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 one of our history of public shaming in London, we explore the despicable retributions such as cucking stools, the scold's bridle and the pillory.
In medieval London, religion was the ultimate source of justice so it’s not surprising to find a retributive, ‘eye-for-an-eye’ dimension to many of the parades and spectacles that routinely shamed people in this era. Any tavern-keeper found selling wine that was ‘putrid, corrupt, and altogether unsound for human use’, for instance, would be tied to a stake, surrounded by ‘vile minstrelsy’ (raucous musicians, singers and tub-thumpers, to attract a crowd) and have the offending bottle poured over his head then smashed. Similarly, dishonest fishmongers and butchers could expect to end up in the Cornhill or Cheapside stocks with their stinking wares burning beneath their noses, generating a horrific stench that would attract the abuse of stall holders and passers-by.
This sense of poetic justice continued into the Tudor period, and we can imagine a twinkle in the eye of magistrates as they devised punishments that fitted the crime deliciously. Thus, during the reign of Henry VIII, a ‘gongfarmer’ (public toilet cleaner) guilty of dumping filth in the open streets was sentenced to stand knee-deep in one of his own barrels of shit with a paper mitre on his head, declaring his crime. And in 1552, a man and a woman guilty of smuggling in two pigs from the countryside were forced to ride through the city’s principal streets and marketplaces with a carcass each around their necks — and a garland of pigs’ toes on their heads. Also visually striking was the Southwark card cheat who, in 1551, was made to ride backwards on a horse (a source of great ignominy in itself) to musical accompaniment ‘with his coat pricked full of playing cards on every side’, a fitting redress — here, as in the other examples — for false dealing.
The scold’s bridle
This gruesome contraption was designed to silence and shame ‘scolds’ — that is, women who nagged, grumbled or dared to rebuke a man (usually her husband). It was in vogue in 17th century London, if not much earlier. Also known as a brank, it consists of an iron cage that fitted over the whole head, muzzling the wearer with a nasty rectangular plate that thrust into her mouth, stilling her tongue. In a particularly grizzly touch, the gag was sometimes covered in sharp spikes so it bled the tongue – or, if the victim persisted in talking, lacerated it. No wonder it served as much as an instrument of terror as a punitive device, hanging outside houses in various London marketplaces as a warning to be meek and submissive, as the Bible taught.
Yet for those who did find themselves inside this inhuman cage, there was no greater indignity than being led by the nose via an attached iron chain through the city’s crowded markets and thoroughfares,, subject to the taunts and jeers of the street crowds. Many survive; one in the vestry of a church in Walton-on-Thames, dated 1632 and bequeathed by one Mr Chester who according to tradition had missed out on a vast dowry thanks to the gossiping of a Walton woman. It has the inscription ‘Chester presents Walton with a bridle, to cure women’s tongues that talk too idle’. Men were occasionally punished in it too, for swearing, blaspheming and reviling authority.
Make no mistake: however quaint and comic they may seem today, these hinged wooden planks with holes for the head and hands were engines of social damnation from the middle ages to the late 18th century. In a close-knit urban society, people rose and fell by their reputation; it determined one’s marriage prospects, social mobility, suitability for credit, and trustworthiness in court. To maximise its impact and expose people to the greatest ridicule, offenders were pilloried ‘where the most confluence of people shall be’ in the words of Guildhall ordinances — i.e., in the busiest commercial thoroughfares at high noon. There is an early reference to ‘the pillory upon Cornhill’ in 1318; in the 1530s, one was erected by the Standard (a water conduit attached to a stone monument) in Cheapside; and in time, they would appear by Temple Bar, Charing Cross, and in New Palace Yard opposite Westminster Hall, then a legal bazaar.
You could be pilloried for conjuring, fraud, blasphemy, perjury, slander, attempted sodomy, spreading false news and (quite rightly) issuing false dinner party invitations. Punishments usually lasted one hour and could be repeated in different pillories on consecutive days; hats were forbidden to expose the face though transgressors might wear a special paper hat or sign saying ‘This is a false, perjured and foresworn man’; ‘A Cheat’ etc; and if the rotten foot-board gave way, you risked a slow throttling and death.
