It was Brixton that made the treadmill famous. This particularly sadistic form of prison punishment had first been introduced at the gaol in Bury St Edmunds in 1819, but was not installed at Brixton for another two years. But when an article about the ‘Surrey mill’ was printed in 1822, it caused a sensation.
The treadmill fascinated a public cowed by what seemed like a unrelenting increase in crime and shocked by the continued inefficiency of prisons. It soon became the subject of popular song and comic verse and even found its way into the theatre.
The cartoon above is an example of how strongly the Brixton treadmill featured in popular culture. Dated December 1822, this satirical print features some of the leading radicals of the time – all of whom had had some brush with gaol.
Among them is the brilliant Theodore Hook, the founder of the John Bull magazine and practical joker, who had been arrested for fraud. William Cobbett, the political campaigner, had been prosecuted for libel. Henry Hunt, the radical speaker, was imprisoned in connection with a political meeting in Manchester. Thomas Wooler, a journalist and publisher most famous for his journal The Black Dwarf, had been found guilty of election offences in Warwick.
None (as far as I know) were ever actually imprisoned in Brixton. Six months earlier, Theodore Hook had demonstrated his radical character when he joined the small number of those who opposed the punishment, calling it ‘that barbarous and shameful mill.’