Great Britain

The 'disgusting' hard labour treadmills at Northallerton Prison and how officers got the nickname 'screws'

BEING on a treadmill was described by a prisoner as being “irksome, dull, monotonous, and disgusting”, but Northallerton’s new £16m “retail and leisure destination” is going to have that name because once the world’s largest treadmill was on its site.

The development is on the site of Northallerton gaol, which was the country’s first purpose-built gaol when it opened in 1788. It had 12 cells for men and five for women, each of just four square yards, and the punishment was the cat o’nine tails – a whipcord with nine tongues each 21 inches long with knots in.

So perhaps for the miscreants of North Yorkshire when the first treadmill was introduced in 1821, it was an improvement. Indeed, civil engineer Sir William Cubitt invented the concept to tackle the problem of idleness among prisoners.

A treadmill was “an everlasting staircase” – a large cylinder with steps around it so that it looked like a grandstand in a sports ground, only it revolved when the prisoner stood on it.

The Northern Echo:

The steps were seven inches apart. The prisoners held onto a horizontal bar and then they kept walking round and round and round…ten minutes on, five minutes off…round and round and round…for up to 10 hours a day…going round and round and round…although six hours was the average...round and round and round…which meant climbing about 5,000ft a day…usually for the first month of a sentence of “hard labour”…round and round and round…up to 40 prisoners were on the treadmill at one time…just going round and round and round…so it was all but impossible for a single person to stop…going round and round and round…although some found the physical exertion too much and dropped dead.

It was hoped that once a criminal had been on the treadmill, it would instil such fear in him, he would not want to return. One warder said it was the mill’s “monotonous steadiness, and not its severity, which constitutes its terror”.

More than 50 gaols had treadmills, which drove a variety of machinery – corn or flour mills, but some prisoners also pumped water. The Northallerton wheel was rigged up to a corn mill, but local millers and farmers soon complained that the unpaid labour was driving them out of business, so all the produce from the mill was thrown away.

However, in 1836, there was a scandal when it was discovered that the chairman of the Visiting Justices, the Reverend William Dent, of Crosby Court, to the south of Northallerton, had been using meal from the prison to feed his dogs for ten years – perhaps he was quietly making off with the ground material from the mill. He narrowly escaped a vote of censure, but he did feature in uncomplimentary national headlines.

Northallerton was so keen on the treadmill that in 1837, it had five of them working – probably the most of any prison in the country.

Then in 1845 it installed the largest in the country with room for 94 men side by side going round and round and round…

Perceptions of the suitability of the treadmill began to change after the mid 19th Century. In 1863, Northallerton gained two hand mills which prisoners could turn and turn and turn – 2,000 turns won breakfast – when they were sentenced to hard labour. If a warder felt the prisoner was finding the handmill too easy, he would tighten the screw on the drum to make it harder to turn, and so prison officers became known as “screws”.

But Northallerton is believed to have persisted with its treadmill right up to 1898 when the device was abolished by Parliament.

Many thanks to the anonymous reader who sent in some information about the treadmill, wondering whether a name that evoked such a dull, repetitive and arduous task was really suitable for an “retail and leisure destination” full of light and hope.

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