To try to reduce the number of criminals being sentenced to death the Victorians introduced Hard Labour as an alternative. It involved backbreaking pointless work which was designed to be soul-destroying and painful. This sentence was handed out to children and women as well as men. It could involve anything from walking for up to 10 hours each day on a wooden treadmill, to breaking rocks or being made to stand all day in a straightjacket without moving.
All of these tasks were designed to be unpleasant. The treadmill was particularly tough with the prisoners having to climb moving steps (often having to climb steps 3 feet high) for up to 10 hours time. There are numerous accounts of prisoners eating soap to make themselves sick to escape from the treadmill for a few hours.
Another punishment was Shot Drill, where a prisoner had to lift a cannonball repeatedly (and slowly) up to their chest carry it a few steps before putting it down again. They then had to keep repeating this action moving piles of cannonballs from one pile to another all day.
The crank was a handle which the prisoner had to turn repeatedly throughout the day. This task was carried out in isolation inside the prisoners cell and the crank could be tightened (and made harder to turn) by the prison wardens. This is where the nickname ‘screws’ came from. The crank had a counter next to it and the prisoner would have to complete a certain number of turns, for example 2000 to get breakfast, 3000 for dinner and a further 2000 before they could go to bed.
Breaking rocks was usually carried out as part of a labour gang, and was one of the few tasks which wasn’t pointless, as it was a part of building roads. The convicts sentenced to labour gangs were generally awaiting deportation.
This was a task generally reserved for women (and maybe children) but was no less unpleasant. The task involved unpicking and pulling apart tarred ropes into individual fibers. The fibers would then be used to waterproof ships by the Royal Navy. The job was tough and would make the prisoners hands bleed.