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Victorian Children Sentenced to Hard Labour

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.

Child hard labour

James Scullion (age 13) was sentenced to 14 days hard labour at Newcastle City Gaol for stealing clothes. After this he was sent to Market Weighton Reformatory School for 3 years.

The Treadmill

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.

Rosanna Watson was sentenced to 7 days hard labour after being caught stealing iron.

Rosanna Watson was sentenced to 7 days hard labour after being caught stealing iron.

Shot Drill

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.

Child labour

George Davey was sentenced to one month’s hard labour in Wandsworth Prison in 1872 for stealing two rabbits. He was ten years old.

The Crank

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.

At the young age of 11, Ellen was ordered to do 7 days hard labour after being convicted of stealing iron

At the young age of 11, Ellen was ordered to do 7 days hard labour after being convicted of stealing iron

Breaking Rocks

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.

Oakum Picking

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.

Child hard labour

John Reed was sentenced to do 14 days hard labour and 5 years reformation for stealing money in 1873. Age 15.

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