How people were punished in days gone by

In “Peek into the Past” we have examined images of Burnley town centre, the districts and villages around Burnley and a number of its parks. Thinking about what direction I should go in future articles, I found myself, earlier today, in the company of Brierfield Probus where I gave their knowledgeable members a talk entitled “Lancashire’s Calderdale”.

Thursday, 26th June 2014, 7:00 am

As you will know, the Lancashire Calder is the subject of my most recent book, but, when talking to members of Probus, it occurred to me that “Peek” need not only be about buildings, districts and parks. There are an almost limitless number of features of a smaller nature each of which has a story to tell.

This thought came to me when my projector was showing an image of the village stocks at Holme in Cliviger. They were there for a purpose. In fact, at one time, every parish or township had to have its stocks, or equivalent. Burnley not only had its stocks but the medieval village also had a whipping post and a ducking stool as well.

These, what we think of as quaint features of times past were, when in use, important parts of our punitive system. They constitute some of the means by which miscreants were punished and humiliated, the latter no longer a feature of the system itself.

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Whether the systems described today were successful or not is not the point. There may be another opportunity to assess that. Similarly, I am not going to say all that much about the individual crimes and misdemeanours for which the stocks, whipping post and ducking stool were thought to be correctives. These matters, again, may well be the subject of a future article.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the stocks of both Cliviger and Burnley have survived. The stocks in Cliviger are more complete than the ones in Burnley, and I will have a look at them in another article, but, of the two, I would say the Burnley stocks are older.

It might be that some of you, though you will have heard of them, might not know what exactly stocks are and for what they were used. I take it you will know how a whipping post was used and will be surprised if you have not heard of the ducking stool.

The latter came into use throughout England from the later 16th Century but I think there is only one survival, in Leominster, Herefordshire. I would have to admit I am not sure whether the ducking stool there is original or a reconstruction but I do know it was used up to c1809.

Ducking stools varied considerably in design and we do not know exactly how the Burnley version might have looked. Essentially, though there was an element of punishment, the purpose of a ducking stool was to inflict humiliation on the offender. It is often, but erroneously, thought their sole purpose was to determine whether a woman was a witch but Trial by Water, because that is what a ducking stool is about, is known to have existed in Ancient Mesopotamia.

In that civilisation the person facing trial was introduced into the water, usually of a river or stream, and if the water rejected the individual that person was deemed to be innocent. By this, I mean that if the person showed no signs of drowning, it quickly followed that innocence of the charge, whatever it might have been, was the natural conclusion.

In England we think we are particularly civilised but when trial by water was used, in some cases, the individual had an arm tied to a leg making it more difficult for anyone to survive. In addition to that, in England if the individual became submerged it was thought he was innocent. Of course the individual might be both innocent and drowned but that was another matter!

The moral of this story might be that we should be cautious about dismissing present-day countries, which have ancient histories, as uncivilised. Some of the countries of the Middle East fall into this category – Iran and Iraq, for example – and it should not be forgotten our fellow townspeople from modern Pakistan are the descendants of the great Indus civilisation.

The Burnley ducking stool was not located in the river Brun, just to the west of St Peter’s, as many individuals indicated. It was to be found adjacent to a long lost pond near the site of Brown Hill which, had that house been standing today, would have been in the present Sainsbury’s car park opposite the Old Grammar School building on what was Bank Parade.

Mention of the school reminds me that the old name for the present School Lane, which runs the length of the Old Grammar School buildings and is bounded by the river, is no other than “Cuckstool Lane”. Cuckstool is another name for a ducking stool but one which was used largely, if not entirely, for another purpose, that of checking wives whose tongues got the women in trouble with their husbands. Such ladies were known as “scolds” and they were often silenced by the use of the “scolds bridle”, a sort of helmet forcibly worn by the women but which prevented the movement of the tongue thus silencing them. These devices were also known as “branks”.

However, another means of controlling gossiping women was to humiliate them by the use of the ducking stool. As I have said, we have no real description of the Burnley ducking stool in use. It could have been similar to one with I illustrate this article but there were variations. The thing I am certain of is that whenever the device was officially in use, great crowds of people would have been present to enjoy the spectacle. It does not take much to imagine the scene – the preparations for the actual ducking, the opportunity it gave for entertainers and the sellers of ale and food, the excited children, the anticipation of the enemies of the unfortunate woman who was about to be humiliated ...

