The Treadmill for Punishment

Treadmill for Punishment

Treadmill for Men, Public Domain

The treadmill, sometimes called a tread wheel and designed for English prisons, was introduced by a nineteenth century civil engineer, Sir William Cubbitt, in 1818. It remained in use until the second half of the nineteenth century. Cubbitt invented it to generate power for mills in the neighboring vicinity. However, at least one infamous treadmill was designed to grind grain and installed at Brixton Prison. This treadmill for punishment operated using both male and female prisoners, but each sex had their own treadmill, as the two sexes were not allowed to intermingle during their stair climbing activities.

The treadmill for punishment was remarkably simple and looked like a paddle wheel. It had a “cylinder of twenty-four steps, placed at the distance of one foot and a half from each other.” 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.” The prisoners were allowed one hour for breakfast and two hours for dinner. Each prisoner performed “864 steps.” Then the person was rested and was replaced for “288 steps,” which was about twelve minutes. The resting prisoner then returned to the treadmill to continue stair climbing for another 864 steps.

Treadmill for Punishment

Treadmill for Women, Public Domain

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.” A Mary Serjeant, who was prone to exhaustion, was also flogged every time “she dropped off the tread-mill.” In fact, once she fell off the treadmill 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.”

Critics had numerous complaints besides the dangers and injuries that occurred on the treadmills. Most of the complaints were related to females. For instance, one complaint was that the treadmill for punishment was “much too severe for females … [and affected] the female so much more than the male.” Females also supposedly suffered a “greater degree of punishment” than males did for the same offense. Moreover, for various reasons, critics claimed treadmill activity also acted “upon [female] nerves already predisposed to derangement.”

Supporters of the treadmill disagreed with critics. They asserted the dangers of the treadmill were “overrated.” They also espoused the treadmills advantages 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.”


  • Accounts and Papers, 1836
  • Description of the Tread Mill Invented by Mr. William Cubbitt, of Ipswich, 1822
  • Hippisley, Sir John Cox, Prison Labour, etc., 1823
  • 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

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