Death by exercise – the dreaded treadmill

Well here we are then….2020! Unsurprisingly, it feels very much like 2019. One of the many lessons of life is really how little does change over time. As a child of the 1980s, I think my concept of the future was entirely based around Back to the Future II. A quick rewatch of that film will show you that, fashion aside, its vision of 2015 is still light-years off. A testament to its enduring appeal is the fact that there is a part of me every Christmas that is still hoping one of my presents will be a hoverboard. A little bit of research shows that I am not alone and was in fact, as is nearly always the case with things that seem ‘amazing’, merely the willing victim of a clever piece of PR. The Director, Robert Zemeckis, had jokingly said in interviews that the actual hoverboards used on the film were real and as a result, huge pressure was placed on toy shops globally who, of course, could not satisfy the demand. It seemed like an imminent arrival when I was a nipper.


Anyway, I hope you all got what you wanted or, better still, made sure that people without got what they needed. On that note, after having plugged BBC One’s A Christmas Carol in my previous blog, I watched the final episode and was struck by the following passage. Scrooge is approached by a man in the street raising money for the poor,

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said one of the gentlemen, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

Although Scrooge’s suggestion of prison as an alternative to charity is worthy of a blog in itself, it is the treadmill that is of particular interest here – not least because of the frightening amount of weight I have put on from Christmas excess.
The old boy Winston perfectly summarising the post christmas lunch mood at my in laws.
Winston perfectly summarising the post-christmas lunch mood at my in laws.

Created in 1818, the treadmill was the invention of Norfolk born engineer, William Cubitt and was used as a punishment in the English penal system for most of the nineteenth century until it was abolished from the penal arsenal by the Prisons Act 1898.[1]  Writing in the late nineteenth century one Newcastle paper recorded that the invention was the result of a chance encounter between William Cubitt and a Magistrate, who bemoaned the lack of discipline for prisoners. The magistrate implored Cubitt, “I would to heaven you could suggest some mode of employing these fellows. Could anything like a whel (sic) become available?'[2]

Sir WiIlliam Cubitt
Sir William Cubitt by unknown artist. Oil on canvas. 29 3/4 in. x 25 in. (756 mm x 635 mm) Bequeathed by Rex Wailes, 1990. NPG 6109. Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery produced under creative commons licence.

The treadmill took many different forms, but most shared common characteristics, namely a series of steps around a hollow cylindrical barrel. Prisoners would take their place on the steps and as the device commenced rotating, it forced prisoners to continue stepping along a series of planks/steps. Owing to this it was sometimes colloquially referred to as the ‘everlasting staircase’. In some instances the power that was generated by the effort of the prisoners was used to either pump water or grind corn, but frequently it didn’t serve any purpose and was purely a punishment for punishment’s sake. Previous scholars have noted the change in its purpose over time arguing that what ‘had begun the century as a gruelling physical experience became one that tortured the prisoner, body and soul, leaving many destroyed by the experience.’[3]

Screenshot 2020-01-02 at 13.47.20
An illustration of a treadmill at Brixton Prison. (Saxthorpe, near Aylsham, Norfolk; 1824). Shelfmark 6307.n.37. Image courtesy of British Library. ‘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.’

One of the most famous recipients of the punishment was Oscar Wilde, during his time at Pentonville prison. Richard Ellman, his biographer, recorded that he spent up to six hours a day on the treadmill and indeed notes from the prison chaplain recorded how the toll of labour had pretty swiftly left Wilde ‘crushed and broken’.[4]   In his poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Wilde opined the monotony and hardship of these sort of thankless and incessant punishments (amongst them crank turning and picking oakum – separating strands of rope). 

With midnight always in one’s heart,
And twilight in one’s cell,
We turn the crank, or tear the rope,
Each in his separate Hell,

These were the sort of punishments that Foucault referred to when he talked of a fundamental change in the nineteenth century from expressly physical and public punishments to a system of private punishment that ‘no longer touched the body. If it did, it was only to get at something beyond the body: the soul.’ In many ways the nineteenth-century penal system was something of a Sisyphean system. 
Sisyphus (1548–49) by Titian, Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.
Sisyphus (1548–49) by Titian, Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.
Treadmills became a common feature of prisons across the country in the nineteenth century and even made their way to America. However, its introduction would ‘quickly prove futile’, ultimately becoming a case in point of  ‘what ultimately appeared suitable in one national context did not necessarily appear the same way in another.’[5] Although the archival records are limited for Newcastle Prison, the treadmill appears on Thomas Oliver’s 1830s map of the city centre. 

