It’s a ducking crime

The other day, my brother asked: ‘Did you know that duck ponds are not called duck ponds because of the ducks that live there?’

I was quite taken aback, as I really didn’t know that! He went on to explain that small ponds were not only a source of water for village residents of yore, but they were also places of punishment for those found guilty of misdemeanours.

I’ve not been able to verify his claim (although I’m hoping some clever person reading this might know for sure), and yet punishment by ducking was very common in the Middle Ages. The ducking stool evolved from the ‘cucking stool’ which was a kind of chair or commode to which the offender was secured and then paraded through town as a form of public humiliation, similar to stocks and pillories that I’ve written about before. The idea was to invoke repentance from the subject. The word comes from the old verb ‘cukken’, which is derived from the Greek ‘kakos’ and the Latin ‘cacare’, which means ‘bad’ or ‘evil’, and the word ‘cack’ has been used for many centuries in association with defecation. The first recorded use of the cucking stool appears in the twelfth century. 

Later, the apparatus was adapted with the chair being attached to a pivoted frame a bit like a see-saw. The chair at one end could be lowered into water by those operating it from the other end, and thus the ‘cucking stool’ became a ‘ducking stool’. This was a much more severe form of punishment, and in many cases ended up with the accused being drowned after being submerged over and over again.

I have found references to it in newspaper archives from the 18th century, and it was used for misdemeanours such as pickpocketing and obnoxious behaviour. The Ipswich Journal from 14th May 1743 declares: ‘On Thursday the 5thInstant in the Afternoon a Fellow well dress’d was seized in May Fair for picking a Gentleman’s Pocket, and was immediately carried to the Ducking-Pond near that Place, in order to receive the usual Discipline of the Mob; but so great a Number of People pressing against the Rails, they suddenly broke down, by which Means he made his Escape; for near thirty of them look’d as much like Pickpockets as he did.’

This device was also known as the ‘scold’s chair’, with the word ‘scold’ referring to a woman who was noisy, disruptive and argumentative. Men who were noisy, disruptive and argumentative (and I know plenty) never ended up in the ‘scold’s chair’, yet if they committed wrongdoings, they could end up in the ‘ducking stool’. 

I’m sure you are also familiar with the ducking stool being used in the Middle Ages for women who were accused of being witches. But when they realised that being tied to a chair and ducked proved nothing, instead, they tethered the poor woman’s hands to her feet and threw her into the pond. If she floated it meant she was a witch, and therefore was doomed to die. If she sank, then of course she was innocent, but by the time they hauled her out she was usually already dead. 

The chair would also be used for women who had been found guilty of selling sex, or of having an illegitimate child. The men who availed themselves of the sexual services, or who impregnated a woman, were never held to account, and that attitude was one that prevailed until very recently. But most of us now appreciate that it was usually desperation and hunger that drove women to sell their bodies, and unmarried women were often raped by their powerful employers which resulted in pregnancy.

In my dad’s column from 18th October 1980, he illustrates how badly society treated women when he discusses the origins of the term ‘outlaw’. Someone who had committed a crime was judged to be outside of the law and devoid of any human rights at all. If he died, his children would not have any claim to his estate as he officially didn’t exist. However, as my dad explains, women would never be considered outlaws ‘for the simple reason that the law considered a woman too insignificant to worry about.’ 

Thankfully, my dad was more enlightened than many of his own generation, so much so that he cooked for the family once a week and always did the washing up. 

Read more at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaughter

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 16th October and the Gazette & Herald on 14th October 2020

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