The Endless Staircase: how the stepmill was used as punishment in 19th century prisons

Posted: December 2, 2020 in Tower running history
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Getting on the stepmill at the gym might well be the best part of your workout. But can you imagine being stuck on it for up to 10 hours a day, every day?

That was the daunting task that faced inmates at many British prisons in the 1800s.

William Cubitt, a British engineer, designed the stepmill as a means of preventing idleness among prisoners, with the resistance to the turning wheel provided by straps and weights. Later on, these prison mills were engineered to grind grain or power pumps.

Cubitt’s original design was a large hollow cylinder of wood on an iron frame, round the circumference of which were a series of steps about 7.5″ apart. Other accounts of prison stepmills say the rungs were “placed at the distance of one foot and a half from each other”.

Men and women climbing the stepmill could steady themselves by holding onto rails on the sides, or onto a bar running in front of them, depending on the design.

The stepmill pictured at the top of the page was at Brixton Prison in London and could accommodate up to 24 prisoners at one time.

Some, like the mill at Coldbath Fields Prison in London (pictured below), were fitted with partitions so that prisoners were isolated and could see only the wall in front of them.

There are a number of accounts of how much time prisoners spent rotating the wheel before they got a rest.

An entry in the Encyclopedia Brittanica from 1926 says “[The stepmill] revolved at a rate of 32 ft. per minute. The prisoner worked for six hours each day, three hours at a time. He was on the wheel for 15 minutes and then rested for five minutes. Thus in the course of his day’s labour he climbed 8640 ft.” That’s the equivalent of doing the Empire State Building Run-Up at least seven times.

But with the use of the stepmill as a form of prison punishment lasting for over 80 years in Britain the set up and rules involved obviously varied greatly.

One account says prisoners had to put in between 7 and 10-hour shifts on the mill, depending on the time of year. Another says male prisoners were climbing 10-14,000 vertical feet per day, with prisoners on the mill at Warwick Gaol once clocking an exhausting 17,000 vertical feet over 10 hours one summer. That’s more than half way up Mt. Everest.

Elsewhere it’s said that prisoners, “working in silence, would move from left to right so that the man furthest along could step off to take a break while a “rested” colleague got on at the other end. It worked out at around 12 minutes rest for every 60 minutes of climbing.”

Historian Geri Walton notes that “Each prisoner performed 864 steps and then rested being replaced by another prisoner for 288 steps. This rest period lasted about twelve minutes. After the rest period the prisoner then returned to the treadmill to continue his or her stair climbing punishment for another 864 steps.”

Among those subjected to hours on the mill was the playwright Oscar Wilde. He climbed the endless staircase every day for six months at London’s Pentonville Prison, as part of the two-year sentence he received in 1895.

This form of punishment was banned in British prisons in 1902 for being unduly harsh, but modern gym goers continue the grueling activity regardless.

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