A Mother on the Treadmill – the Case of Elizabeth Loder

Nothing quite polarised debate in the 1820s like the newly devised treadmill.  From the public house to parliament those who decried its inhumanity locked horns with those who believed it a magic bullet for an apparent increase in crime.  One case in particular excited opinion.

In a letter to the Morning Post in November of 1823, a correspondent using the pen name ‘Julius’, reported on a case he’d witnessed at the house of correction in Guildford:

Screen Shot 2014-12-22 at 14.42.37The woman in question was Elizabeth Loder.  She had been brought to court in October charged by the parish officer of Godalming with ‘having been delivered of a bastard child, and being then chargeable to that parish.’  With no state welfare system, it was down to the local community to support those unable to care for themselves – and anyone seen to be taking advantage was sorely looked upon.

The court was told it was Loder’s third child by three different fathers.  The magistrate directed an example be made.  He sentenced her to three months hard labour on the treadmill at Guildford.

The house of correction at Guildford

The house of correction at Guildford

Guildford was Brixton’s sister prison, built at the same time and also overseen by the Surrey magistrates; the newly devised treadmill had been installed at both.  Loder was made to tread its boards almost as soon as she arrived, but was so weak and emaciated was quickly admitted to the infirmary.  It transpired she had been living on a diet of nothing but potatoes and was so undernourished she was unable even to produce milk for her baby.  She was given an extra allowance of food and her child put on a diet of pap made from bread and sugar.

Loder was back at the wheel two weeks later.  She was made to tread for 15 minute periods with 10 minute breaks over a period of around six hours a day.  Those women at rest looked after her child as she trod, but she was still unable to feed it.  Help was offered from another inmate and new mother: Hannah Hall was a vagrant in rather more robust health and allowed Loder’s child to suckle on her, something she would do for the period of her own one month confinement.

The case of Elizabeth Loder was an important one for the opponents of the treadmill for it underlined the machine’s indiscriminate use.  John Ivatt Briscoe, who stood alone among the Surrey magistrates in his vociferous opposition to it had come across both Elizabeth Loder and Hannah Hall in his investigations at Brixton and Guildford:

I saw [Loder] three times, and on the first of these times . . . she complained of want of nourishment for her child.  On my second visit I saw both the women at work on the Wheel.  The cries of their infants re-echoed through the prison almost unceasingly, and they then looked pale and sickly . . . I do not hesitate to declare my decided opposition to the practice of punishing a woman in this manner, under any circumstances, and particularly while performing the office of a nurse.

Briscoe’s fellow magistrates were goaded by this criticism.  Two of them, George Walton and Henry Onslow, declared it a ‘a strong and pathetic appeal . . . to the sympathies of the British public’.  They opened an investigation into the case, one which claimed Loder’s stay at Guildford had ultimately improved her health:

She has declared she was better fed, and had more care taken of her, and was altogether more comfortable during her imprisonment than she had ever been before; that she had gained health and strength during the time she was subject to work on the Wheel; and on her leaving the prison, expressed much apprehension that she should not fare so well on her return home.

The magistrates concluded ‘that what has been done in the commitment and punishment of these women, has not only been in strict conformity to the directions of the statute, but has violated no feeling of humanity’.  The Medical Adviser declared Onslow and Drummond ‘women haters’ and asked: ‘what sort of men must they be, who could thus undertake to defend the practice of putting women suckling infants to the treadwheel.’

But the case of Loder had raised not only the issue of putting mothers on the treadmill, but the question of whether she should have been there in the first place.  Men could also be imprisoned for not supporting their children, but with paternity depending on an individual’s word, it was the woman who was more likely to be prosecuted.  The MP Matthew Wood  – who opposed putting women on the treadmill – was answered with laughter in parliament when he pointed out: ‘This poor woman had been worked constantly . . . for hours together, and what was her crime?  Why simply that she had three children by three fresh men.’

Others merely held up Loder’s crime as a justification for the treadmill.  Another correspondent to the Morning Post, in responding to the man who had brought the case to public attention, claimed the law was not tough enough:

The vice of bastardy, particularly prevalent amongst servants, I attribute to the want of an early religious moral instruction, bad examples from parents and others, the close familiarity of servants, and their gross manner of good living.  From what I have stated there appears too much lenity in the enforcement of corrective laws.  This fling of Julius at the tread-mill is another of the many systematic attacks on that method of correction.

The case of Elizabeth Loder was part of the evidence considered by the home secretary, Robert Peel, before he endorsed the use of the treadmill.  But in the event the banning of women from the punishment would not come into effect for another decade or so.

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