Spotlight on Crime and Punishment – The Stocks

On October 6th, 1680, Tunstall Court Leet ordered the High Constable of the Manor of Tunstall to repair the stocks in Burslem within six weeks or pay a penalty of six shillings and eight pence.

From Anglo-Saxon times until the middle of the 19th century, the stocks were used to punish minor offences.

Criminals Were Punished by Their Victims

The Stocks were designed to humiliate and degrade petty criminals by putting them on display in a public place where their victims and members of the community could impose their own punishments on them.

Stocks were erected on village greens, in market squares and at crossroads. Most were made of wood, although a few were made of iron. Offenders sat on a wooden bench with their ankles placed through holes in moveable boards. How long a person spent in the stocks depended on the gravity of the offence. Some were there for a few hours. Others were put in them for two or three days and fed on bread and water.

In 1350, the Second Statute of Labourers compelled every town and village to erect stocks in a public place.

Having its own set of stocks conferred status on small communities. A settlement that was too small to have a set was regarded as a hamlet and could not call itself a village.

Men and women in the stocks were a source of entertainment for the crowds that flocked to see them punished.

Members of the public were allowed to whip offenders who were in the stocks until their backs were bloody and to throw stones, broken pottery, dead dogs and cats, rotten fruit and vegetables, bad eggs and excrement at them.

Innkeepers, Peddlers and Market Traders

Dishonest shopkeepers, innkeepers, peddlers and market traders were put in the stocks. Housewives poured the contents of chamber pots over the heads of traders who had given them “short weight”. Butchers who had sold rotten beef, lamb, pork or poultry sat in the stocks surrounded by maggot-infested meat. Fishmongers convicted of selling fish that had passed its sell-by date were placed in the stocks with stinking fish hung around their necks. Innkeepers and alewives who were in the stocks for selling watered-down beer had jugs of stale ale poured over their heads by customers they had cheated.

Rogues, Vagabonds, Beggars and Drunkards

Towards the end of the middle ages gangs of rogues and vagabonds made their way from town to town begging, robbing and stealing everywhere they went. To deal with these gangs the government brought in new laws with draconian penalties for vagabonds who infringed them.

In 1388 an Act of Parliament (12 Rich. 2) was passed making it illegal for labourers to give up their jobs and leave the district where they lived without the King’s permission. The statute gave borough mayors, manor stewards and town constables authority to put labourers who had run away from their employers in the stocks, until they found sureties who guaranteed that they would go home and return to work.

A statute, passed during the reign of Henry VII (1457-1509), allowed constables to place vagrants in the stocks.

Passed in 1494, the Vagabonds and Beggars Act gave the courts power to put “vagabonds, idle and suspected persons” in the stocks for three days and three nights.

Under the provisions of a statute (22 Hen 8, c. 12) passed in 1530, magistrates could give “the impotent poor” permission to beg at specified places in the town or village where they lived. If they were found begging anywhere else, they were put in the stocks for two days and nights.

A law passed in 1605 made the punishment for getting drunk six hours in the stocks and made the penalty for being a drunkard four hours in the stocks or a fine of three shillings. Shortly afterwards, Parliament made the punishment for swearing in a public place one hour in the stocks or a fine of one shilling.