“The Treadmill” at Brixton Prison, London.


It made headlines from the off when it became the first prison in London to introduce the treadmill.
This was an ingenious but sadistic form of punishment: up to a hundred prisoners a time spent ten hours a day climbing its revolving steps.
These connected to millstones which ground flour for the inmates’ daily bread. It was mandatory for all those who weren’t sick or dying. Anyone who complained was chained to it.
The treadmill made Brixton famous. It fascinated a public cowed by a seemingly unrelenting rise in crime.
Poems and plays were written about it, ballads were sung and cartoons printed.
The dukes of York and Wellington and even royalty were said to have seen it for themselves.
Some of those forced onto the mill gained a fame of their own. Among them was John Dando – the Oyster Eater.
He feasted on what he couldn’t afford, touring London’s eateries, consuming huge quantities of food then refusing to pay.
He ate anything, though shellfish was his weakness. In Brixton he had to be separated from the other prisoners whom he robbed of bread and beef.
The Forty Thieves was a notorious band of child pickpockets, based in Lambeth, which stole its name from an infamous gang of New York.
Its members were regular visitors to Brixton and easily identified by a distinctive tattoo of five dots inked onto the web between thumb and forefinger.
The prison’s first governor also gained notoriety. John Green terrorised prisoners, but also staff, and had a fondness for whipping children. He was eventually sacked for violence, being drunk on duty and having an ‘addiction’ to swearing.
In the 1850s Brixton achieved another first when it became a convict prison solely for women.
Victorian sensibilities, though, meant only women could be put in charge of its inmates.
The governor, Emma Martin, had eleven children who lived with her in the prison grounds and in contrast to her predecessor, John Green, earned a reputation for kindness and fairness.

Brixton served as a military prison in the 1880s, but at the turn of the century became the remand prison for the whole of London. It would come to entertain some of the most extraordinary figures of the twentieth century.
Among them was Terence MacSwiney, the republican activist and Lord Mayor of Cork, who died in the prison in 1920 after a 74 day hunger strike.
It brought the world’s attention to the cause of Irish independence, prompting workers to down tools in New York and sparking riots in Barcelona.
Oswald Mosley was moved in Brixton during the invasion scare of 1940 where he was said to have taken German lessons.
The philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell had two stints in Brixton and likened his stay to a cruise on an ocean liner.
The Krays, who epitomised a darker London glamour, were remanded to Brixton on a charge of murder.
via A Brief History of HMP Brixton, London’s Oldest Prison by Chris Impey.

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