Life and Death in the Pillory


When you think of old prisons, Dickensian images of Newgate and the Marshalsea, hard labour, the treadmill and other miseries come to mind.  As it turns out, perhaps surprisingly, well into the Victorian age a prison sentence was not favoured as a form of punishment. Prisons were viewed primarily as  holding centres either for those who were awaiting execution, or  for those waiting to be transported.


After sentencing, executions generally happened quickly. The 1752 Murder Act decreed that the guiilty should be kept in chains, fed on bread and water and executed within 48 hours. There were no hearty breakfasts and little time to discover that the authorities had got the wrong man. Oh dear, never mind!

Those destined for transportation had to wait for the next ship to be available. Originally they were carried off to America and when the colonists had the audacity to declare themselves independent, felons were shipped to Australia instead.  The practice continued right until 1868.


So what of all those other petty criminals and sneak thieves, cheats and drunkards?  In 1810 there were a mind blowing 222 catagories incurring the death penalty on the Statute Books. By 1832 one could no longer be hanged for horse-stealing, forgery, coining, arson, burglary, rape or attempted murder. Instead, lesser punishments such as transportation, whipping, branding, and of course the stocks and the pillory were put to full use.


Pillories were set up in any public place and were intended to cause the occupant maximum humiliation. Invariably a notice was attached to the frame informing the crowd which crime the offender had committed. Often a considerable ceremony accompanied the event, a trumpet blowing and a series of officers, constables and a surgeon in attendance. The surgeon’s purpose will be revealed later.

 Unfortunately, being jeered at and pelted with a few squashy tomatoes was the least of one’s worries. The undeserving poor, with little enough opportunity to make their feelings known, frequently gave full vent to all those inequalities suffered in every day life. The Derby Mercury of January 30, 1740 reported how one felon, Darby Colfield had been convicted and ordered to stand in the pillory for “Cursing His Majesty and saying he could raise enough of his Countrymen that would blow him up”.  He duly stood at Gloverstone and was “severely pelted by the mob”- perhaps a timely reminder to keep one’s thoughts to oneself!

The Morning Herald,  January 28, 1803 recounted how Thomas Scott, having falsely accused Captain Kennah of robbery, stood in the pillory at Charing Cross for one hour where he was greeted by a large, unruly mob who threw rotten eggs, filth and dust from the streets and dead cats, rats etc which had been collected by the local boys that morning.

This was nothing compared to the fate of John Waller.  In 1732  he had profited by ‘swearing away the lives of innocent People’ and was sentenced to stand in the pillory on a charge of perjury. In effect he had become a professional witness. As he was pinioned, a man named Edward Dalton leapt onto the platform, tore him from the pillory and beat him to death in front of the crowd. Dalton had good reason to attack for his brother had been falsely accused of robbery by Waller and had been executed. Waller was not a popular man and despite the hundreds of witnesses to his demise, his death was attributed to persons unknown.   


In 1725,the Weekly Mercury of August 7 let it be known that John Brown, butler, and Christopher Richardson, gardener, had been found guilty of trying to poison William Coatsworth, their Master “by putting Arsenick in his Chocolate”. Their various punishments decreed that: “Every 10th day of June they are to be whipt ten times about the Market Place, being the day when they attempted to poyson their Master and every Saturday after the Session of the Peace, to stand in the Pillory”.  

The Newcastle Courant of June 21 1729 complained that when John Clark and Robert Knell stood at the Royal Exchange: “No inscription in Writing on the Pillory signifyed for what crime they stood”.  The journal added that “The pillory was so open that they were very little confined and had money and wine given to them plentifully and which was much taken”.

 The pillory gave scant attention to the shape or size of the occupant. The Stamford Mercury, August 7 1723 carried the following a short item: “the Coroner’s inquest having Sate on the Body of John Middleton,… who made his Exit upon the Pillory on Tuesday last at Charing Cross, brought in the verdict that he was accidentially strangled”.  Other news sheets printed further details. Like Scott and Waller above, he had  committed perrjury and he went to the pillory “drunk and swearing that he had rather be hang’d than be so exposed. When he got up, he was pelted by the Mob as usual.  Some think he suffocated with too much liquor: Others say, that by kicking off the Stool he stood upon, he hang’d himself. ”  Administering ‘First Aid’, it seems that “Proper Means were used for recovering, such as Bleeding, Chafing, etc, but all prov’d ineffectual”. He was buried in nearby St Martin’s in the Fields.


