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"The work on the treadwheel was to hold on to a bar and walk up the wheel. You did ten minutes on and five off, for eight hours, climbing the equivalent of over 8,000 feet in the process. Picking oakum was separating threads out of disused ropes. This was then sold for making string or stuffing mattresses, hence the expression 'Money for old rope'."
On visiting several old gaols in the UK and Ireland, I found that the use of the treadwheel or treadmill as a punishment device was quite well illustrated. No doubt you have seen many illustrations of these portrayed in books about prison life in the Victorian era. In those days there were clear ideas about what prisons should be like. Prisoners were kept in silence and made to do hard, boring work. Walking a treadwheel or picking oakum were the most common forms of hard labour.
I am sure that I am not the only one who had never heard of “the picking of oakum” as a form of hard labour for the prisoners. Did your convict ancestor perhaps suffer this punishment?
What is oakum?
Oakum is old tarred ships’ ropes, the thickness of which is in excess of one inch.
Pieces of such rope (often termed “ junk”) were flung into the prison cells. The prisoners were required to pull the strands of rope apart until they were as fine as silk. Oakum was extremely dirty to work with. After working with it for an hour, the prisoners’ fingers would be covered with tar, and as such would stick to everything they touched. Scrubbing them clean would have been an arduous task.
What was oakum used for?
Most of it was re-spun into ropes. It was also used for caulking wooden walls, and for building boats. Some was sent for use at various fishing ports.
How was “picking oakum” used as a prison task?
Often the daily task was to pick “three pounds per diem”. Such a target was nigh on impossible, but failure to meet the task was treated as an offence under prison discipline and usually led to restricted or diminished rations. Prisoners would often pick half the quota and dampen it with water overnight to bring it up to the required weight in the morning. In reality, it was a simple yet tedious task – but it kept many unskilled hands from being idle.
I found various references to picking oakum to illustrate better what was required of the prisoners. I hope you will find them interesting.
Instructions from one who had mastered the art – “He rapidly knotted a couple of strands together, and motioning me to place my foot on the edge of the bedstead, tied them firmly round my thigh; then picking up a loose strand he passed it underneath this cincture, and grasping the two ends, one in each hand, drew it quickly to and fro. The friction soon frayed the strand, the loose, fluffy oakum was drawn off and placed on the floor, and the process repeated until the whole strand was completely frayed out.”
Further advice was “ just try and sneak a nail in with you if you get a chance of picking one up at exercise, and then you can soon manage your oakum with that.”
“It was a regular dodge,” declared one prisoner, “for any man who had managed to get a nail… to slip it between the slits of his ventilator before he leaves the prison, and the first thing an “old hand” does when he is placed in the cell he is to occupy is to open the ventilator and push a strand of oakum through the right hand slit of it, and twist it about until he has ascertained whether the oakum nail is there or not.”
“Once the secrets of successful picking had been unravelled, with or without the assistance of the nail, there was even a kind of pleasure to be derived from the work. When it is the right kind of junk and you give it the right kind of twist, and beat it properly on your boot sole, the fibres come apart like floss silk, and there is something fascinating about seeing the little heap growing in front of you until, by the time you have finished your task of three pounds, it is a veritable mountain.”
Of oakum, W.T. Stead related the following in his work, "My First Imprisonment":
"Then I set to work to pick oakum. It was not the proper oakum, but coir fibre. I had to pick from ten ounces to one pound. It is an excellent meditative occupation. But it is hard at first on the finger-nails. Mine wanted trimming; for, if the nails are not short, the leverage on the nail in disentangling the fibre causes considerable suffering."
Oakum picking was introduced into prisons as a punishment for men in 1840:
"...prisoners were given a weighed quantity of old rope cut into lengths equal to that of a hoop stick. Some of the pieces are white and sodden looking... others are hard and black with tar upon them. The prisoner takes up a length of junk and untwists it and when he has separated it into so many corkscrew strands, he further unrolls them by sliding them backwards and forwards on his knee with the palm of his hand until the meshes are loosened. The strand is further unravelled by placing it in the bends of a hook fastened to the knees and sawing it smartly to and fro which soon removes the tar and grates the fibres apart. In this condition, all that remains to be done is loosen the hemp by pulling it out like cotton wool, when the process is completed... The place is full of dust... the shoulders of the men are covered with brown dust almost as thick as the shirt front of a snuff taker... the hard rope cuts and blisters their fingers."
It was not until 1895 that recommendations were put forward to discontinue picking oakum as a punishment. By then ships were being built out of iron rather than wood.
Alternative forms of cell-work had to be found – for example - sewing, making coal sacks and mail bags, knitting stockings, and mat-making.