A Letter on the Nature and Effects of the Tread-Wheel


In 1818 the treadmill, or treadwheel, was devised by British engineer William Cubitt as a device for prisons to employ – or, more often than not, punish – convicts. 

A Letter on the Nature and Effects of the Tread-Wheel is a pamphlet that stands in opposition to this form of ‘prison labour and punishment’. It was published in 1824 which tells us that the author was writing after the treadmill had been in place for several years. Addressed to ‘the Right hon. Robert Peel, M.P.’, a Tory politician, the author clearly aims to be heard by those holding power in parliament. Although the author remains anonymous, the title page reveals that they held a position of authority within Surrey: they are both a ‘constituent’, meaning that they were part of the minority who could vote in political elections, and a ‘magistrate’, indicating that they had firsthand knowledge of the prison system. In fact, we now know that the pamphlet was written by John Ivatt Briscoe, who later served as a Whig and then Liberal MP. 

Briscoe draws on his own experiences and other contemporary accounts to reveal the alarming, disfiguring injuries that prisoners were enduring from use of the treadmill. Admitting that he ‘commenced my inquiries with a pre-possession in its favour’, he reflects on his observations to build up a strong argument that ‘no labour should be adopted within a prison … which injures the health, and impairs the strength of the prisoner’. This argument is not simply motivated by compassion towards fellow human beings, but by a concern that the treadmill may injure a prisoner so severely that it makes it impossible for them to live independently and crime-free after their release. 

To supplement his ‘letter’, Briscoe has attached a long appendix containing prisoner’s testimonies. 

In spite of Briscoe’s campaign and continuing debates, the treadmill remained popular. It continued to be used for the remainder of the 19th century until 1898.

Scrooge’s reference to the treadmill 

Charles Dickens was aware of these controversies when writing A Christmas Carol. When two charity men approach the miserly Scrooge for a donation towards ‘some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time’, he responds, 'The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?'. What does this association reveal about Scrooge’s character and his attitudes towards the poor?

Full title:
A Letter on the Nature and Effects of the Tread-Wheel, as an instrument of prison labour and punishment, addressed to the Right Hon. Robert Peel
1824, London
John Ivatt Briscoe
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Public Domain
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British Library

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