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This is an illustration and description of a treadmill at Brixton Prison in London, built so that prisoners serving ‘hard labour’ could be of public use by grinding corn. Designed by William Cubitt, the machine worked by having prisoners hold on to a bar at chest height while mounting a stepped wheel. Every step the prisoners took moved the wheel, which engaged subterranean machinery to grind the corn. This particular treadmill could accommodate up to twenty-four prisoners at one time, with each man moving along the apparatus from left to right until a new prisoner joined at the far end and allowed them a rest period. In a twenty-four man mill, the rest period amounted to twelve minutes every hour.
William Cubitt (1785-1861) had been born into a family of millwrights in Norfolk. His human-powered treadmill was not initially intended as a form of punishment, but from its invention in 1818 it quickly became ubiquitous in Britain’s largest jails. The Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline considered it a form of ‘preventive punishment’, reasoning that nobody who had been exposed to it would ever risk reoffending. Cubitt would go on to become engineer-in-chief of the South Eastern Railway, and was knighted in 1852 for his work as principle construction engineer on the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park.
The treadmill appears intermittently in Dickens’s fiction as a symbol of the shortsightedness of much prison and workhouse reform of the time. Deliberately humiliating criminal punishments such as stocks and public gallows might have been outlawed, but this sort of deliberately sapping punishment didn’t strike Dickens as being much better. In A Christmas Carol (1843), the villain of the piece, Mr Scrooge, speaks warmly of the treadmill’s ‘useful course’.
Professor John Sutherland considers how Dickens’s A Christmas Carol engages with Victorian attitudes towards poverty, labour and the Christmas spirit.