I recently transcribed Anne Lister’s diary entry for 28 May 1828, in which she refers to telling Sibella MacLean about the ‘treadmill story.’ A few people have expressed curiosity about this, so I thought I’d write a post on it.
‘The treadmill story’ refers to articles written in The Times and The London Courier and Evening Gazette on 28 August 1824, about Anne’s application for permission from the Hatton Garden Magistrates to visit the Cold Bath Fields prison, and in particular to view the treadmill.
Treadmills or tread wheels had been in use in British prisons since 1818. Treadmills were a kind of never-ending-staircase made by 24 paddle blades (the steps) attached to a cylinder. The prisoners stood side by side holding onto a rail and were sometimes flogged to compel them to keep climbing. As well as being a punishment, the treadmills were sometimes used to generate power for nearby mills or to grind grain. Critics of the treadmill said it was dangerous and inhumane, citing stories of inmates falling off and being injured.
Among critics there was particular disapproval of women being put on treadmills. The merits and demerits of the treadmill were discussed in the house of commons in February and March 1824 in the debates on the Gaol Laws Amendment Bill. The book Thoughts on Prison Labor, etc etc…by a Student of the Inner Temple was published anonymously in 1824 and contained an account of the treadmill at Cold Bath Fields prison in London. John Bull magazine contained a piece entitled ‘Tread Wheel for Females’ on 11 April 1824, referencing Thoughts on Prison Labor and citing the case of Rebecca Shepherd who said her ‘health was quite ruined, through the wheel, and nothing else. It used to tug my very inside out, and it used often to go so dreadfully fast.’
Given Anne Lister’s interest in viewing the treadmill at Cold Bath Fields Prison, and the fact that she references John Bull magazine in her diary entry for 28 August 1824, it is likely that she had read at least the article in John Bull if not Thoughts on Prison Labor as well. She read widely on diverse subjects and kept abreast of current affairs so it wouldn’t be at all surprising if she had read Thoughts on Prison Labor (please comment below if you’ve come across a reference to this book in Anne’s journals).
Anne and her maid Cordingly were in London in August 1824, en route to Paris. Anne’s diary entry for Thursday 26 August 1824 reads:
‘…up Chancery Lane, along Holborn, Hatton Garden, Hatton Wall, Vine Street to Clerkenwell to see the tread-mill, the only one in London (there is one at . . . 3 miles from here). It was too late. Not shewn after 3 & it was 3 20. Besides, I ought to have had a permit from the sitting magistrate in Hatton Garden. Might get one any time from 11 to 3 tomorrow. I am determined to see this, not only for its own sake but “the tread-mill” was the only thing Miss MacLean saw when in London this year.’
On Friday 27 August 1824 Anne wrote:
‘Went out at 12. To Temple Bar, up Felter Lane etc to no. 54 Hatton Garden, to the office of the sitting magistrates. Asked permission to see the tread-mill. They hummed and ah-ed. Said they were not the visiting magistrates. Could not grant me permission. Asked who could. They gave no direct answer. I said a person at Clerkenwell had told me yesterday the sitting magistrate in Hatton Garden could give permission, but if he could not I only wished to know to whom I ought to apply. They asked if I was alone. Then said it was for my own sake they would not grant permission. It was [not] a fit sight for me to see alone. I expressed my utter ignorance of this but said would it not be enough to have a police officer with me to protect me against the tread-wheel people, the ‘parcel of felons’ as one of the magistrates called them. He said the governor would not admit the police officer for a police officer had not business there. The thinnest & most gentleman-like magistrate there said I must give my name & address. They were obliged to be particular about admitting strangers. I said I was Miss L-. The gentleman asked if any relation to the Ribblesdale family. I answered of the [same] family originally but far too distant to be called a relation. He said if I should call again tomorrow and bring some respectable man with me I should have permission to see the treadmill. I answered I would bring the master of the hotel. Thought I to myself, it is not worth such trouble, but I am determined not to be beaten. Felt a little annoyed at the moment but it soon wore off.’
