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Changing Times | The labour punishments of Petworth House

Petworth Prison, also known as Petworth Gaol or Petworth House of Correction, was designed by the Neo-Gothic Architect James Wyatt and was built in 1788.


It was infamous in its time due to its hard labour punishments and the strict, unforgiving conditions implemented there.


One of its forms of punishments was a machine called the ‘tread wheel’. The tread wheel was a large, step-covered wheel that rotated forty-eight steps per minute.


Prisoners were required to climb 11,340 feet each day for six days a week, the equivalent of climbing Big Ben roughly thirty-five times each day, a brutal expectation.


Prisoners were allocated ten hours in the summer and seven hours in the winter in which to complete this. As there was nothing on the contraption to hold on to, apart from a rotating hand wheel, many would stumble and fall, often this would severely injure them.


Notably, a sixteen-year-old named Thomas Allard was sent to Petworth Prison for four months in 1849 for being an ‘orphaned vagrant’ and died after he was mangled by the tread wheel. Due to incidences like these, the wheel was outlawed in 1898.


Although only men were expected to use the tread wheel, both men and women were given the second hard labour device of the prison, the ‘crank’. The crank involved prisoners turning a handle against resistance 13,200 times a day.


At Petworth these devices were useless for anything but punishment, so much so that people often referred to spending time on them as ‘grinding the wind’, however in some prisons they were used to pump water or grind grain into flour so that the prison could sell the produce and cover the cost of the prisoners.


Petworth House of Correction enforced a rule of silence; prisoners were kept isolated and allowed no communication with each other or anybody else.


Speech was only permitted in response to questions from prison officials, even the guards had to wear soft shoes to maintain the atmosphere.


This system was criticised in 1922 as it was linked to the numerous cases of insanity in prisons. John Mance became the Prison Governor in 1826 and was a strongly religious man who viewed preventing re-offense as God’s work and his duty. He once proudly announced the following: “I now have a notorious vagrant in my custody who declared to me that he would rather go three months in Lewes [prison] than one in this house, and he assures me to my great satisfaction that he will never come into this division of the county again.”


The prison mainly held petty criminals, with homelessness, or vagrancy, as its most common crime. Mance designed the ergometer used in Petworth prison to measure the work prisoners did on the wheel, accurately measuring how far they climbed each day to ensure that they completed their work and to prevent them from being over-punished. This was so successful that it quickly spread to other prisons in the area.


Like many Victorian prisons, following the Prisons Act of 1865 and the promises of Sir Edmund du Cane, the then Assistant Director of Prisons, the hard labour was accompanied by ‘Hard Fare and Hard Board’. This meant that prisoners received a monotonous diet of the same food, on the same day, every week and that their hammocks were replaced with wooden board beds.


Petworth Prison closed in 1878 and was demolished in 1881. A number of bricks with names, initials and dates etched into them, by prisoners in the solitary confinement cells, were later used to build a wall near the old magistrate’s court. This wall is the only remaining trace in Petworth of this significant part of the town’s history, and whilst it was feared in 2008 that the wall would either be obscured from public view, inside a private garden, or destroyed altogether, it is still accessible to the public despite renovation plans for buildings nearby.


The images have been provided courtesy of the West Sussex Record Office.


By Elizabeth Byles, placement student at The Novium Museum


Posted in Lifestyle.