In the image above, the miscreant has to suffer the additional discomfort of having a whetstone hung about his neck, this putting pressure on his head and shoulders. Standing thus for an hour must have been unbearable.

If perjurers were unpopular with the crowd, that was nothing compared to the violence perpetrated again homosexual men.  The Gazette of April 17 1780 reported that “Last night, an Inquisition was taken on the body of the Coachman who died at the Pillory on Monday at St Margaret’s Hill.  After a Close Examination of several of the Officers and others, it appeared that Reed, turning round rather farther than usual, and the Deceased being just then Seized with a Giddiness and Fainting from the Severity he received from the Populace, lost the strength of his legs and hung by the Head.  The Jury brought in the Verdict: Strangled in the Pillory.”

At Bristol on September 17 1737 (Newcastle Courant), “Thomas Hull and Robert Rawlins stood at the Pillory in Wine Street, pursuant to their Sodomitical Practices, but never were two Wretches worse pelted, especially old Hull, who was stunned several times and so deprived of his Senses that he hung some time by the wrists in the Iron Handcuffs  of the Pillory, after which the Men pulled down his Breeches and continued to pelt him with such Fury that had not the Pillory broke down, tumbling him over Head and Heels into the Street, and a Magistrate and some Constables intervened, they certainly would have been killed on the spot. Hull was carried on a Man’s back to Newgate where he lay Speechless for some Time and was thought past recovery till the Monday following.

Similarly, two men, York Horner and Robert Whale were displayed at Charing Cross for keeping a “House for the Entertainment of Sodomites… They were so ladderedwith dung and dirt that they appeared like Bears [and] if the Populace had been suffered to exert their desired Resentments the vile Criminals must have made their Exit on the Spot.” As it was, “They were relieved from further punishments but were to stand again the Monday folowing at the Royal Exchange.”

Female Gamblers in the Pillory (Richard Newton 13 May 1796)

Women were not immune from the pillory. Mostly they were charged with prostitution, while the crime of procurement and running a bawdy house brought the worst reaction.  Whether is was her real name or not, Margaret Clap stood for keeping a disorderly House for the Entertainment of Sodomites. Despite her defence that being a woman, “it could not be thought that she would ever be concern’d with such abominable Practices,’ she was still found guilty.

The Northampton Mercury  July 7 1783, reported that a woman was pilloried in Oxford Street being found guilty of “stealing children and stripping them” – presumably to re-sell their clothes.She stood again the following day and “is to stand Every Day there is an Execution for twelve Months”  – no doubt adding to the entertainment.

Saunders News Letter from Dublin, July 29 1777 carried an intriguing snippet: “Yesterday a Woman stood in the Pillory at Charing Cross for going in Mens clothes, marrying three Women and obtaining a sum of Money from Each. 


Returning to the presence of a surgeon, the following account graphically describes his role. About noon on June 21 1720, Japhet Crook, alias Sir peter Strange stood in the pillory at Charing Cross. He was accused to forging the deeds of 200acres of prime land at Clacton on Sea.  During his time in the pillory he joked with the crowd who did not pelt or revile him. After the hour was up, a chair was produced and Crook seated himself in it  The hangman then produced a pruning knife and cut off both his ears upon which, the Surgeon “clap’d a systic thereon.”  The surgeon then took a pair of scissors and cut through the left nostril twice before it was through.  He then did the same to the right nostril. A hot iron was then produced and the left wound seared after which, Crook was in such pain that the right was left to bleed. Because of his courage, he was taken to the nearby Ship’s Tavern before returning to gaol.

The pillory was used for the last time on July 24 1834.

2 thoughts on “Life and Death in the Pillory

  1. Fascinating facts about pillories, Jan, none of which I knew. We have stocks quite close to me at Brading and I shall look at them with a different eye now. Previously, I had supposed they just held miscreants who got pelted with the odd tomato or piece of rotten fish. You’ve given me a whole new outlook on crime and punishment in the 16th and 17th centuries.

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