Anne visited the prison on Saturday 28 August 1824:
‘Went out at 10 10. Mr Webb went with me… Cordingly met us… Went to the sitting magistrates, Hatton Garden. Only 2 magistrates there this morning (got there about 11), the one Mr Flower, the other (the most gentlemanly) who behaved to me so like a gentleman yesterday… I walked in to the magistrates’ room… I bowed and told him I had brought Mr Webb. Mr Laing appeared to smile [yet] said if I would give my name & address the permission should be granted. I asked if my name would not be sufficient. On his answering no, they were obliged to be particular whom they admitted, only to admit ladies and gentlemen, I immediately wrote ‘Miss Lister, Shibden Hall, Yorkshire’ and Mr Laing desired a clerk to write an order for me & my servant Elizabeth Wilkes Cordingly & Mr Webb, to see the tread-mill and the interior. I bowed, said I was much obliged to the gentlemen and retired. The order procured us instant admittance, the utmost civility and a sight of the whole interior. I asked the matron (a very nice woman who shewed the women’s apartments) if she often shewed them. She said yes, but it required a particular order from the magistrates and that this order (by which we were admitted) must have been a very particular one. A most gratifying sight to see the prison so clean & healthy & orderly and altogether in such excellent discipline. About 350 men & women & children. The men & women have 1¼ lb bread a day, a pot (would hold a quart, I think, at least) of gruel a day and 6 oz of meat every other day, & on the intermediate days, soup made of what the meat (beef, I understand) was boiled, thickened with oatmeal & vegetables. The women far worse to manage than the men. The matron would have less trouble with 500 men than 10 women. The young women (in their teens) the worst & the man told us the boys were much worse than the men. He thought there was more vice among them than any set of people.’
Later that day Mr Webb drew Anne’s attention to articles in The Times and The Courier giving an account of her appearance before the magistrates.
‘5 40 p. m. Interrupted here by dinner. Mr Webb soon brought up a roast leg of mutton & a newspaper, asking me if I would like to look at it. I casually answered yes. He said there was this business at Hatton Garden in it. He had never thought of its getting in the papers & now it would be in them all. ‘Ah!’ said I, ‘the thought & fear of it just struck me last night. I am very sorry for it.’ It was The Times newspaper of today. The whole thing very fairly put in. At the moment I felt annoyed at the idea of what a quiz it would be against me. Mr Webbe saw this which was probably more than he expected. I soon however grew reconciled as I always do, and told Mr Webb when he came in again I could not help laughing at the thing & did not know before that I was like a foreigner – “a lady whose habiliments and address bespoke her of foreign extraction.” Told Mr Webbe if my uncle saw it was a laugh against me forever. The truth was I thought first of the Saltmarshes and that it would be in everybody’s mouth at Halifax… 8 20 I have just had Mr Webb who came up with The Courier newspaper (a little different from The Times, not less civil to me).’
‘HATTON-GARDEN.—A lady, whose address and habiliments bespoke her of foreign extraction, appeared before the Magistrates to prefer a request for an order to view the tread-mill at Cold Bath-fields prison. The singularity of the application, and the no less unique manner of the applicant, made Mr. ROGERS pause before he replied. The lady again repeated her request.
Magistrate.—Is it any of the confined you wish to see, Madam?
Magistrate.—Is yours, then, merely a visit of inspection?
Applicant.—Yes, Sir; just so.
Magistrate.—The proper persons to obtain orders from are the visiting Magistrates; and neither I, nor my brother Justice on the Bench is a visiting Magistrate.
Applicant.—I made application at the prison, and was referred to the Magistrates here.
Magistrate.—We may, certainly, grant you an order; but do you go alone?
Applicant.—Yes; surely in a metropolitan prison there is nothing indelicate or offensive—nothing, I presume which a female might not, with the strictest regard to propriety or decorum, inspect.
