A Grim And Gruesome History Of Public Shaming In London: Part 2

By Dr Matthew Green Last edited 89 months ago

Last Updated 27 January 2017

A Grim And Gruesome History Of Public Shaming In London: Part 2

In 21st century London, people are publicly shamed online; barely a month goes by without some foul-mouthed rant on public transport doing the rounds on Facebook or Twitter. But online obloquy has deep roots. In part two of our history of public shaming in London, we explore the despicable retributions such as branding, whipping and the drunkard's cloak. You can find part 1 here.

Branding irons from the Tudor age

Maiming and branding

In pre-industrial London, it was generally believed that physiognomy was indicative of character. How awful, then, to have your ears sliced off, nose slit, or cheeks branded with ugly capital letters. Yet this is exactly what judges sometimes demanded, right up until the early 19th century, as a punishment for moral transgressions and petty larceny; combining as it did raw physical pain with lifelong ignominy, it was considered a powerful deterrent. ‘T’ meant thief, ‘B’ blasphemer, ‘F’, fraymaker (brawlers), and ‘FA’, false accuser: sometimes an ‘F’ on one cheek and an ‘A’ on the other, as documented by Tudor topographer John Stow in 1556.

Worse still were ear mutilations. Having one’s ear chopped off was a punishment reserved for authors and printers of seditious books, people who didn’t turn up to church and, during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, hardcore Puritans who criticised England’s religious settlement.

The imagery was unambiguous: these people had been listening to the devil, and so the offending instrument — the ear — must go. In 1637, three Puritan preachers were sentenced to have their cheeks branded and ears cropped at the New Palace Yard pillory: ‘the executioner cut off his ears deep and close… with much effusion of blood, an artery being cut’ wrote a chronicler, clearly savouring every last detail; the ear of another offender was ‘left hanging’.

Sometimes judges ordered not an ear-guillotining but simply that the ear of the pilloried sinner be nailed to the wood (a punishment also reserved for spreading false news); as well as causing a permanent mutilation, this also meant that the perpetrator couldn’t duck to avoid missiles. Careless authors would watch the hangman burn their seditious books in front of them and at the end of the ordeal, criminals were expected to remove the nail themselves (if they could – sometimes the bloody ear would be left behind on the pillory).

Seditious authors might have their hands chopped off, blasphemers their tongues bored — but nose-slitting could be worse than death. That’s certainly what the wife of a criminal brought before Star Chamber thought in the early 17th century – ‘if you disgrace him thus, you quite undo him, Good my Lords hang him!’ she screamed (the judges were unmoved).

Sometimes Puritans were sentenced to an imaginative cocktail of all of the above. The Scottish preacher Alexander Leighton probably regretted describing the Scottish bishops as satanic in a pamphlet in 1628 since it got him whipped, pilloried, branded on the cheeks with ‘SS’ (sower of sedition), had his ears cut off and nose slit. Still, this looks positively civilised when we consider that, under Danish rule, miscreants could have their eyes plucked out and were flayed alive; during the reign of Henry I in the early 12th century, coiners of counterfeit money could be legally castrated (though they would be burned at the stake as late as the ‘enlightened’ 18th century).

A public whipping with rods in Fulham, 1558, from Foxe's Book of Martyrs


A powerful demonstration of authority, good old-fashioned whipping became a favourite of Old Bailey judges from Jacobean times as an intermediate option between hanging and the pillory for a range of crime, and it was also a favourite for lying, swearing, perjury, fornication and bastard bearing. Whipping posts, commonly known as Posts of Reformation (testifying to magistrates’ rehabilitative intentions), were a common part of the street furniture; the 'Water Poet' John Taylor counted 60 in and around London in 1630 — though earlier, in Tudor times, the guilty were routinely tied to a cart’s tail and whipped as they were paraded through the city. For maximum disgrace, the route usually began or finished in the sinner’s own neighbourhood.
Sinners — both men and women — would have to strip to the waist, which was itself a mark of ignominy in a society where clothes were such powerful indicators of status but greatly exciting, titillating even, for the attendant crowds. Adult sinners would be whipped on their shoulders; younger victims, particularly apprentices (who were often in need of moral reformation) on the buttocks and lower back, generally with rods of birch but sometimes a whip ‘till the body become bloody by reason of such whipping’. As with shame parades, the ‘cause’ of the punishment was sometimes depicted on a notice or hat or, in the case of a man in 1563 who was triple-whipped at the Cheapside Standard, physically present — a poor boy stripped semi-naked so the crowd could see the damage done when the man had beat him with a leather girdle and buckle or iron. Nothing should get in the way of an urgent whipping; in 1533, a heavily pregnant woman was whipped about Cheapside and then nailed by the ear to the Standard pillory for suggesting that Catherine of Aragon not Anne Boleyn was the true queen. Foolish.

