Looking back on law and order. Punishments outweighed the crimes and there were many horrific forms of torture and death - but some would like to see the stocks brought back...

By Nub News Reporter

10th Sep 2023 | Local History

The village stocks - some would like to see them brought back!
The village stocks - some would like to see them brought back!

In the latest of her occasional articles for Nub News, Susan Yates, charir of Thurrock History Society looks back at crime and punishment


TODAY there are no crimes in the United Kingdom punishable by death.

On 20 May 1998 the House of Commons voted to ratify the 6th Protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights prohibiting capital punishment except "in time of war or imminent threat of war".

The last remaining provisions for the death penalty under military jurisdiction (including in wartime) were removed when section 21(5) of the Human Rights Act 1998 came into force on 9th November 1998.

On 10th October 2003, effective from 1 February 2004, the United Kingdom acceded to the 13th Protocol, which prohibits the death penalty in all circumstances.

This is in complete contrast to Victorian times and earlier when people were hung for what we would now consider minor offences. Crimes like going out at night with a blackened face or impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner.

Until the 1820s, there were some four hundred criminal offences which carried the death penalty including picking someone's pocket of anything worth one shilling (5p) or more and stealing anything worth £2.

Most villages had their own gallows usually situated at a cross roads like the one on Gallows Common at Aveley (the junction of Sandy Lane and Mill Road).

One of the most famous hangings in Thurrock was that of pirate William Kidd. His body was gibbeted over the River Thames at Tilbury Point, as a warning to future would-be pirates, for three years.

This was to confuse the ghost of the dearly departed so they could not re-enter the parish. Villages had their own lock-ups for petty criminals such as drunkards, vagabonds, ne'r-do-wells and petty miscreants as well as the temporary incarceration of more serious criminals awaiting transfer to prison where they might be tortured.

Orsett still has its lock-up and pound on the green in Pound Lane, although they are not in their original location which was outside Hall Farm.

The lock-up is Grade II listed and was built in the 17th/18th century. It is built of timber and was intended for no more than two people at a time and I am told it measures eight feet by five feet.

English history over the centuries is awash with tales of torture.

Women suspected of witchcraft were often tortured using the ducking stool or simply being ducked from a bridge in order to elicit a confession or to provide evidence against other women.

Prisoners put on the infamous Rack were stretched into submission or had their limbs dislocated in order to get a confession or information.

Then there was The Wheel which was used to turn a victim while their limbs were broken.

Another form of torture was The Scavenger's Daughter which was used to compress the victim so that their bones and sometimes their backs would break.

The Boots, another form of torture, were made of metal and completely encased both feet. Cold water would be poured in to one and molten lead in to the other.

The Thumbscrews are self-explanatory and consisted of a vice used on the fingers or big toes with spikes on the inside to puncture the nail as it was tightened. They were also used on witches to gain a confession.

Looking back in the old Thurrock Gazettes the cases being brought before the Grays Bench or "up before the beak" as it was known were mentioned regularly. Drunkenness and disorderly behavior were regular features for both men and women with fines of up to 10s. (50p).

Horndon on the Hill still had its village stocks in St Peter and St Paul's churchyard up to the middle of last century.

Havering Atte Bower still has its stocks situated on the village green outside the church. Stocks were used to punish people who were guilty of lesser crimes like giving short measures. They would sit, sometimes on a bench, with arms or legs and sometimes both locked in the appropriate holes for a set period.

During this time villagers would make fun of them or threw things like rotten fruit and vegetables at them.

It was a very demeaning experience.

Some people think the stocks should be brought back


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