Generally, we think of public punishment as a relic of the past — a style of justice rendered obsolete by the development of the modern prison system which took criminal justice out of the town square and moved it behind bars. But this week, Thame town councillor David Bretherton has discovered that although public punishments have fallen out of favor over the past 200 years, they haven’t been entirely scrubbed from the legal code.
And since it’s perfectly legal, Bretherton thinks that his Oxfordshire town should bring back the stocks.
According to Bretherton’s research, not only are the stocks still a legal form of criminal punishment in the United Kingdom, a 15th century law — which does not seem to have ever been repealed — actually requires that each town has their own set. An announcement posted to the Thame Town Council’s website explains that the Statute of Labours [sic] of 1405 requires “every town and village to maintain a set of stocks in which to punish vagabonds, layabouts and drunkards.” Towns found in violation of the statute would “be downgraded to a hamlet and would lose its right to hold a market or fair.”
The law uncovered by Bretherton is likely the 1405 Statute of Labourers, an update to a 1351 statute that authorized placing troublesome laborers in the stocks. The 1351 law, which included other draconian decrees such as a maximum wage for laborers and limitations on the movement of labor, was part of the Crown’s effort to rein in soaring wages following the shortage of laborers created by the Black Death. In Olde Nottingham Punishments, historian Ian Morgan confirms that the 1405 statute instituted penalties for towns who did not have stocks, noting that the town of Everton was fined under the statute in 1653.
In fact, punishment via public shaming played a major role in British justice for several hundred years, actually becoming more common as time passed. As Matthew White explains for the British Library, public punishments reached a peak in the United Kingdom in the 18th century under the “bloody code,” which listed over 200 crimes punishable by public execution. Eighteenth century criminal justice focused heavily on deterring criminal activity as professional law enforcement was minimal, with many constables and magistrates serving as unpaid volunteers. Public punishment — such as locking someone up in the stocks and pelting them with rotten eggs—was viewed as an effective way to deter others from committing similar crimes and routinely practiced around the country.
By the beginning of the 19th century, however, public punishment began to fall out of favor; according to Ian Morgan, Nottingham’s last use of the stocks occurred in 1808 and a 2014 article in the Express claims the stocks haven’t been used anywhere in the U.K. since 1872. But while the pillory was officially banned in 1837, use of the stocks apparently remains legal to this day.
And that, of course, is where Bretherton’s bold idea for a Thame tourist attraction comes in. The councillor isn’t suggesting a return to public shaming as normalized legal practice, however — Bretherton has instead taken inspiration from anecdotes of light-hearted and unusual punishments to suggest that the stocks could be put to similar use for charitable purposes.
“I thought it could be a nice idea to get some publicity for the town,” Bretherton told the Oxford Mirror.
“Sometimes what they used to do was take off their shoe and tickle them with a feather. Perhaps for charity we could do something like that, get people in the stocks and have others donate money for the time they last while having their feet tickled,” he added.
The Thame Town Council is currently seeking public input on Bretherton’s proposal, and residents are encouraged to call, email, or tweet the Council to voice their support. And if they’re opposed to the idea, they could publicly shame the effort instead.