18th Century England: the Pillory

18th Century England: the Pillory

The Pillory.

You know you’ve seen one.

I’d seen one or more too. I was somewhat familiar with the practice and the hardware involved, having grown up in New England (Salem, Mass., to be precise). And then cartoons and films to which I’d been exposed, enlightened me with their insights. But I wanted to gain a better understanding, to better tackle a scene built around a character undergoing this punishment in my first screenplay.

The pillory as a form of punishment was not new to 18th Century England. In fact, by that time, it had been in use for over five hundred years.

So what was the pillory? It consisted of a pole atop of which was fixed a pair of boards, from which cut outs had been made to create holes for the head and hands of the convicted party. These boards would be secured together, holding him or her in place. Most were constructed on top of a platform in a very public area, such as the market place in a church parish. Notable ones in London were at Charing Cross and Seven Dials. [I chose the Seven Dials area as the site for my scene.]

The objective behind the pillory was two-fold: to chastise and to warn. The English system of law at that time was called by many the “Bloody Code.” And death was the penalty for breaking most of its statutes, so one could say that a sentence to the pillory was merciful by comparison.

Set times would be announced when the miscreants were scheduled to stand in the pillory before the community they had wronged. As they were chastised in this manner, the public was notified (warned) about what the person had been up to, con-men, gambling cheats, brothel keepers, blackmailers, sexual deviants, dishonest tradesmen. For instance in the last example, a baker may have skimped on the size of his loaf or a butcher added his thumb to the scales when selling his wares.

The time in the pillory would be limited to one hour in one day, and sometimes the sentence would call for multiple appearances over a range of days at that hour. For that hour they were at the mercy of the crowd. And this is where it could turn deadly. It would all depend upon the severity of their transgression in the judgement of the crowd. Unable to defend themselves the person standing in the pillory would be pelted with eggs, vegetables, any manner of dead animals, and/or with examples of the culprit’s shoddy products. If their crime was adjudged heinous in their eyes, more deadly projectiles would fly.

The authorities kept to their responsibility of carrying out the sentence. They were not invested in protecting the individuals, after all the criminals were there for punishment. But the individuals themselves could have or hire others to protect them, and run interference.

And this aspect of the pillory became a central element in the scene I wrote, as I put my protagonist in the role of protector for another character whose crime has landed her in the pillory.


18th Century England – Gardens and the law

18th Century England

I was reading through debate histories for the English Parliament for 1789. I wanted to know what was transpiring within those august halls besides the huge and ongoing debate over the English slave trade. Though my project has a central focus on that very debate, I needed to see what were the other concerns at that time that I could allude to, to give a better feel, a completeness, a well roundedness to the overall picture.

There were always things about the British navy (one such item I used earlier in the project), investigations into the conduct of public figures (an example that may, or may not be used later), committees to decide contested elections (no example for this time), but one very likely candidate for my purposes appeared in an attempt to curb depredations upon nursery owners.

These nursery owners (of the plant, shrub and tree variety) were looking for relief from Parliament. They were situated on the outskirts of London where there was land enough to grow this flora. But their wares were consequently falling afoul to thieves who would steal these plants, or to destroyers, who would maliciously uproot them.

A law had been put in place to protect the owners twenty-three years prior to this, but the unfortunate wording of the statute was now creating problems for them and opportunities for the miscreants. The law from 1766 made these depredations against the nursery owners’ property, felony offenses. However, by its choice of words, it had limited this class of offense to “the dead of night.” So the perpetrators were crawling through the loophole thus created, and carrying out their schemes in broad daylight, or in those parts of the night that they could argue before the judge were not “the dead of the night,” which could actually mean any hour as the vague definition left too much to interpretation. The most they could be charged with was trespass, which exacted a fine that amounted to a mere pittance.

The champion for the nursery owners sought to amend the statute by replacing the phrase “dead of night” with the phrase “by day or night.” A simple enough solution one would think. But then the debates began.

Though the champion had admitted a reluctance to see more additions to the penal code, his proposal was attacked on that very count. And the member of Parliament who spoke up on that tack (Mr Sheridan, the playwright) added that he did not want to see a schoolboy made a felon for purloining from an orchard.

Another put forth the suggestion that “the dead of night” be taken out and let the statute stand “generally,” that it did not matter when so much as that the depredation was committed. To which another member countered that it indeed did matter – “Burglary and stealing in the night was a capital offense whereas stealing by day was only a single felony, because people were supposed to be capable of guarding their houses in day time.”

Then Edmund Burke weighed in with the thought that it was all the fault of the magistrates for not putting the laws into execution in the first place.

And so on for two more pages and a lapse of eight days before it was finally decided upon by a vote in the affirmative.

Not All Lords Are Equal

18th Century England

The first period of history that I have researched in any depth has been the 18th century in England. I did this to better understand and then write about two famous individuals that lived in those times. One appears as a character in my first screenplay. The second was a political figure that is the main character in a musical that I have been working on for the last twenty five years.

It is a fantastic period of time to research, interesting in so many ways. I began with biographies about the individuals, then branched out into histories, general and specific. Thankfully there are many good histories about this century (and from their indexes, leads to many more). Histories that not only cover political changes – kings and prime ministers etc., but also social ones – crime, religion, slavery, etc.

Since one of my projects has many of its scenes set in Parliament, I had to school myself in its history and workings too. As you may know Parliament is made up of two chambers: the House of Commons and the House of Lords. To the first, commoners were elected by landholders and other qualified individuals; and the second was comprised of members of the aristocracy or nobility i.e. Peers of the realm. All on the face of it easy to understand until exceptions or outright contradictions cropped up.

As I familiarized myself with the colleagues of my main character in the lower chamber I didn’t think much at first that some were titled Sir This and Lord That. Then, when reading about commoners in the House accepting a peerage, resulting in their being raised to the House of Lords, I found myself asking why were these other peers in Commons not raised also.

A bit of time passed before I discovered the answer to this mystery. We had an internet connection in those days, but it was back when search engines were in their infancy, definitely before Google. Anyway, I found the answer in my reading. It was a simple distinction. There was more than one peerage. If you were in the English peerage, you were raised to the House of Lords. If you had an Irish title, (and the ones I was curious about did), you stayed in the House of Commons. So, not all Lords were equal.