The Treadmill for Punishment: Nineteenth-Century Invention

The treadmill for punishment was designed for English prisons. Sometimes called a tread wheel rather than a treadmill or wheel, it was introduced by a nineteenth century civil engineer, Sir William Cubbitt, in 1818, the same year that an advertisement in the Ipswich Journal noted that Madame Tussaud was due to exhibit her wax figures at Mr. Sparrow’s Upper Ware Rooms at Old Buttermarket. The treadmill for punishment remained in use until the second half of the nineteenth century.

William Cubbitt. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Cubbitt invented the treadmill to generate power for mills in the neighboring vicinity with at least one of these infamous treadmills designed to grind grain and installed at a male prison, located in the Brixton area of the London Borough of Lambeth, in inner-South London. Another treadmill for punishment was also used to mill corn in Surrey House of Correction. Moreover, these treadmills often operated using both male and female prisoners with each sex having their own treadmill because the two sexes were not allowed to intermingle during their stair climbing activities.

Treadmill for Punishment

Treadmill for men. Public domain.

The treadmill for punishment was remarkably simple. It looked like a paddle wheel and had a “cylinder of twenty-four steps, placed at the distance of one foot and a half from each other.”[1] It rotated in a uniform motion and compelled prisoners to walk side by side. As they walked, they ascended a never-ending staircase by stepping on the paddle’s blades. However, the steps were further apart and steeper than today’s stairs, and as the prisoners climbed, they held onto a bar or a handrail.

It was hard arduous work. A typical shift lasted “from seven in the morning until five in the evening, in summer; and during the whole time of day-light in winter.”[2] The prisoners were allowed one hour for breakfast and two hours for dinner. Each prisoner performed 864 steps and then rested being replaced by another prisoner for 288 steps. This rest period lasted about twelve minutes. After the rest period the prisoner then returned to the treadmill to continue his or her stair climbing punishment for another 864 steps.

While performing their treadmill activities, prisoners were sometimes flogged, driven to exhaustion, or injured. For instance, Sarah Ousel was sentenced to hard labor at the Mandeville House of Correction and whipped on her feet “as she was continually dropping off.”[3] A Mary Serjeant who was prone to exhaustion was also flogged every time “she dropped off the tread-mill,”[4] even when she once fell off and hurt her back. Another female prisoner was injured in May of 1823 when she “fell off the wheel down through the trap-door … in the center platform.”[5]

Treadmill for Punishment

Treadmill for women. Public domain.

Prisoners were also forced on the treadmill of punishment in some of the British colonies. For instance, in Jamaica in 1835 one of the boatswains named Richmond reported that he was ordered to flog Jeanette Williams because she refused to do what she was supposed to do. Richmond stated:

“Mr. Coffay [the boatswain in charge of the treadmill] said I must make Jeannette go on the wheel; I told her to go, and she did so, and then fell off. The doctor felt her pulse. The doctor said she making a sham; flog her up; I flogged her, can’t saw how many licks; my shoulder was sprained, and I could not use my strength, but I flogged her; the flogging was over her clothes; can’t say how many licks; it was not her only I was licking; when they went on the wheel I stopped. Jeannette was very obstinate and said she was sick; the doctor said she was not sick, I must make her go up. Jeannette got more flogging than the others; because she would not go on the wheel; the others went on the wheel when they were ordered. The doctor went away and left me at the mill. Jeannette worked on the wheel after the doctor went away; I gave Jeannette two or three licks at the time she went up; then I stopped.”[6]

Side view of Cubbitt’s treadmill. Author’s collection.

Critics had numerous complaints about the treadmill for punishment. Most of the complaints were related to females and involved more than just the danger and injuries associated with the treadmill. For instance, one complaint was that the punishment of operating the treadmill was “much too severe for females … [and affected] the female so much more than the male.”[7] Female prisoners also supposedly suffered a “greater degree of punishment [when doing the treadmill than males sentenced for the same offense.]”[8] Moreover, for various reasons, critics claimed the treadmill activities also acted “upon [female] nerves already predisposed to derangement [making the situation for them worse].”[9]

Supporters of the treadmill disagreed. They asserted the dangers of the treadmill were “overrated.” They also espoused the advantages of using a treadmill for punishment stating: 

“It requires no previous instruction; no task-master is necessary to watch over the … prisoners, neither are materials or instrument put into their hands that are liable to waste or misapplication, or subject to wear and tear … [and it] imposes equality of labour on every individual employed, no one upon the wheel being able in the least degree to avoid his proportion.”[10]


  • [1] The Housekeeper’s Magazine and Family Economist for the Employment of Prisoners, and Recommended by the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline, &c., Vol. 1, 1826,  p. 339.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Accounts and Papers, 1836, p. 386.
  • [4] The Housekeeper’s Magazine and Family Economist for the Employment of Prisoners, and Recommended by the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline, &c., p. 340.
  • [5] Accounts and Papers, p. 16.
  • [6] The Housekeeper’s Magazine and Family Economist for the Employment of Prisoners, and Recommended by the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline, &c., p. 339.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 340.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Description of the Tread Mill Invented by Mr. William Cubbitt, of Ipswich, 1822, p. 5.

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  1. Barbara Radisavljevic on December 14, 2020 at 9:55 am

    How terrible this must have been for these women! I’m glad I live in a country where such cruel and unusual punishments are a thing of the past. Today women pay to join gyms to use treadmills! Of course the climate is controlled and no one flogs them.

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