Confirmed criminals were thus clamped in a position of acute and pitiful vulnerability in full view of the jeering mob to whom they proved irresistible targets and who were at liberty — encouraged, even — to chuck whatever they could get their hands on; clumps of earth, rotten eggs, cucumbers, turnips, offal and in their less charitable moments dead cats, paving stones, shards of glass and bricks at the victim's head. The stakes were high; an unlucky few died in the pillory (around 10 in the course of the 18th century, according to the historian Robert Shoemaker). Aside from sodomites who fared particularly badly, no creature was more despised than false-accusers who, for reward money, swore robberies against innocent parties. John Valler stood the pillory for just that in June 1732 and a pamphlet gleefully described how ‘the mob began to pelt him with cabbage, cauliflowers and artichoke stalks …[then] they pulled down the pillory, by which the skull of this unhappy wretch was fractured’. Still not satisfied, ‘as he lay on the ground, they stamped so hard upon his body that they broke his ribs’. He was dead within the hour. This had not been the authorities’ intention; two members of the crowd were convicted of his murder three months later.
Yet the crowd could be forgiving; sympathetic even, especially when they felt the defendant had been treated unfairly.
A pamphlet gleefully described how ‘the mob began to pelt him with cabbage, cauliflowers and artichoke stalks...
Famously, when Daniel Defoe was pilloried in 1703 after publishing a faux-bigoted rant against religious dissenters (of which he was one) on the orders of the pro-dissenter, irony-deaf whig government, the only thing anyone threw at him was flowers, while the very pamphlet itself was casually sold by his supporters. And in June 1763, the Post Boy reported how the crowd reacted to two elderly men in the New Palace Yard pillory for attempted buggery — ‘their tears, which flowed in great abundance, drew such compassion, that they treated them with the greatest lenity, and some money was collected for them’.
The most interactive and democratic of all of old London’s shaming rituals, audience responses could damage, destroy or save someone’s reputation or, in rare cases, kill them; in 1509, three pilloried offenders are recorded as ‘dying of shame’ — could they have been driven to suicide, like victims of online trolling in extreme cases?
The cucking stool
At some point in 1535, a group of women described as ‘mighty vagabonds and wise women of their bodies’ were sentenced to be taken to a foul pond in Smithfield, ‘set upon the cucking stool’ and ‘washed over the ears’. Also known as the ducking stool, this nasty piece of institutional misogyny was essentially a waterside see-saw with a dangling chair, reserved for harlots, loud-mouths and chiding women, engraved with pictures of the devil. (‘To cuck’ meant to void excrement, so it perhaps got its original name as it resembled a toilet). In place by the 13th century, it would be loaded with a woman, swivelled over the water, then dunked in the water repeatedly, the idea being that the immersion would cool the transgressor’s ‘intemperate heat’: ‘no brawling wives, no furious wenches / no fire so hot but water quenches’ as the poem The Ducking Stool summarised the process in 1780 (the similarities with baptism were poignant too, with the ducking stool offering a form of ‘social rebirth’).
‘To cuck’ meant to void excrement, so it perhaps got its original name as it resembled a toilet
Offending women’s shame was magnified one-hundredfold by the presence of large crowds for whom this was wonderful entertainment; the London Evening Post reported a crowd of 2,000-3,000 watching a ducking in Kingston, Surrey, in 1745. It could be dangerous of course — a ducking in summer was a very different proposition to one in the icy cold of winter — and the enthusiasm of the crowd could sometimes lead to accidental drownings; an undated chapbook reports one such fatality at Ratcliff Highway. Still, this was tame compared to the aggravated version of the same punishment, which saw prostitutes and chides tied to the tail of a double-oared wherry and dragged over the Thames between Lambeth and Westminster.
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.