An unpopular and back-breaking means of disciplining unruly prisoners in the early days was ‘shot drill’, an exhausting and depressing activity to which any prisoner between the ages of 20 and 45 years could be sentenced.
Once a day for the period of the punishment, the prisoner would carry a 24 lbs (11 kg) cannonball from one end of the exercise yard to the other, drop it, turn round, pick it up again, and retrace his steps, over and over again, for up to an hour and a quarter a day under the supervision of a warder.
For example, in September 1868, for ‘disorderly conduct’, John Devine was sentenced to seven days’ shot drill. For the duration of his punishment, over an hour a day for seven days, Devine would have walked a considerable distance, picking up and putting down this weight of 24 lbs. It is not difficult to understand how gruelling, dreary and monotonous this useless activity must have been.
Moreover, as one writer said:
It tires them worse taking up the shot, because there’s nothing to lay hold of, and their hands get hot and slippery with the perspiration, so that the ball is greasy like. The work makes the shoulders very stiff too. There is no aim beyond that of fatiguing the prisoner and rendering his punishment period as unpleasant as possible.
Captain Jekyll of Brisbane Gaol at Boggo Road commented in 1886: “I don’t like the shot-drill. It produces rupture and varicose veins, and it is discouraging.”
It is difficult to imagine anything more ingeniously useless and tedious than this form of punishment, but it was not an uncommon feature of British penal and military establishments in the nineteenth century.
As Visiting Justice Thomas Barron concluded: ‘Shot drill is not severe, but it is very much disliked.’