e2bn E2BN
Victorian Crime and Punishment
HomePrisoner case studiesPrisoners19th Century JusticeTeachers Area

19th Century Justice homepage

 
Sentences and Punishments

Types of Punishment - Hard Labour

Prison Treadmill
Prison Treadmill

The words ' Hard Labour' describes the punishment exactly. Prisoners were often used as the main work force in quarrying, building roads or labouring on the docks. Criminals could be sentenced for just a few days, weeks or even years. Prisoners were also set to hard labour within the prisons themselves.

All longer term sentences usually carried a term of hard labour and it also formed a part of the transportation sentence. In the early 19th century, children were often sent to work alongside adults.

Why was it introduced?

There were several reasons. Firstly, it was felt that it would teach prisoners the value of hard work; secondly, it would remove the temptation for idle men get up to mischief and thirdly,it would deter others from committing crime.

Another reason was the need for cheap labour. During the Napoleonic wars, there was opposition to transportation because labour was needed in the dockyards. Men incarcerated in the 'hulks', for example, worked on dredging the Thames or in the naval dockyards. Others were sentenced to work on ballast lighters. In addition, one of the reasons for sending prisoners to certain areas of Australia, in the early days, was the lack of labourers to support the settlers.

Hard Labour within Prisons

As an element of segregation became part of a prison sentence, for both petty and serious crimes, hard labour was often carried out in a prisoner's cell or under guard in silence.

Most prisons had a treadmill or tread wheel installed, where the prisoner simply walked the wheel. In some prisons, such as Bedford in the earlier part of the 19th century, the treadmill provided flour to make money for the gaol, from which the prisoners earned enough to pay for their keep. However, in later times, there was no end product and the treadmill was walked just for punishment. It became loathed by the prisoners.

Another equally pointless device was the Crank. This was a large handle, in their cell, that a prisoner would have to turn, thousands of times a day. This could be tightened by the warders, making it harder to turn, which resulted in their nickname of 'screws'. These punishments were not abolished until 1898.

For more information on hard labour see the gaols section
Picture Gallery