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Early Forms of Punishment

The following forms of punishment are described in a booklet by John N Merrill. The publication is titled “Punishment in Derbyshire” and the author has used examples of various forms of punishment from local Derbyshire records. Merrill lists the punishments in what he considers the most lenient to the harshest.

Stocks and Pillories. These were considered a mild form of punishment. Stocks were used as far back as Roman times. In 1351 a British Act was passed whereby stocks were to be placed in every town. Initially they were to punish those who refused to take an oath to observe the law. Eventually, they were used mainly for those who caused disturbances of the peace and those who were drunk. Pillories became popular in the 18th century. Rather than having the feet clasped as with the stocks, the pillories immobilised the head and hands.

Whips. Pillories were sometimes used as whipping posts. In 1791 whipping of females ceased.

Houses of Correction. During the reign of Elizabeth the First, it was passed that all shires have at least on House of Correction for “rogues, vagabonds and sturdy beggars”. These places were used until 1839 with the passing of the Police Act.

Gossips Bridle. An iron frame was placed over the head. It had a gag or a plate (or sometimes a sharp knife or pointed metal) which was placed in the woman’s mouth to prevent her from moving her tongue. With the bridle in place, the woman was led through the streets by an attached chain or was chained to a whipping post, and subjected to insult and degradation.

Ducking stoolDucking Stool. This was used mostly for brawling women from around 1560 to 1750. A culprit was placed on a stool attached to a wooden arm which swiveled from an upright post beside a pond. The number of duckings was usually three.

Lock-ups. These replaced the pillories and usually housed brawlers and drunkards. They were also used as overnight accommodation for prisoners being transported across the counties.

County Gaol. Although each county had its own Sheriff in 1566, not all counties had gaols until some 50 years later. They presented terrible conditions and were often riddled with disease and overcrowded. Debtors were also incarcerated in the county gaols.

Branding. In the 17th century, a convicted man could claim “Benefit of Clergy” for exemption. He had to prove to the Court that he could read and so was regarded as being a clerk. The left hand was branded with a hot iron. Branding was sometimes done on the cheek. It was abolished in 1822.

Death for witchcraft.  During the reign of James I from 1603 to 1625, it is believed that more than 3,000 witches were executed. Witch hunting became a popular sport and many protested their innocence but were hanged. It was finally abolished in 1736.

Transportation. Criminals were transported to America between 1718 and 1772 until it was halted by the American War of Independence. The establishment of a penal settlement at Botany Bay saw the beginnings of transportation here.

Judgement of Penance. Punishment was meted out to those who remained silent in the witness box. Between 1399 and 1413, under Henry IV, if a witness remained silent after being asked to answer a question a third time they were taken to a dark dungeon, laid on their backs, and a heavy iron weight was put in place. Gradual starvation followed until death occurred. In 1772 an Act was passed stating that silence assumed a verdict of guilty. In 1827 a further Act assumed that silence was a plea of not guilty.

Capital punishment. The death penalty was frequently used up to 1829. After that it was only used for crimes of murder or high treason. After 1868, executions were conducted in private rather than in public places.

Burning to Death. This brutal punishment for women who committed treason was replaced with hanging from around 1790.

Hung, drawn and quartered. Examples of this gruesome form of punishment occurred during the time when the Roman Catholic faith in England was being persecuted by Queen Elizabeth I.

Gibbet. This was also a gruesome form of punishment. Once a murderer was convicted and hung, his body was taken to the scene of the crime and hung in a gibbet, a frame specially made for the victim.


A wonderful serenity has taken possession of my entire soul, like these sweet mornings of spring which I enjoy with my whole heart. I am alone, and feel the charm of existence in this spot, which was created for the bliss of souls like mine.

I am so happy, my dear friend, so absorbed in the exquisite sense of mere tranquil existence, that I neglect my talents. I should be incapable of drawing a single stroke at the present moment; and yet I feel that I never was a greater artist than now.

When, while the lovely valley teems with vapour around me, and the meridian sun strikes the upper surface of the impenetrable foliage of my trees, and but a few stray gleams steal into the inner sanctuary, I throw myself down among the tall grass by the trickling stream; and, as I lie close to the earth, a thousand unknown plants are noticed by me: when I hear the buzz of the little world among the stalks, and grow familiar with the countless indescribable forms of the insects and flies, then I feel the presence of the Almighty, who formed us in his own image.

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