Magistrate.—Certainly nothing indelicate is permitted; but your request is rather singular. May I take the liberty of asking, do you come from the country?
Applicant.—Yes, Sir; and, as I stay not very long, I was anxious to see every thing worth seeing. Indeed, I was particularly desirous to see this tread-mill.
Magistrate.—What name shall we grant an order for?
Applicant.—Miss Lyster, if you please, Sir.
When Mr. ROGERS was in the act of writing this so eagerly solicited permission, the Lady entered into some explanatory remarks, from which we could barely learn that a worthier motive than the mere gratification of idle curiosity had led her to seek the privilege of examining this newly-invented instrument of terror to the guilty. But unfortunately, at this interesting stage of the conversation, Mr. LAING caused the Office to be cleared, and the persons in attendance for the Press were included in the proscription. It was understood that Mr. Rogers, with his accustomed urbanity, not only granted the order, but directed the fair applicant in her scientific researches.’
On the advice of Mr Webb, Anne drafts a letter to the editor of The Courier in response to the article:
‘To the editor of The Courier. Sir, I have this morning read in your paper of today the account of my applying yesterday to the magistrates of Hatton Garden for permission to see the treadmill at Cold Bath Fields prison. I am surprised & sorry to find myself so unexpectedly intruded on the valuable space of your paper, having been perfectly thoughtless that so unimportant a circumstance could have been deemed worthy of notice; but since the matter has been made public, I feel desirous that my motive should be divested of the “scientific” nature to which it has been attributed & reduced to the simple wish of examining for myself the merits or demerits of the tread-mill. I beg to express my thanks to the magistrates for the order of admission which procured me not only access to the whole interior of the building, but the most obliging civility & attention from the matron & other attendants on whom the apparent health & civil manners of the prisoners & the perfect neatness & cleanliness of all the rooms reflect the highest credit. I can’t help feeling persuaded from the case with which all the prisoners, male & female, seemed to perform the exercise of the tread-mill, as well as from the short trial I myself made of it, that the labour is not so excessive as it has been represented, nor by any means so great as that daily undergone by a large portion of the lower classes of society. If the determination never to condemn, even in my own mind (for I presume not beyond this), any institution sanctioned by the proper authorities of my country till I have taken all the pains in my power to procure the best possible information on the subject, if such a determination however in the present case too hastily or ignorantly pursued, can at all excuse the singularity and perhaps informality of my application to the magistrates, I shall be much obliged to you to insert this letter in your next paper, and am Sir your humble servant, A. Lister.’
Having copied this letter in her diary entry for 28 August 1824, Anne went on to write:
‘Sent for Mr Webbe. Read him the above. He thought nothing could be better & was for my sending it, but I had determined to let the matter rest & merely wrote this that he might not think I could not do it. Told him I should not like the notoriety of the thing. Should bring John Bull upon myself etc etc & should be [abst…] into the bargain etc etc and Mr Webbe finished by agreeing I was right, tho’ I plainly saw he would have liked the notice into which I should probably bring myself. I told I could bring myself into notice anytime, but it would not suit me now John Bull would sift out everything and my uncle, tho’ of an old family and good fortune, did not live in that style, would bear me out at present as I should wish.
Anne and Cordingly arrived in Paris on 1 September 1824, but she worried that English folk she met had read about the ‘treadmill story’ in the newspaper. Given that she chose to recount the story to Sibella MacLean in 1828, it seems she may by then have come to find it funny, and/or likely to impress Sibella as evidence of her confidence and boldness. This humble blogger for one is impressed and delighted by the story, which for me demonstrates many of the qualities I love about Anne Lister: her curiosity; her determination; the importance she placed on forming her own opinion about things; and her confidence both in speaking her mind and in her own physical abilities. I’d love to know what you think of the story; please comment below or on social media.
Many thanks to Moira Macdonald for finding the extracts from The Times, The Courier and John Bull for me.
You can see the original diary pages for 26, 27 and 28 August 1824 here: