John Ivatt Briscoe was one of the magistrates of Surrey – the men who had commissioned – and were ultimately in charge of – the prison at Brixton. He was a person of probity and compassion who was a regular visitor to the gaol and took great personal interest in the welfare of its inhabitants.
During the 1820s he fought a virtually solitary and ultimately fruitless campaign to have the treadmill abolished – a machine he publicly denounced as an ‘engine of terror’. He was particularly concerned that women and children were made to suffer its rigours.
On one of his visits, he found thirteen year old James Donovan at work on a treadwheel, who had been committed on charges of theft. Briscoe enquired if he knew what the Eighth Commandment was. The boy stared and made no reply. A question about how many Commandments there were elicited the same blank response. Nor could he repeat the Lord’s Prayer. In fact he had never been to school, and could neither read nor write.
“Do you know who made you?” asked Briscoe.
“God, I believe,” Donovan replied.
“Who is God?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“Who was Jesus Christ?”
“I do not know.”
Briscoe interviewed several of the boys companions, and found them all equally ignorant. None knew the commandments or had ever been to school.
“Surely,” lamented the magistrate, “there must be some better plan of reformatory discipline, giving these juvenile offenders a little instruction concerning their duties to God and their neighbour, and putting them in the way of learning some useful habit of industry, rather than the pains and penalties of the Tread-wheel.”