If we move on to the whipping post, it is thought the Burnley whipping post is shown on the postcard accompanying this article. Look in the bottom, right corner and just to the left of the base of the Market Cross you can see a post at a slight angle to the stones which make up the base of the cross. What you see in this image, which shows the area around St Peter’s as it was about 1850, certainly before the clerestory windows were added to the church in 1855, might be accurate with regard to the shape of our whipping post.

However, it is more likely it was something like the Delaware Whipping Post in the United States. It is not often I mention the USA in this series of articles but America has preserved a number of whipping posts. This is the best known of them and, of course, they had one thing in common; they were used to punish miscreants, usually men and boys.

The Delaware version differs from what is thought to have been the Burnley whipping post as it is designed to secure those about to be whipped. A large number of misdemeanours and crimes were punished by whipping. An apprentice who has run away from his master might be whipped, as were common but small-scale thieves and those found guilty of being drunk and disorderly. In fact a drunk need not have had to have been disorderly to feel the leather of the whip as it was wielded by the village constable or his assistant.

Now we come to the stocks. The Burnley stocks can be seen in the bottom, centre of the postcard. There you will see them in a more complete version than they presently appear in Burnley’s Grammar School Garden.

When complete I think Burnley’s stocks were made of a combination of stone and wood. The lower part, and the end pieces, were made of stone but the upper part was made of wood which has withered away and not been replaced.

The stocks were the most commonly used of the forms of minor punishment in Burnley. Like the others they were used as a means of humiliating the victim whatever he had been judged to have done. Cut out of the wooden top panel were four semicircles that were replicated in the stone below. Into these arms and legs were placed and locked into position – and then, depending on the reputation of the victim, “open day” was declared on him.

American cartoons often show unfortunates in the stocks being pelted with rotten tomatoes. I am not saying this did not happen but tomatoes were not introduced into England until the end of the reign of Elizabeth I and she died in 1603 at which time the tomato was a much prized and very expensive fruit. In fact, in England, the tomato was known as the “Love Apple” as it was thought to be an effective aphrodisiac. It hardly likely such a thing would be thrown at criminals!

In Burnley, one of the constant themes, in the Manorial Records associated with the St Peter’s area, where the stocks were located, was the number of middens in the area. There were plenty of horses around, several stables were located near the church, at least one blacksmith traded near the Sparrow Hawk Inn and a cattle market was held adjacent to the stocks on a regular basis. As a consequence, I suspect Burnley men, unfortunate to be hauled off to spend some time in the stocks, would have been pelted with what we (politely) call “manure” but I feel our ancestors would have used quite another word.

A few words about the pillory, which was rather like the stocks, and so is the cause of some confusion. So far as I know, Burnley did not have a pillory but, essentially, the latter was ground based, the individual being punished, and humiliated, resting on the ground with hands and legs locked into position. A pillory was, sometimes, raised above ground level and differed from the stocks in that, as you can see, both the hands and head are locked in place.

It might seem a little odd to write a brief article and Burnley’s stocks, whipping post and ducking stool. However, incredibly perhaps, one of the three has survived and we have what is likely to be an illustration of one of the other two. You can find the stocks, along with the Market Cross of 1294, the base of the 17th Century market cross and the well associated with Burnley’s original water supply, all in the Grammar School Gardens which is near the site of the former Cannons in Colne Road.

In addition to these remarkable survivals you can now see the Burnley Weir on the other side of Colne Road, just opposite the Grammar School Gardens. Through the Ribble Rivers Trust a splendid viewing point has been created above the weir and an information board is to be placed there in the near future.

All this reminds me that, though Burnley Council has (wrongly so far as I am concerned) closed its Tourism Section, Burnley Civic Trust has stepped in and is to save the town’s splendid Heritage Open Days in September. Secretary of the local Civic Trust Mr David Smith is drawing up a list of events which will be published online and in booklet form in plenty of time for the second weekend in September. There will be a full programme of events and I will be bringing you news of them in this column.