The drunkard's cloak: a whole new meaning for alcohol jacket.

The drunkard’s cloak

Admittedly something of a wildcard since there’s no direct evidence it was ever adopted in London — though not impossible since it was used to humiliate drunkards in Newcastle-upon-Tyne during Cromwell’s puritanical reign and in 17th century Europe too (Pepys witnessed it in Holland) — the drunkard’s cloak was a brilliantly inspired visual metaphor for the clumsy, incapacitating effects of alcohol. Drunkards were hemmed into a giant wooden barrel, their arms, legs and head peeping out of holes like a semi-hatched chicken. The offender was then made to shuffle inelegantly through the town’s main commercial streets to the beating of drums, like a contrite Humpty Dumpty, desperately trying to avoid making eye-contact with anyone he knew. It was a magnificent, truly ridiculous form of obloquy. One to bring back in 21st-century Leicester Square or Covent Garden perhaps?

Drunkards were hemmed into a giant wooden barrel, their arms, legs and head peeping out of holes like a semi-hatched chicken.

Public penance

Administered by church not secular courts (who policed all sorts of moral crime from mutual masturbation to singing bawdy songs) and notably less violent (though no less mortifying) than many of the other shaming rituals, public penance was a way of reintegrating a sinner into the spiritual community and restoring harmony to the parish. Adulterers, prostitutes, practitioners of incest and others had to appear at a church service barefoot and bare-legged, sometimes wearing just a simple white garment, and endure a sermon against vice. Then, in front of the whole congregation, they had to confess their sin (which, since it very frequently involved illicit sexual relations with a fellow congregant, led to much intake of breath and raised eyebrows), ask for God’s and the parishioners’ forgiveness, then lead the Lord’s Prayer. Often, as the congregation flocked in, the perpetrator would be standing outside the door wearing a white paper mitre on which his or her sin would be displayed in block capitals. Thus public penance could spice up Sunday services no end.

Though until the Reformation many of London’s brothels (or stews, as they were known) operated on land owned by the bishops of Winchester — hence their nickname ‘Winchester geese’ — the Church had to be seen to be clamping down on the vice of prostitution lest God’s wrath descend on the community. Hence strumpets, if caught, were forced to go on penitential processions through the city wearing striped hoods and carrying white rods, beginning (as ordinances from 1382 stipulate) at Aldgate, where they’d be joined by the customary minstrels and musicians, and proceeding through Cornhill, through Newgate, and into Cock Lane in Smithfield, specially set aside for women of the night. Repeat offenders might be stripped naked and made to ride backwards on a horse, facing the tail, an infamous mark of ignominy since classical times.

A man is shamed by having a cup of coffee thrown in his face.

Decline and evolution

By now you must be wondering what has happened to all these amazingly inventive punishments, all of which have (thankfully) vanished from London’s streets. With the arrival of coffeehouses in 1652 and explosion of newspapers after the lapsing of pre-publication censorship in 1695, the media increasingly became the arena in which reputations were forged, damaged, and destroyed. ‘To the coffeehouse in Covent Garden’, wrote Samuel Pepys on 22 June 1668, ‘but met with nobody but Sir Philip Howard, who shamed me before the whole house there, in commendation of my speech in Parliament’. Similarly, as the Church’s machinery of sexual surveillance broke down after the Toleration Act of 1689, voluntary societies like the Society for the Reformation of Manners began publishing terrifying ‘Black Lists’, naming and shaming sexual sinners. As the focus of shaming evolved from the pillory to print, many of the rituals outlined were resorted to less frequently, and were increasingly viewed as incompatible and incongruous with newly paved and cleaned Georgian streets with harmonious brick facades, enlightened ideas championing persuasion not violence (increasingly, prostitutes were sent to the Bridewell House of Correction not to be whipped but transformed into honest citizens), fears of public disorder, and a fading lack of interest amongst the mob. When a man was pilloried in the 1796 — one of around five that year — for the attempted rape of two children, he laughed and scorned at an indifferent public.

With a million inhabitants, London was by then of course a very different city to its walled medieval forbear (40,000 in 1400), a world of strangers, infinitely more anonymous, and this greatly muted the success of punishments that had always relied upon neighbourliness and community spirit to be effective. The pillory was used only for perjury from 1816 and abolished in 1837, and whipping in the 1830s, by which point ducking stools and the scold’s bridle had become antiquated curiosities.

Dr Matthew Green is the author of London: A Travel Guide Through Time (Penguin) and the founder of Unreal City Audio, which produces live immersive tours through historic London.