Leominster is a small town lying at the edge of Herefordshire very close to the border with Wales. Other than it being the site of two battles, one where the invading Welshmen were repelled, and one where they were victorious, there isn't a whole lot to say regarding history or folklore – but...lying against a wall inside the Priory Church is one of the very last examples still surviving of an infamous tool of judicial punishment.
The ducking, or cucking stool was used from as far back as the early 1200s until it's last outing here in Leominster in 1817. A Sarah Leeke was tied to the chair and hauled down to the village pond but due to a drought the water was too low to do more than soak her feet, so the unfortunate woman was paraded through the streets on the stool while a mob of locals jeered. It is unclear what her crime was. So an anticlimactic last dance for this olde worlde method of corporal punishment, and whether Miss Leeke knew she was it's last victim is not known. However – the last recorded full ducking using this stool or indeed any other stool in Britain, was applied to a “Jennie Pipes” a few years earlier. The misdemeanour of being “a notorious scold” earned her a full and repeated immersion in the slimy water while a crowd cheered.
This apparatus was used designed specifically for pulling through streets with the convict on display, with the ducking part of the sentence an option. Other stools were just that, a stool or chair that the person (men did suffer it too) was tied to and often placed at their own front door for all to see. It was a humiliation, similar in effect to the stocks or pillory but an improvement on the old Chivari parade or ride, where the person would literally be dragged from their home by a mob and “crowd surfed” around while the baying crowd thunped and spat at them. This “ride” ended in a dunking too. Often the subject would have to recite their name and crimes over and over while on the stationary stool or wear a sign around their neck with the same written on it.
I have read records of ducking stool use in Redditch, Bewdley and at Worcester at the end of Copenhagen Street, where it was strangely referred to during the medieval period as a “gum stool”. Here they would have used the River Severn for the dunking. Traders who sold short weight or perhaps “cut” their flour or spices with adulterants were the most common victims. Upton on Severn still has it's Gum Stool Pond – just about.
Many seem to associate witchcraft trials with the stool, in only a very few cases is there mention of it in accounts and records, the more common "swimming" method was usually used to gather "evidence" and we'll return to this subject in a later post.
When I visited the church I got the impression the old stool was shoved to the side as a nuisance but there it is, nonetheless. It's obvious there have been some repairs made to it as some of the wood doesn't match, and a cord tied around the seat deters the predictable attempts to sit in it for pictures. As a modern footnote, although I barely skimmed over the early history of Leominster earlier in this piece, a field nearby was the site of a world famous criminal case recently. The Leominster Hoard was a pile of coins and jewellery dated to the late 800s which two detectorists discovered and, rather than report the find, sold secretly to private collectors. The whole lot was valued at around £3 million but the men gained only a fraction of that and many of the pieces are lost forever as their buyers have not been traced. When the plot was reported to police the two finders along with several coin dealers were all jailed with the ringleader George Powell receiving ten years for his trouble. If they had reported the find to the PAS it would have been declared as treasure trove and sold to museums and collection within the UK with the finders receiving full market value for the coins!
Perhaps there is a case for dusting off the old ducking stool, as an added sentence for such buffoons?
Plate attached to the stool
The ducking or cucking stool at Leominster Priory Church
Mock ducking went on in the early 20th century at fairs
The archetypal image of a 17th century ducking