What Were the Stocks & Why Were They Used?

Village stocks were a standard part of the criminal justice system of historic Britain.

Installed across the cities, villages and towns of the UK, stocks acted as a deterrent to committing minor offences and a punishment for the less severe crimes throughout British history.

Unlike many other forms of corporal punishment, stocks encouraged spectator involvement and relied heavily on the element of humiliation as opposed to physical pain or torture. 

Everything from public drunkenness to demanding higher wages could land medieval Britons a stint in the stocks.

These historic means of medieval punishment played a part in government attempts to halt economic upward mobility of the poor, and were used for controlling the activities of the population.

Everything from engaging in petty thievery to religious missteps such as disobeying the Sabbath could end with time in the stocks.

The Stocks at Belstone in Dartmoo
The Stocks at Belstone in Dartmoor, so special that they are a Grade II listed monument.

While no longer used, the stocks were never officially banned as a form of punishment in the UK.

While many stocks were lost to time, there are still some examples that have been preserved in towns and villages across Britain. 


Pillory Vs Stocks

It is not uncommon for stocks to be confused with the pillory. While somewhat related forms of punishment, they are distinctly different devices.

Both were made of either wood or metal and relied on physical discomfort and elements of humiliation as their primary way to inflict punishment and deter repeat engagement in criminal activity.

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Unlike the stocks, offences that could result in perpetrators being placed in the pillory were restricted to perjury and subornation in the early 1800s. 

The key difference between the stocks and pillory was which body parts were restrained.

In the stocks only the feet, or less commonly  the hands, were trapped in the device. The pillory, however, was slightly more severe, trapping the head and the hands in the device.

The pillory. To pillory someone refers to the punishment of putting them in a pillory, which involved clapping their neck and hands into a frame so they were forced to bend forward.


This meant that for someone facing a stint in the pillory they were forced to have their back hunched at an uncomfortable angle and they were unable to sit while restrained.

In the stocks, those restrained were unable to stand. However, aside from largely not being able to move their legs, as knee and ankle mobility was restricted, movement of the rest of the body was largely uninhibited. 

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Much like the stocks, taunting and throwing things at those restrained in the pillory was encouraged and they were erected in areas that would attract the largest amount of spectators.

Pillories were even, at times, constructed on raised platforms to increase their prominence and inflict greater humiliation on those that were placed in them.

Village stocks in Bramhall, England.
Village stocks in Bramhall, England. I would imagine this was a posed shot. Also note the boot heels of the gentleman on the right, Stocks, unlike the pillory or pranger, restrain only the feet.

Other forms of punishment were also occasionally inflicted on people in the pillories, including shaving their head, and more severely, branding. There is even one noted case of an ear being chopped off. 

England abolished the pillory, except for perjury and subornation, in 1816, and, for one hour on June 22, 1830, the perjurer Peter James Bossy was the last to stand in the pillory at the Old Bailey. The pillory was finally abolished in Britain in 1837 ~ britannica com

A Psychological Punishment 

Although not as serious as many other forms of corporal punishment in historic Britain, village stocks were designed to be uncomfortable and humiliating.

Having either the hands or feet trapped in the stocks meant that criminals couldn’t move for extended periods of time.

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Those facing time in the stocks were exposed to the elements, sometimes having to withstand extreme cold or heat, and it was not uncommon for other villagers to throw rotten fruit and vegetables at those confined.

village stocks
Stocks in the churchyard of St Mary’s church, Honley, West Yorkshire. You will often see stocks outside of churches, the reason being is that the church was the focal point of the village, thus giving the maximum humiliation.

In a time when breaking the law often ended with execution, stocks were reserved for relatively low grade criminal behaviour.

Acts of public drunkeness, fighting and generally disturbing the peace of village life were offences that were likely to land medieval townsfolk a stint in the stocks.

At one point it was even ordered that ‘unruly artisans’ must endure time in the stocks.

Other crimes that could land villagers in the stocks included shopkeepers swindling customers, servants behaving in an unruly manner, petty thievery and breaking the Sabbath. 

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However, despite its uncomfortableness, the stocks acted more as psychological punishment rather than a physical one.

The concept behind them was to publicly shame perpetrators for their actions as a means to deter repeat offences and discourage others from engaging in minor criminal acts. 

Flowers, Stones and Rotten Vegetables 

Passersby were encouraged to further torment those in the stocks through actions as such throwing rotten vegetables at them and removing their shoes to tickle their feet.

