Professions I: William Hassett, overseeing the jail treadmill

Throughout the process of searching through the official records I have found so far, I have been particularly intrigued by the professions of many of my ancestors. William Hassett (my great great great grandfather) evidently had a few different jobs in his day, but one stands out to me: Overseer of the Jail Treadmill. This particular profession was recorded on the baptism record of William and Isabella Hassett’s son, William Hassett in 1855.

Several questions sprung to mind, but two in particular will be addressed here:

  1. What was the ‘Jail Treadmill’?
  2. Which jail did William Hassett work in?

The use of ‘jail’, ‘prison’, ‘gaol’ and ‘house of correction’ are used throughout as they appear in British and Indian documents and records, but essentially they all mean the same thing.

1. What was the ‘Jail Treadmill’?

Debates surrounding the use of prison and its purpose continue to be played out to the present day. Should the purpose of prison be to punish or reform? Imprisonment (or incarceration) is deemed a principle of punishment, along with deterrence, retribution, rehabilitation, and increasingly restorative justice.

Prison debates aside, the jail treadmill appeared to be intended first and foremost for punishment of prisoners, but served other means during its use in the 19th century.

The prison treadmill is said to have been invented in 1818 by an English engineer, Sir William Cubit. These treadmills were designed to overcome ‘prisoner idleness’, enforcing daily activity and providing ‘useful’ work. Much like a modern day fitness treadmill, the basic mechanism rotated around a cylinder (similar to a hamster wheel). Prisoners would hold on to a handrail and step upward on the rotating mechanism (much like walking up infinite steps). Prison treadmills became a staple of prisons in Victorian England (plans for the treadmill at Bedford New House of Correction can be viewed here). The intent was punishment (through hard labour) and they were mostly used for this purpose, however, it was later recognised that these treadmills could be used for producing power (for example, pumping water) and produce (for example, grinding grain). Treadmills were adapted to allow for multiple prisoners to be active at any one time. A typical ‘shift’ on the treadmill was 8-10 hours per prisoner – the equivalent of climbing around 11-12,000 feet. Eventually, in the late 19th century, jail treadmills were abandoned on the basis of being ‘too cruel’.

Likewise in British India, gaol treadmills were introduced in the early 19th century. It is apparent according to a report of the committee on prison discipline that implementation of hard labour varied in gaols: “[u]nder the Bombay Government, in some Gaols, in-door labor is effectually enforced; in others it is enforced to a slight degree, whilst in others there is none.”

It is further apparent that the gaol treadmill was seen as an effective hard labour method, in reference to the treadmill at the House of Correction in Byculla, “its good effects are highly spoken of”, which apparently improved prisoners “morals and the encouragement of industrious habits.” The results of hard labour allegedly produced “more than pay for their [prisoners] food” and “the articles manufactured in the Gaols are of good quality.” Where prisoners could not be accomodated to work within the gaols, they were presumably “employed on the roads” according to the committee on prison discpline, which suggests they were not monitoring the prisoners and outputs as closely as some of their reports indicate.

There was further evidence of gaol treadmills failing: “[t]here is one at the Poona Gaol, but it has been affected by the hot winds, and it is now out of order.”

2. Which jail did William Hassett work in?

The exact jail William worked in is not clear, although what is clear is that there was a treadmill at the Byculla House of Correction and the Gaol in Poona. William resided in ‘Bombay’ in 1855 when he was recorded as working as the ‘overseer of the jail treadmill’. This is vague – Bombay was a big place. Further evidence of Williams residence is found in earlier records, notably his marriage record in 1854 stating his residence as Poona.

It can be reasonably assumed that William Hassett worked in the Gaol at Poona. As previously noted the gaol treadmill at Poona was affected by the ‘hot winds’ and out of order. This was reported in 1838, so they obviously fixed/replaced it.

Let’s hope for Williams sake it did break again and he got a more interesting role in/away from the prison.

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2 thoughts on “Professions I: William Hassett, overseeing the jail treadmill

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