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The Last Ducking in England

An infamous relic of the past lies in a corner of the Priory church in the Herefordshire town of Leominster. This is one of the very few surviving examples of a genuine ducking or cucking stool.

The apparatus was designed specifically for pulling through the 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 placed on, often by their own front door, for all to see. 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. It was a humiliation, similar in effect to the stocks or pillory but an improvement on the old Skimmington parade or ride, where the person would literally be dragged from their home by a mob and “crowd surfed” around while the baying crowd thumped and spat at them. This “ride” ended in a dunking too.

The term “cucking stool” is derived from the original source of the stool used. It was a toilet – even worse humiliation, and the word literally meant “s***ing stool”. It's where the term sometimes used today comes from - “cack”. It is definitely not, as commonly thought, where “cuckold” developed from, even though that could be a deeply humiliated person, although the more common cuck has a different use in common internet parlance today!

The 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 plonked in the chair and hauled down to the river but due to a drought the water was too low to do more than muddy 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. It made no difference, according to local history she went straight back to hurling abuse at her neighbours and anyone else around she would probably have been the subject of an ASBO!

I have seen records of ducking stool use in Redditch, Bewdley, Upton-on-Severn 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. Another common misconception is that accused witches were ducked as a torture by which to ascertain if they really were a witch. “Swimming” a witch was a completely different event and nothing to do with cucking or ducking, the stool was definitely not used for this purpose.

If you have a Gum or Cook pond or lane near where you live, it's likely that it hosted the stool, a dark but very real part of our history, where the stool, the stocks, the pillory and the birch were ever-present reminders of England's old corporal punishment culture.

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