, ‘but every prisoner so employed must work’. And it was a deterrent: ‘the hard labour, and spare diet . . . have already rendered the name of Brixton a terror to offenders in the vicinity.’
The Society’s article was widely reprinted. It caused a sensation. Suddenly the little known Surrey village was famous. The Brixton mill quickly found its way into satirical cartoons, the theatre, popular song and comic verse. The dukes of Wellington and York, and even royalty were reported to have seen it for themselves.
But its biggest admirers were the magistrates of the individual counties who ran the prisons. When, towards the end of 1822, the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline published a list of 24 prisons with a treadmill it observed: ‘The number of these discipline mills is at this time so rapidly increasing throughout the prisons of the kingdom, that any correct list could scarcely be given at present’.
A few individuals objected. The Surrey magistrate John Ivatt Briscoe fought an ultimately futile campaign to have the treadmill banned. It was, he said, an ‘engine of terror’, unconstitutional and ‘revolting to the spirit of English law’. Moreover, he lamented, it did nothing to reform.
Briscoe made several visits to Brixton where he interviewed those at work on the wheels. Among them was 23 year old Thomas Boniface, court-martialled from the Grenadier Guards. “I have now such a pain in my left side and my stomach, and such a weakness in my legs. I shall not be able to do any duty when I get out. I shall never have my health as I had before; the wheel has so hurt my constitution.”
21 year old William Perkins burst into tears as he told the magistrate: “Nobody knows what I feel but myself. I have had my thigh broken, for which I was confined in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital . . . It is the work on the wheel which makes me so weak. It is such fatiguing work; and yet I have been always used to hard work. I would sooner carry coals all my life.”
Such complaints did nothing to halt the spread of the treadmill. Nor did news of people crushed in the workings of the wheels at Swaffham, Aylesbury and Leicester. Within two decades more than half the country’s 200 gaols would have one.
The treadmill would be banned in 1902 as an era of liberal politics was ushered in. But by then, and with the help of Brixton prison, it had been established as the hallmark of the Victorian penal system.