Reynolds, whose immensely long The Mysteries of London, blends radical political critique with the incidents of the sensation novel, love stories, rags-to-riches success, and foreign adventure, also has long passages describing in substantial detail everything from prison conditions to body-snatching. In the following paragraphs he attacks the use of “that rotatory engine of diabolical torture” after which he praises productive prison activities and the more humane conditions in Bethlehem Mental hospital. His balancing of such polemic attacks with praise of other practices makes his social and political criticism particularly effective. — George P. Landow

The Prison Tread-Wheel. Click on image to enlarge it.

The tread-wheel is an enormous drum, or cylinder, with ranges of steps all round it, at a distance of about a foot and a half from each other. Between forty and fifty persons can work on the wheel at one time. It moves slowly round towards the prisoners placed upon it; and thus the step on which the foot stands descends, while the next step presents itself. A platform is built to half the height of the wheel; and from this platform the prisoners step upon the wheel itself. They support themselves by a railing, and their weight keeps the wheel in motion. Thus they must sink with all their weight, as they work on that rotatory engine of diabolical torture. The action is that of going up stairs, without, however, actually rising higher; for every step so reached sinks beneath the feet, and the prisoner is compelled to get upon the next one in its descent. Those prisoners who wait their turns to go on, sit upon the platform; and the task-master in the yard directs the intervals of labour and those of rest.

And upon this engine of torture, as we ere now denominated the tread-mill, not only boys of twelve years of age are placed, but even women!

Yes:—in this civilised country,—in this land where novelists and poets celebrate the chivalrous devotion which should be paid to the softer sex,—in this great city, where the pseudo-saints blurt 305forth their nauseating hypocrisy at Exeter Hall, and swindle the charitable of alms for the purpose of improving the condition of savages thousands of miles off, while there is such an awful want of instruction and moralising elements at home,—in the very centre of the English capital are women subjected to the ferocious torture of the tread-mill!

The food is scanty;—and yet the labour thus forced upon the poor sickly, half-starved wretches, is horribly severe. Three-quarters of the crimes which send prisoners to Coldbath Fields, are larcenies and robberies caused by dire penury and pinching want: the miserable beings are half-famished already when they enter that gaol; but they are nevertheless retained in something closely bordering on that state of constant hunger, while the hardest possible labour is required from them! Remember, reader, that we do not wish idleness to prevail in a prison. It is just the place where habits of industry should be inculcated. We therefore approve of the system of workshops established in Coldbath Fields: we admire the oakum-room—the room, too, where shoe-making is taught—and that department of the prison in which rugs are manufactured for a wholesale warehouse that contracts for the purchase of the same.

But we abhor torture—we detest cruelty; and the tread-wheel is alike a torture and a cruelty!

It makes the heart bleed in the breast of the visitor to the female-division of Coldbath Fields, to behold women nursing their babes at one moment, and then compelled to deliver their sucklings to the care of their fellow-prisoners, while they themselves repair to take their turn upon the tread-mill! Talk of the despotism of Turkey, Russia, Austria, or Prussia,—talk of the tyranny of those countries where the will of one man is a law, be it for good or evil,—we solemnly and emphatically cry, "Look at home!" Flogging in the Army and Navy, private whipping in prisons, semi-starvation in workhouses and gaols, and the tread-wheel,—these are the tortures which exist in this land of boasted civilisation—these are the instances in which our rulers seek to emulate the barbarism of past ages and the wanton inhumanity of foreign autocrats! [Chapter 227, “Coldbath Field’s Prison”

Related material


Reynolds, George W. M. The Mysteries of London. vol 2. Project Gutenberg EBook #51294. Produced by Chuck Greif and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team. Web. 27 September 2016.

Last modified 27 September 2016