Dig will reveal remains of punishment treadmill at Yorkshire prison

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It was once home to the world's largest treadmill.

And now archaeologists hope to uncover the remains of a cruel punishment device during an excavation at the site of the former Northallerton jail.

A treadmill was installed at the prison in the 1820s, with the aim of punishing inmates by forcing them to walk upwards on the machine for several hours at a time.

Some jails used treadmill labour to pump water or power ventilators, but most were simply used as monotonous, punitive correction for 'idle' prisoners.

Northallerton's Victorian prison closed in 1922, and afterwards became a military jail, a young offenders' institute and finally a community prison from 2010 until its closure in 2013.

Hambleton Council now plans to re-develop the site, and has invited archaeologists to investigate the secrets hidden beneath its foundations.

York Archaeological Trust will spend a month at the 3.5-acre site excavating five key locations – including the area where they hope to find the remains of the treadmill.

There will be public access to the dig at certain times, including during two open days on September 16 and 30 from 10am-4pm.

Coun Mark Robson said:

“The trust will be looking for evidence of early life at the prison when officers and prisoners all lived in the complex, when bread was baked for the town on site, when it was used as a military prison – and of course when the famous treadmills were used for punishment.

“Being able to allow local people to have a look at what is being done – and even have a go at digging with the professional team – is an important part of our plans. We want people to feel this redevelopment is for them – and that they can help shape its future.”

Archaeological workshops take place on September 12, 19 and 26 from 10am until noon and 12.30-2.30 pm to look at various aspects of the excavation teams work – including what happens to any ‘finds’. To find out more contact: yourdig@yorkat.co.uk

Your Dig public digging sessions take place from 10am until 4pm on September 6, 7, 8,13,14,15, 21, 22, 23, 27 and 28. Anyone taking part will work with the team in the trenches and be guided through the process – no experience is needed but safety boots are essential. To find out more contact: yourdig@yorkat.co.uk

Open days on September 16 and 30 from 10am until 4pm – last admission 3pm. Sturdy shoes are recommended.

Prison treadmills - a history

- Treadmills were invented in 1818 by English engineer Sir William Cubitt, who decided prisoners' muscle power could be used as labour when spotting how 'idle' they were in Bury St Edmunds jail.

- His designs rotated around a horizontal axis, so the upwards motion was similar to climbing stairs. There was a handrail for stability.

- They remained in use throughout the 19th century, and were eventually made large enough for several prisoners to use them at once, working six-hour shifts. A criminal would end up climbing around 4km.

- An infamous device was installed at Brixton Prison in London in 1821, and was used to power a windmill. It became notorious for its cruelty.