(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 6th October 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on 4th October 2017)
When I was at school at the Bar Convent in York, one of the best days of the year was when we celebrated the Feast of St Michael (Michelmas) on 29th September. St Michael was particularly special to us as legend had it that in 1696, during the era of Catholic persecution, an angry mob descended on the convent. But the nuns were saved when a furious St Michael appeared above the building upon a white steed and frightened the attackers away.
To mark the occasion, lessons were suspended and instead, a fete with various charity fund-raising stalls and activities was held in the school grounds. Teachers stopped being teachers for the day, and surprised us all by behaving like normal human beings. One of the most popular activities, and one which only the bravest of souls would submit to, was ‘Sponge the Teacher’. It was thrilling to be able to hurl a wet sponge into the faces of those who normally exerted their control over us, but of course, it was only the fun teachers who took part. The ones we really wanted revenge upon sadly steered well clear.
This activity was a parody of a very real punishment that was used as far back as the 14th century, that of being committed to the stocks for public humiliation. In his column from October 2nd 1976, Dad talks of seeing a set of stocks while passing through a Wensleydale village, and says: “This ancient form of punishment is never out of the news because modern reformers constantly seek their restoration for vandals and those who commit minor nuisances.” It stunned me to learn that as recently as 40 years ago, our politicians were seriously debating bringing stocks back into use!
I must confess that until I started to research this column, what I thought were stocks were actually pillories. Stocks were a method of securing just the ankles, so the prisoner had to sit down, whereas pillories were where the miscreant was secured by the wrists and head and was usually standing upright. Following a law passed in 1405 to combat increasing lawlessness, villages up and down the land were required to install a set of stocks to punish those convicted of minor misdemeanours such as drunkenness and brawling. Passers-by were entitled to subject the offender to whatever punishment they saw fit, be it simply words of abuse and spitting, or more physical admonishments in the form of missiles of rotten food, toilet waste or stones.
It seems no-one was exempt from this punishment. In 1500, while rector at Limington, Somerset, the future Cardinal Wolsey is reported to have been placed in the stocks by local sheriff Sir Amyas Paulet after a drunken row, and by 1606, drunkenness carried a fine of five shillings or six hours in the stocks.
It is not clear exactly when stocks and pillories fell out of use, but Dad believed the practice was on the wane by 1850. According to him, in that year, Stokesley stocks had been specially repaired by the parish constables in preparation for reuse. Their actions caused outrage and led to unrest and disorder in the town, and so the idea was abandoned. The town of Skipton reported their use in 1776, and in Beverley as late as 1853. In this instance, a local character called Jim Brigham was taken into custody and sentenced to two hours in the stocks for tippling on a Sunday. But instead of being ridiculed, his fellow townspeople pitied him and even filled his tobacco pipe to smoke while he was stuck there. His was the last recorded use of the Beverly stocks.
I’m not sure how I’d feel if I came across someone imprisoned by stocks, and I suppose it would depend on who they were and what they were supposed to have done, although there are definitely one or two public figures whom I’d like to see at the mercy of a wet sponge. But imagine if public drunkenness were still punishable in such a way? Having experienced York on a Saturday night, we’d have to have stocks from here to Magaluf to cope with the demand.