Ducking stools seem to have originated in the Elizabethan era, when the church lost most of its role in the punishment of moral misbehaviour. Initially, women were forced to sit outside their homes or were paraded through the streets, but this was replaced by public immersion. Local councils were ordered to build and maintain the machines beside ponds where women who were seen as overheated could be cooled. Images generally show older women, but the age is rarely mentioned. It is possible that some at least were suffering hot flushes of the menopause.
In 1552 the inhabitants of Edgeware were reported for not having one, and there were various reports of councils failing to provide or to maintain them. There are many cases where their husbands are mentioned, and were even allowed to control the machine as a form of mercy.
Some sources claimed it was kinder than the infamous scold’s bridle by which a metal cage with tongue was secured on the woman’s head and she was paraded round the market place on market days. If the woman resisted, she could break her teeth or even her jaw, so could become unable to eat, so this punishment could result in a slow, painful death. As such, to some, the stool was kinder. But if the woman had only a single set of clothes, this could result in a pneumonia, and death, especially in winter.
Scolding seems to have peaked after the Civil War, though it is unclear why. Was this a response to women being denied access to their social world in the prewar church? Men could go out to work, but women were more likely to have been stuck at home, so an early form of lockdown. With The Restoration and the return to something like normality, it seems some women were full of anger at all the suffering, the disruption, the loss of lives that the war had caused. It seemed this had been for nothing.
In Bristol, a new ‘machine’ was built in 1679 for £2 12 10 which suggests it had not been used during the war. It was described as:
A post was set up in the water of the Froom, at the mouth of the (Castle) ditch, under the awful frown of the Castle Walls. Across this post was placed a transverse beam, turning on a swivel, with a chair at one end of it: in which, when the culprit was properly placed, that end was turned to the stream, and let down into it, – once, twice, or thrice, according to the tender mercy, gallantry or auricular sensibility of the operators.”
The following are some examples from Bristol’s records:
7 May 1666 it is this day appearing, and being proved before us that Barbara Hall, wife of James Hall, is a common disturber of her neighbours. It is therefore ordered that the said Barbara Hall be carried to bridewell, and at 2 of the clock tomorrow, in the afternoon, be carried to the ducking stool and there ducked 3 times.
10 May It is this day appearing and being proved before us that Elizabeth Jones, wife of John Jones of Temple parish, weaver, is a common scold and disturber of her neighbours. It is therefore ordered that the said Elizabeth Jones bee carried to Bridewell, and at 2 of the clock tomorrow, in the afternoon, be carried to the ducking stool and there ducked 3 times.
19 June 1666 It appeareth to us that Margaret Adams is a common scold, and disturber of her neighbours. It is ordered that the said Margaret Adams be sent to Bridewell, and from thence carryed to ye Weare, and according to custom, ducked 3 times.
1 September 1666 Whereas, Lettice Evans, wife of John Evans, of the parish of Temple, Have been formerly ducked for a common scolde, and it being this day proved, that she still continues as a common disturber of her neighbours. It is this day ordered that the said Lettice Evans, bee this afternoon ducked three times at the usual place, according to custom
The last instance of ducking comes from 1718 under John Willoughby, Mayor.
In this Mayoralty, the ducking-stool on the Weir was used as a cure for scolding, in one particularly inveterate instance; but he husband of the lady whose ‘evil spirit’ was ‘so laid’ when the year of civic supremacy expired, brought his action of battery in behalf of his peaceful rib, before Sir Peter King, at the Guildhall, ‘and the man recovered such damages, that the ex-Mayor could not endure the mention of cold-duck any more.”
The remains of the post were still visible about the year 1785