The New Prison and treadmill at Newcastle Gaol. Thomas Oliver’s Map of Newcastle Upon Tyne (1830). The treadmill can be seen at the top left of the ‘The New Prison.’
A letter to the Newcastle Chronicle in the 1890s acknowledged that ‘prisoners detested it’ owing to the frequent ‘accidents’ some often with deadly consequence.[6] However, the author thought the recent shock around females being subject to the treadmill rather misplaced as despite the ‘fierce denunciations against the inhumanity of subjecting females to the implied torture…they rather liked it.’ They must have been of a different mind to the prisoners at Leeds Gaol who reportedly revelled in assisting the pulling down of the treadmill in 1901.[7] 

So, if like me you have massively overindulged this Christmas but cannot face the grind of the gym there is a reason….treadmills were intended as a brutal and relentless punishment – a Sisyphean sanction.
Further Reading/Listening:
The dark history of the treadmill – BBC Radio 3  – 
1. This act was widely seen as having ‘set the tone for prison policy today’ in so much as it ‘led to a dilution of the separate system, the abolition of hard labour, and established the idea that prison work should be productive, not least for the prisoners, who should be able to earn their livelihood on release.’
2. Newcastle Chronicle, 8 August 1896.
3. Vybarr Cregan Reid, ‘Running Wilde: Landscape, the Body, and the History of the Treadmill’ Critical Survey, Vol. 24, No. 3 (2012), pp. 73-91 (p. 78) Available to read free online at 
4. Pentonville Prison Chaplain cited in Reid, ‘Running Wilde’, p. 78.
5. David H. Shayt, ‘Stairway to Redemption: America’s Encounter with the British Prison Treadmill’, Technology and Culture, Vol. 30, No. 4 (Oct., 1989), pp. 908-938 (p.909). Available to read free online at
6. Newcastle Chronicle, 8 August 1896: One such case was Henry Johnstone who ‘suddenly fell dead on the floor’ after working on the treadmill at Gloucester Gaol. Lincolnshire Echo, 2 November 1894.
7. Nottingham Evening Post, 30 July 1901.
Distractions 1: Reading
One of the greatest things about having the great weight of the PhD off my shoulders is that I am free to read fiction again. To be more precise, free to read for pleasure again. When you are deep in the grips of PhD despair any reading for fun feels like cheating and unhelpful procrastination. The irony being that sometimes you get your greatest insights whilst reading way outside of your subject.

'Scrooge's third Visitor' image courtesy of My wife informs me that of an evening, in my dressing gown, I am the doppelganger of this spirit (i think he is a few stone lighter)! Apologies if that mental image is scarring.
‘Scrooge’s third Visitor’ image courtesy of My wife informs me that of an evening, in my dressing gown, I am the doppelganger of this spirit (i think he is a few stone lighter)! Apologies if that mental image is scarring.

This Christmas has been a joy and I have read more books in a week than I had in the last 6 months. I started with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as I wanted to see just how much artistic licence the BBC adaptation had taken….turns out a lot (but I still enjoyed it). However, my favourite read was Oliver Sack’s Everything in its Place: First Loves and Last Tales a collection of his short essays (is there anything better than a beautifully written collection of short essays). Sacks was a neurologist, regarded by some as the ‘poet laureate of medicine’. He has a wonderfully engaging and adept style that entices the reader. Particular highlights include his early disastrous forays into cephalopod collecting and his insights into the healing properties of gardens – ‘I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical “therapy” to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.’
Distraction 2 – Catastrophising
One of the things the change of year brings on is a reflection on what is to come and what has been. This is further amplified when it is also the ringing in of a new decade. Having just entered the 20s we can only hope they are less turbulent than their c20th forebears. One thing reflections of these types bring on is a sort of nostalgia for the past and catastrophising of the future. I was struck by this in Sacks’ final essay where he allowed himself a reflection on the world to come after he died.  He was particularly pertinent on the obsessive use of mobile phones. I am hugely guilty of this and as a terrible migraine sufferer am sure it is in large part causing my head aches. Sacks referenced E. M. Forster’s nightmarish novella The Machine Stops where all human interaction occurs through the ‘machine’. In a scene in which a Skype style interaction is happening between a mother and son the son opines,

I want to see you not through the Machine. I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.

E.M. Forster – The Machine Stops

This reflection put me in mind of a great music video I saw (i should add I am not a fan of the track though – still works on mute). 

So, how about for 2020 rather than making unachievable resolutions about the gym we all go for something achievable and mutually beneficial – we all use our phones for fifteen minutes less a day. Just embrace the moments of silence free from the siren call of social media likes or better still read. Or even just look up and smile at the world around you (not for too long though otherwise you’ll be incarcerated and put on the treadmill). Have a great new year and for anyone in a particularly catastrophic mood, I will leave you with the final words of Sacks’ essay.  

As I face my own impending departure from the world, I have to believe in this – that mankind and our planet will survive, that life will continue, and that this will not be our final hour. 

Oliver Sacks – Everything in its Place p. 258 (full article available here)

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