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Village Stocks



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Stocks were already in use by the Saxon period and appear for example in the Utrecht Psalter, c. 820 AD.

They became more commonplace in Medieval England after a statute of 1351 made it law for every township to provide and maintain a set of stocks. This had been implemented as a reaction to the Black Death and the resulting movement of labour. The massive population drop and resulting scarcity of labour meant that for the first time labourers were able to demand better wages and move to other areas without fear of reprisal from landowners. The Statute of Labourers, 1351, required that any one offering or demanding high wages should be set in the stocks for up to 3 days.

A Statute of 1405 ordered that every manor should also provide stocks.

There were many crimes that could be covered by the punishment, although those related to agricultural practices continued also. A Statute dated to the 27th year of the reign of Henry VIII for example, made it law for children from 5-14 to be put to husbandry (farm work) and those who refused to work could be whipped. Anyone refusing to implement the punishment was to be set in the stocks for 2 days and fed only on bread and water.

Rogues and vagabonds were also to be stocked. One statute of 1495 required that vagabonds were set in the stocks for 3 days on bread and water and then sent away. If they returned then it was to be another 6 days in the stocks. These punishments were however seen as excessively harsh and the periods soon reduced to 1 and 3 days respectively.

Drunkards were another group for whom the stocks were a common punishment. Another Statute of 1605 required that anyone convicted of drunkenness would have six hours in the stocks and those convicted of being a drunkard (as opposed to be caught drunken) should suffer 4 hours in the stocks or a three shilling and four pence fine. A slightly later Statute made it legal to set those caught swearing in the stocks for 1 hour, if they could not pay a twelve pence fine. In actual fact the authorities preferred the offenders to pay fines as the monies were used to fund poor relief.

It was also in this period that whipping post became more common as part of the stocks. The addition was itself a reaction to rising vagrancy, due to very bad economic conditions in the late 1500s, and resulting harsh laws against vagrancy. Increasingly those moving about to seek work, ran the risk of being whipped at the post. It was also the most common punishment for petty larceny. (Theft of goods to the value of less than a shilling)

The original Statute of Labourers was not fully repealed until 1863 and so in theory it was still permissible to stock an offender until this time. Most ceased to be used by 1850, although there are a few cases from the 1870s. After this date, steps were taken by some authorities to preserve them or replace them with replicas. In other areas the stocks were simply destroyed, because they were seen to be reminders of a brutal past at a time when Victorians wanted to be seen as civilised and progressive.

It has been estimated that by the 1700s there must have been over 11,000 sets of stocks in the country but a survey in the early 1900s noted that no more than 400 sets remained.


David Tonge, Norfolk Museum Service - 2002


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