People were also spat on and ridiculed, and in some cases even hit or kicked while in the stocks.

However, this public form of punishment did not always go to plan. This was particularly the case for those in the community that were particularly well liked or that had committed an offence that the public largely agreed with.

village stocks
Acts of public drunkeness, fighting and generally disturbing the peace of village life were offences that were likely to land medieval townsfolk a stint in the stocks

For the well liked that found themselves in the stocks, there are tales of them being brought food and water and being showered with flowers rather than pelted with rotten vegetables. 

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While on rare occasions those restrained in the stocks found a kinder crowd, there were also occasions that things turned even more ugly.

Accounts tell of passers-by and spectators throwing stones, glass and other dangerous objects at people facing the punishment of the stocks.

In some places rules were even enacted that stated that people were only permitted to throw ‘soft materials’ at those stuck in the stocks.

A Part of Village Life 

While stocks have been in use for over a thousand years, it was in 1405 that every village in England was ordered to implement their own set of stocks.

As well as being part of the criminal punishment systems, stocks represented a distinct status symbol for historic towns.

Stocks became such an integral part of society that if a village didn’t have its own set of stocks, it could only be referred to as a hamlet rather than a village, as such having a set of stocks became a point of local pride. 

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This element of status for a village, as well as the element of humiliation for offenders, meant that stocks were displayed prominently in towns across Britain. 

The Poor, Homeless, and Unemployed

Life could be hard for those at the bottom of the economic ladder in historic Britain, and even without engaging in criminal activities, they could find themselves in the stocks. 

The Statute of Labourers enacted in the mid-fourteenth century and requiring every village to have their own set of stocks was,in many ways, created to try and halt economic mobility among the lower classes.

In response to labour shortages in the wake of the Black Death, many workers demanded better wages, which in turn allowed them to escape the cycle of poverty they had been trapped in for generations.

To combat this, part of the Statute included that any person demanding of offering higher wages could face up to three days in the stocks. 

Village stocks on the green in the village of Sturminster Marshall
Village stocks on the green in the village of Sturminster Marshall, Dorset.

By the late 1400s, the Vagabonds and Beggars Act, passed during the reign of Henry VII, was in force. The act was part of a set of laws that arose in this period and are often viewed as deliberate acts to target the poor.

The Vagabonds and Beggars Act stated that vagabonds and the idle were to spend three days and three nights in the stocks with nothing but bread and water.


After they had completed their time in the stocks, circumstances did not get much better for the homeless and unemployed. The act stated that after they were released from the stocks they were then to be evicted from the town, often furthering the hardship those at the bottom of the economic ladder were already facing.  

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By the mid 1500s, things weren’t looking much brighter for the wandering homeless and the poor.

Beggars that didn’t have a licence to do so and those classed as vagrants that were caught begging, were either whipped, or placed in the stocks. Afterwhich, they would then be sent back to the village of their birth.

In the 1600s, it was declared that those convicted of drunkenness would have to endure six hours in the stocks.

Those considered to be a drunkard would face four hours in the stocks, and even being caught swearing meant an hour suffering in the stocks, or the payment of a fine. 

The Stocks Today 

During the eighteenth century the use of the stocks declined and the last account of the stocks being used in Britain is thought to have taken place in Newcastle Emlyn in 1872. Interestingly though, unlike the pillory which was abolished in the mid 1800s, the use of the stocks was never actually banned.

The Village Stocks, Wimborne St Giles
The Village Stocks, Wimborne St Giles II listed structure. 18th century, of oak construction with iron fittings. The stocks are protected by a 20th century timber shelter. Credit: Mark Wolstenholme

In more recent years, there was even a bid to have stocks reinstated in the Oxfordshire village of Thame, albeit not for criminal punishment purposes, but to attract tourism and to raise money for charitable causes. 

Being largely constructed of wood, many of the stocks that were once in use have since rotted away. However, there are some examples that still remain in villages in Hertfordshire, Derbyshire, and Warwickshire. 

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The stocks were a standard system of punishment for minor offences throughout British history.

They were representatives of a time when corporal punishment, even for minor offences, was implemented as a way of controlling and subduing the population.

They acted as a deterrent for criminal behaviour, combining elements of public humiliation and physical discomfort to discourage minor public disturbances.

Stocks were used as a device to try and limit social economic movement and to persecute those that society deemed undesirable.

While the use of village stocks declined in more recent centuries, there is no doubt that they formed a significant part of the criminal justice system of historic Britain.