They’re something that nightmares are made or – straight from a 1960s Hammer horror film – but ducking stools are fetching big money, it would appear.
One, an aged oak contraption that last saw the light of day centuries ago when some unfortunate old lady was strapped to it and dunked unceremoniously in a local pond, , was taken from its resting place in a parish church in Staffordshire, and presumably re-emerged somewhere in the heart of the USA. Perhaps an oil tycoon, or maybe a movie star, had a penchant for instruments of torture: who knows?
The then Vicar of the 800 years old St Edward the Confessor church in the market town of Leek certainly felt that the priceless object that had been carefully polished and preserved by his parishioners had been stolen to order and said that police presumed it had been transported to America.
The Reverend Matthew Parker told the local newspaper at the time that the local constabulary did not think it would have remained in the UK as it would have easily been identified and had, in all probably, crossed the Atlantic.
These ducking or cucking stools are part of the fabric of our history and traces of this barbaric beast remain to this day. A much larger contraption than the one at Leek can be found at Leominster, Herefordshire and was last used in 1809. There is part of a ducking device in the crypt of the Collegiate College of St Mary, Warwick and another in Canterbury.
The Mediaeval poem Piers Plowman refers to one as being used for wyuen pine or women’s punishment, although men could sometimes find themselves strapped to the device and publicly humiliated. Publicans who sold bad ale, bakers who sold bad bread were placed in the stool or chair and couples who were continually bickering and fighting found themselves tied back to back and ducked.
Cucking comes from cuckold – a nagging or gossiping wench – and is mentioned in the Doomsday book as being in use at Chester. However, some what have it that the term originates from the word cukken meaning to defecate. Perhaps that is what the poor unfortunates did when faced with the prospect of the torture! The Encyclopaedia Britannica said originally the chair was a commode or toilet and points out that more often than not the occupant of the chair died from drowning or heart failure from fright.
In a town just up the road from Leek there is still evidence of where this was carried out. Neighbouring Macclesfield has a street still named Cuckstoolpit Hill, originating from when a pool was dug adjacent to the River Bollin that flows westwards through there, and obviously was where cucking or ducking took place.
But that town, along with others, houses a Scold’s Bridle, an iron contraption place over the victim’s head and thereby holding her tongue to the floor of her mouth. Variety is the spice of life, it must be presumed. It can be seen at the borough’s West Park museum.