I know. It’s been a while. You don’t know what I did this summer but I’d quite like to confess. There have been visits to gibbets, wells, shrines, mausoleums, derelict churches, ruined abbeys, tunnels and places with names which sound a bit rude. It’s less about serious history and more about a series of stories told by the landscape that surrounds us. Sometimes you have to listen very carefully to hear them (especially over the sound of my friend Jacky eating crisps), sometimes they shout in your face via an interpretation board funded by the parish council. If you’re sitting comfortably*, then I’ll begin by sharing** evidence from some of the crime related activities we’ve been getting up to.
*unlike another friend Eddie the time we visited an old priory and had to stick him in the back of a van
**unlike Jacky with her crisps
Once upon a time, there was a little girl called Katie. When she grew up she wanted to be Mavis Cruet from Willo the Wisp. For a short while, she lived in Coleshill in North Warwickshire and almost everyday she’d walk past the town’s pillory. At the time she didn’t realise that it was a rare example combining three methods of corporal punishment i.e. stocks, a pillory AND a whipping post, and was last used in 1863, but she was curious all the same.
Many years passed and in August 2016, Katie was visiting her parents in Stone in Staffordshire when she turned off too early towards Hilderstone. This was in no way down to her lack of navigational skills, there was a tree obscuring the ‘Hilder’ bit of the sign. Around the corner was a patch of grass with a set of stocks.
Stocks just after Hilderstone turning on A51 near Stone
Despite extensive research (doing a google search), she couldn’t find any information on them. Katie hadn’t grown up to be Mavis Cruet, but she had continued to be curious. How many more sets of stocks were there around the country? Had anyone ever recorded them? Who had been publicly humiliated and punished here and what were the reasons? Our towns and cities are filled with monuments to the so-called great and good of society. Are these our monuments to those considered petty and bad who lived on its fringes? And so, after musing over these thoughts with friend Patti who already had a knowledge of and interest in this area, they decided to set up a discussion group called ‘Offending Histories’, with the aim of finding remaining physical evidence of crime and punishment across the Midlands and telling the sort of stories in which no one lives happily. Ever after or otherwise.
In just a month, we’ve already started to record a fascinating range of sites and objects. Here are some samples of the more local examples.
The old gaol cells in Lichfield have an example of a scold’s bridle or brank on display. There’s an excellent article from the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic exploring the history of these vile items here. Of particular interest is the following reference, “In 1789, the brank was used in Lichfield. A local farmer enclosed a woman’s head “to silence her clamorous Tongue” and led her round a field while boys and girls “hooted at her” “Nobody pitied her because she was very much disliked by her neighbours.”
Outside St Michael’s church is the relocated headstone of the last three men to be executed in the city. On 1st June 1810, Neve, Jackson & Weightman were taken by cart from the city gaol & publicly hanged for forgery at the city gallows (where Tamworth St, Upper St John St & the London Road cross). Interesting that at some point, the word ‘hanged’ appears to have been obliterated from the monument. Although this appears to be the only marker to executed criminals buried here, the church register records the names of others e.g. John Wilson on Sept 23rd 1583 and, John Walle and Robert Hodgson described as prisoners executed and buried on 13 October 1587.
At St Peter’s in Elford, Patti pointed out this example of a sanctuary knocker on a door dating to circa 1450AD. By touching the knocker, a fugitive from the law could be given sanctuary in the church for a period of time (this seems to have been forty days which is a nice biblical number) . If they made it that far. One example given by Karl Shoemaker in his book ‘Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages’ tells of Elyas, a chaplain imprisoned in Staffordshire to await trial for murder, who ‘killed the gaoler’s attendant, escaped from the prison & fled towards the church’. The gaoler & others from Staffordshire pursued him and cut off his head before he could reach the church’. Another example comes from Colton History Society – in 1270 Nicholas son of William De Colton stabbed Adam, son of Hereward in a brawl and fled to the church where he took sanctuary. Claiming sanctuary was officially abolished in 1623.
The Bilstone Gibbet Post, Leicestershire. Erected in March 1801 to display the body of local man John Massey, executed for murdering his wife Lydia and attempting to murder his step- daughter. Massey’s headless skeleton, wrapped in chains, remained hanging from the post for seventeen years, his skull apparently being used as a candle holder in a pub in Atherstone. In the early twentieth century, the post was a venue for religious meetings but today, there are rumours of more unusual behaviour taking place here.
Pillory outside the Cock Inn at Stowe by Chartley. Appears to have been relocated here at some point as not shown on early 19thc photographs of the pub
It is a dark subject at times but there are lighter moments too. Currently providing wry amusement is the question of how, and indeed why, was a seventeenth century cucking stool stolen from the church of St Edward at Leek? A meta-criminal mastermind at work? It’s very much an ongoing exploration and if you are interested or better yet, have something to contribute, and aren’t offended by an element of gallows humour, please do join our Offending History group here