When Were Ducking Stools in Use?
Ducking stools first came into use as a punishment for women at the beginning of the 17th Century and were used in England as late as the beginning of the 19th. They were both instruments of public humiliation and censure primarily for the offense of scolding or back biting and less often for sexual offenses like bearing an illegitimate child or prostitution.
A ducking stool was a wooden armchair fastened to the end of a long wooden beam fixed like a seesaw on the edge of a river or pond. Sometimes it was mounted on wheels so that it could be pushed through the streets.
The stool was used to punish nagging wives, witches and prostitutes. An iron band kept the victim from falling out of the chair when it was plunged under the water. It was the duty of magistrate to order the number of ducking a woman should be given.
The stools were technical devices which formed part of the wider method of law enforcement through social humiliation. A common alternative was a court order to recite one’s crimes or sins after Mass or in the market place on market day or informal action such as a Skimmington ride.
They were usually of local manufacture with no standard design. Most were simply chairs into which the offender could be tied and exposed at her door or the site of her offence. Some were on wheels like a tumbrel that could be dragged around the parish. Some were put on poles so that they could be plunged into water, hence “ducking” stool. Stocks or pillories were similarly used for punishment of men or women by humiliation.
The term “cucking-stool” is older, with written records dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries. Written records for the name “ducking stool” appear from 1597, and a statement in 1769 relates that “ducking-stool” is a corruption of the term “cucking-stool”. Whereas a cucking-stool could be and was used for humiliation with or without ducking the person in water, the name “ducking-stool” came to be used more specifically for those cucking-stools on an oscillating plank which were used to duck the person into water.
Yet another type of ducking-stool was called a tumbrel. It was a chair on two wheels with two long shafts fixed to the axles. This was pushed into the pond and then the shafts released, thus tipping the chair up backwards. Sometimes the punishment proved fatal and the victim died of shock.