Crimes of a serious nature have always been dealt with by justices in the various courts, but an instrument of detention and punishment much favoured by the Anglo-Saxons for those guilty of minor offences, was the stocks and the pillory.
Both of similar construction and made from wood, they were used to publicly humiliate offenders for short periods of time. The pillory had holes large enough for wrists and neck, forcing the offender to stand, while stocks generally had holes for wrists and ankles, forcing the guilty party to take his or her punishment sitting down. But sitting down or not, restriction of movement for even short periods of time caused intense pain. To add to an offender’s misery it was also common to be pelted with unpleasant and sometimes dangerous objects, the result of which was often death.
Stocks and pillories continued in use long after the Conquest, and an Act of 1405 ordained that every town and village should provide itself with a pair of stocks. Their main occupants were still those found guilty of what was then considered minor crimes i.e. petty theft, wife beating, Sabbath breaking and drunkenness, but the act was chiefly designed to deter vagrancy.
In the early medieval period a vagrant was usually suspected of being a runaway serf but, later, any vagrant was viewed as being idle or part of a criminal fraternity. After 1495, local authorities were ordered to deal with them harshly, the usual punishment being three days in the stocks followed by expulsion from the parish.
The greatest use of stocks for perpetrators of ‘lesser’ offences was on the Sabbath, when it was compulsory for the offender to attend church at Morning Prayer, about midday, and publicly apologise for their misdeed. Once done, churchwardens would set him or her in the stocks and there they would remain until evening prayer, around 4pm. In towns the punishment was usually repeated on the next market day.
The last pillory used in Hertfordshire is said to have been at St Albans in 1812, although perjury was still punishable in this way until 1816. Both stocks and pillorys were outlawed by Act of Parliament in 1837, most then falling into disrepair and decay.
Another Anglo-Saxon instrument of punishment for minor offences was the Cucking Stool. This was basically a chair, not dissimilar to a comode in appearance, its name coming from the Saxon ‘cukken’, meaning to defacate. Offenders were made to sit on the stool, bare footed and bare headed, and were then wheeled or carried around the community attracting much abuse and ridicule. Its use declined in the 16th century.
Better known, perhaps, is the ducking stool that came into general use in the 17th century. This was a chair attached to one end of a long pole, which was pivoted rather like a see-saw and used to ‘duck’ the offender in a pond or river. There is record of a ducking stool being present in Stortford’s Causeway until the mid 18th century (See Guide 8), but none have survived in Hertforshire.
Punishment by whipping was a firm favourite of the Romans as well as the Anglo-Saxons, but only if the offence warranted it. Systematic whipping began following the ‘Whipping Act’ of 1530, with vagrancy still high on the list of punishable offences. The Act decreed that all vagrants should be taken to the nearest town with a market place, stripped naked, be tied to a cart’s tail and then flogged ‘until their back be bloody’. Some lenancy was shown in 1597 when an ammendment to the Act decreed that offenders should only be stripped to the waist.
Whipping posts were instituted in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1601), the most likely persons to be whipped still being vagrants, but also the insane – women as well as men. Female vagrants were finally spared from this humility in 1792. Public flogging of women ended in 1817, and three years later corporal punishment for women was abolished altogether. In 1861 flogging for misdemeanours was abolished completely, other than shooting at the sovereign and for men convicted of vagrancy, but was reintroduced in 1863 by the ‘Garotters’ Act. It became less common towards the end of the 1800s but was continued in prisons as a disciplinary measure – 49 floggings being recorded in 1933. In 1948 flogging was abolished except for male prisoners guilty of serious disciplinary offences, the practise continuing in English prisons until 1967. The whip, however, was a thing of the past, the tolls most commonly used being the birch and the cat o’ tails.
There is mention in local records of the town’s stocks, though not their siting. Thorley’s stocks and whipping post are on display at the Bishop’s Stortford Museum.