The ‘crank machine’ that did nothing, the absurd nineteenth-century punishment of British prisons

No prison in the world was meant to be a pleasant place in the 19th century. Nor now, but surely the inmates will not be subjected to absurd forced labor like those invented in those days.

Today the prison is conceived more as a place of reintegration and training, at least in the Western world, but in the 19th century the prison meant solely and exclusively punishment and, therefore, it implied everything that entailed discomfort, humiliation and, ultimately, make the inmate pay for his crimes.

One of the most common sentences was the sentence to forced labor. If you have read Henri Charrière Papillon’s autobiographical novel, or have seen the 1973 film starring Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen of the same title, you can get an idea. And that in this case the events occurred practically the day before yesterday, in 1931.

Forced labor in the UK was first introduced in 1818, as a substitute for whipping and other corporal punishment. Although this might seem like a positive thing, it’s actually hard labor meant much more than the literal sense of the expression itself: it implied a intensification of the pain inflicted on the prisoner.

At first, the tasks entrusted to the prisoners were related to productivity, such as breaking stones or harvesting crops. But soon there were more convicts than real work, so the prison authorities began to invent devices that would continue to apply the concept of hard laboreven when in reality nothing was produced or obtained any benefit from it.

Among them was the treadmill, probably the first such device ever invented, which closely resembled a Ferris wheel on which prisoners had to spend up to 14 hours a day, walking non-stop and resting for only 20 minutes to eat.

Obviously there was no safety mechanism, so those who fell behind ended up falling on the stepped planks of the wheel, with the consequent damage. The tape could be connected to a mill or a water wheel, but it was not usual. It is known that at least 44 British prisons had one of these devices.

But perhaps the most absurd of all the inventions of that time was the Crank. A device that was installed on a wall, on one side of which was the main machinery operated by the guards, and on the other a huge metal crank.

The prisoners had to turn the crank a certain number of times a day, between 10,000 and 14,000 approximately, to obtain rewards such as being able to enjoy the day’s food. Turns that were registered in a mechanical dial.

Replica of the machine at the National Museum of Justice in Nottingham / photo Catlemur on Wikimedia Commons

Obviously the crank required a certain degree of strength and effort to be turned. But if for some reason one of the inmates was strong enough to easily spin it, guards could adjust the tension and resistance of the device, much like modern stationary bikes. In some cases, on the side hidden from the inmates, the crank moved large shovels that did nothing more than stir sand inside a container.

Over time, one-piece cranks were also developed that did not require installation on a wall, and could be moved from one place to another.

Major Arthur Griffiths, who saw one during his visit to London’s Millbank prison in 1872, described it as a set of geared wheels that exerted resistant pressure, turned by a weighted handle at will to set the amount of effort required to move them.

Not only did it do nothing, nor was it useful for anything, but it used to cause permanent physical damage to the inmates, sometimes forced to carry out the effort with one arm tied behind their backs.

Thus, it is believed that the rapid physical deterioration and death of the writer Oscar Wilde three years after his release in 1897 (he had spent 2 years sentenced to forced labor) are due, in large part, to this type of punishment suffered in prison.

Sir Edmund Du Cane, who in 1863 became the head of British prisons, wrote that the real futility of prison labor lay in the failure of the prisoners’ imagination to perceive that this type of labor could have a good effect on their persons.


Victorian Prison Lives (Philip Priestley) / The Prison Boundary: Between Society and Prison Space (Jennifer Turner) / Auld Stirling Punishments (David Kinnaird) / Nick Grantham / No tech magazine / Wikipedia.