The 19th century treadwheel, designed by engineer William Cubitt, was a means to “reform offenders by teaching them habits of industry.”[1]  Treadwheels in British prisons provided a way for prison superintendents to exercise and punish prisoners sentenced to hard labour. In Australia, the “Treadwheel” was a secondary punishment for male convicts, handed out by the magistrates, and originally seen as being less repulsive than inflicting corporal pain such as flogging.[2][3] While it was not intended as a punishment for female convicts in the colony, one record has been found (see below).


In England, treadwheels were first introduced at Brixton and Bury St Edmunds prisons around 1818. A brief description by the BBC explained '19th-century penal treadmills resembled large, wide wheels fitted with steps. Prisoners sentenced to “hard labour” would climb the steps repeatedly, causing the entire wheel to rotate'.[4] The machines were soon adopted at many of the British prisons, and used not only for male prisoners. Female prisoners were also put to labour on them:

In Cold-bath fields prison, [also formerly known as the Middlesex House of Correction and Clerkenwell Gaol ] at the present time, the labour of females on the tread-wheel is regulated in the following way:— The prisoners work nine minutes, and rest nine minutes, and so on for two hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon. About one week in every month each female prisoner excused the labour of the wheel. Thus the time spent by each prisoner on the wheel is two hours and a half out of every day and three weeks out of every mouth.[5]

In Ireland an article in the Kerry Evening Post 12 May, 1838, discussed the degrading use of treadmills in Irish prisons: 

...The tread mill was applied in the West Indies to the basest of purposes, being employed to the punishment of female slaves, in a manner from which nature recoils with horror. In England, females were put on the tread-mill but Ireland has as yet been saved that disgrace.


In New South Wales, the first two treadwheels, or treadmills, were installed in 1823 at Carter’s Barracks at the Brickfields in Sydney,[6] [7] operated by male convicts and used for grinding grain.


In Van Diemen’s Land, (VDL), the first public treadmill, used for grinding wheat, became operational in May 1828 and was located at the Prisoners Barracks, on the corner of Brisbane Street and Campbell Street, Hobart Town.  A second public treadmill was completed in a purpose-built yard outside the Launceston Gaol around 1838[8], sharing a boundary wall with the Launceston Female Factory. A third treadmill was installed at Port Arthur having a short lifespan between 1843 and 1848-9.


In VDL female domestic labour was sought-after and rather than being put to work on a treadwheel (a labour-intensive punishment more suited to male convicts) they would be found alternative employment, according to an editorial article in The Hobart Town Gazette, Saturday 27 January 1827:

The Tread-wheel, we are glad to see, is in a forward state at the Penitentiary, which, as far as it goes, will be of great benefit in correcting a certain portion of the male offenders. But another, and a more extensive means of punishment, as well as employment, is wanting for disorderly females. We hope soon to see a range of cells suited for the employment of females, where the present idle hands and waste materials in the Colony, will be converted into use, wealth, and comfort.[9]

However, in 1837 one press commentator eagerly, yet erroneously, anticipated that the Launceston treadwheel was intended for refractory female convicts;

FEMALE PRISONERS. -WE copy the following paragraph from the Launceston Observer:—"The Tread-mill, intended  as a punishment for refractory female  convicts, is now to be finished. Some long wanting in the Factories here and in Hobart Town, since solitary confinement and other methods hitherto adopted for taming unruly spirits, have entirely failed…. [10]


There is only one record found of a female convict in VDL being punished on the treadwheel.  On 2 December 1841, for being absent without leave, Eliza Jones of the Atwick 1837, was sentenced to spend 14 [days?] on the treadwheel.  Was this a mistake on her Conduct record (CON40)? Or was Eliza Jones sent to the Prisoner Barracks, being close to her place of assignment?  In VDL the local press were quick to find amusement in a sentence on the treadwheel as handed out by magistrates to male offenders, however it appears that Eliza's punishment may have been authorised by the Principal Superintendent of Convicts, thereby escaping the notice of the local press.


For more information on the Treadwheel, please visit  Treadwheels, the ‘everlasting staircase’, as the ‘regulator of the unruly’ [contributed by Terry Newman, 2021]


See Also:

Penitentiary Chapel Historic Site:




[2] The Hobart Town Gazette, 1 October 1825 - Page 2



[5] The Australian, Thursday 14 October 1824 - Page 1


[7] email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it./manpower_in_australia.html

[8] THE TREAD-WHEEL. The Cornwall Chronicle, Saturday 1 September 1838 - Page 2

[9] The Hobart Town Gazette, Saturday 27 January 1827 - Page 2

[10] Bent's News and Tasmanian Three-Penny, Saturday 9 July 1836 - Page 2





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For academic referencing (suggestion only) Database: [http address], FCRC Female Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land database, entry for xxxx ID no xxx, accessed online [date].

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