When Authorities Dunked Outspoken Women in Water

In early modern England, women accused of being “common scolds” were immersed in rivers and lakes while strapped to contraptions known as ducking stools

Drawing of a woman being dragged to a ducking stool at a river in Ipswich, Suffolk, around 1600
Drawing of a woman being dragged to a ducking stool at a river in Ipswich, Suffolk, around 1600 Photo by Hulton Archive / Getty Images

“Duck the scold! Duck the scold!”

If local legend is to be believed, these are the words that Jenny Pipes heard as she was paraded through the English town of Leominster in 1809. Strapped with irons to a wooden chair, she was held high above the crowd and wheeled toward Kenwater Bridge. Though it probably would have been of little comfort to her, Pipes was about to make history by becoming the last woman in England to be “ducked,” or immersed in water while tied to an apparatus known as a ducking stool. Her crime was simple: She was a common scold, accused of speaking ill of her husband once too often.

Pipes’ tormentors tied her chair to the end of a long, maneuverable wooden arm—the preferred mechanism for dipping troublesome women in water. Like other ducking victims, she was sentenced to be plunged as many times as needed to “cool her immoderate heat,” in the words of French writer Francois Misson. The punishment wasn’t designed to be fatal (though it sometimes was), but rather a humiliating spectacle aimed at discouraging whatever behavior precipitated it. Ducked in full view of her friends, family and neighbors, Pipes ended her ordeal by unleashing “oaths and curses on the magistrates,” according to one eyewitness.

An anti-suffrage postcard featuring a ducking stool
An anti-suffrage postcard featuring a ducking stool Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Records of Pipes’ ducking are few and far between, a mixture of local folk history and short passages in history books. What is known is that she was a woman of limited financial means who likely worked in the local wool-based industry. And her public humiliation was far from unique: Between the mid-16th and early 19th centuries, an untold number of women in England (as well as Scotland and colonial America) underwent ducking as a punishment for speaking out of turn. Largely forgotten today, the practice speaks to the lengthy history of policing women’s voices—a trend that continues today.

“There were various rituals for silencing women,” says Marion Gibson, a scholar of Renaissance and magical literature at the University of Exeter. “They have their roots in fear of women's speech and fear that women will attack other people in their community, that they gossip too much, that their voices are dangerous, that they may, in extreme circumstances, also be witches.”

Though the women who ended up on the ducking stool risked being accused of witchcraft, the punishment—contrary to popular misconception—wasn’t used to determine whether someone was a witch. A separate test, known primarily as “swimming” a witch, involved throwing a bound victim into a body of water to see whether they’d float (a sure sign of guilt in the early modern imagination). Subjects who sank were deemed innocent but could still wind up dead if they weren’t rescued from the water in time.

A 1910 reenactment of a ducking in Leominster
A 1910 reenactment of a ducking in Leominster Courtesy of Leominster Museum

“Ducking a scold is a punishment. Swimming a suspected witch is a test,” says Gibson. “It’s a different part of the process.”

Still, the scholar adds, both practices involve “throwing women into water in order to harass them in some way. … It’s misogynist, and it’s vile.”

Ducking stools were also distinct from cucking stools, which an 18th-century writer in Cornwall described as “a seat of infamy, where strumpets and scolds, with bare feet and head, were condemned to abide the derision of those that passed by.” The two terms are often used interchangeably, but cucking stools represented a less severe punishment, as victims weren’t dunked in water. While ducking was reserved largely for women, cucking stools were used to punish both men and women.

Few records about the women who were ducked survive. Much more information is available about the ducking stools themselves: their upkeep, how much was spent on their construction. In the borough of Barnsley in South Yorkshire, for example, parish accounts show nine entries for repairs of two stools between 1703 and 1737. The frequency of these repairs suggests the stool was in regular use—a supposition supported by William Andrews’ 1899 book Bygone Punishments, which details the history of ducking stools and similarly obsolete devices, from the Scottish Maiden to the drunkard’s cloak.

Illustration of a woman being ducked
Ducking wasn't intended to be fatal, but overzealous authorities sometimes botched the punishment. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In towns and villages across England, authorities kept ducking stools close at hand. Typically consisting of a wooden or iron chair fastened to a beam from which the victim could be lowered into and raised out of the water, the seesaw-like contraptions were often mounted on wheels. Some communities stored them out of sight, ready to be moved to ponds or rivers at a moment’s notice, while others proudly installed them in permanent waterside positions.

Offenses punished with ducking included prostitution, adultery and being a common scold (a continually outspoken, unruly individual). Brewers of bad beer and bakers of bad bread could also be ducked.

Women accused of being scolds caused problems with their neighbors or were considered verbally aggressive, says James Sharpe, a historian at the University of York. The term “scold” was mainly applied to women, with men found guilty of similar transgressions undergoing different punishments.

“Scolding in this period implied a range of disruptive behavior,” Sharpe adds. “There was the notion of the common scold, and that is somebody who’s a habitual offender.”

Communities also used ducking stools as deterrents. If a woman was deemed disruptive, she might wake up one morning to find a ducking stool leaning against her door, placed there on the orders of local authorities. In England, the crime of being a common scold remained on the books until 1967.

At the end of April 1745, in the market town of Kingston-upon-Thames, Mary Stemp was strapped into a chair at Kingston Bridge, where a jeering crowd of some 2,000 to 3,000 people stood waiting. The London Evening Post didn’t give her name, simply identifying her as the keeper of the Queen’s Head alehouse. Found guilty of scolding by the court, Stemp was ducked in the River Thames, perhaps being wheeled through town first. She was likely stripped down to a shift-like undergarment before being plunged into the polluted water that travels through the nearby city of London.

Stemp’s ducking was simultaneously a punishment and a spectacle—a public warning to both the victim and observers who might otherwise follow in her footsteps.

An illustration of a woman being ducked
Ducking was distinct from cucking, a punishment in which victims weren't dunked in water. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“There’s an element of frightening other women,” says Gibson. “… It makes other women silent, too: women who stand back, women who don’t feel able to say, ‘This is wrong,’ whose husbands maybe then turn to them and say, ‘If you don’t shut up then you’re next,’ whether in jest or not.”

Gibson adds, “If you silence one woman in that very public way, you silence all women.”

The highly visible nature of Stemp’s ducking was a calculated choice mirrored by other modes of punishment at the time. Executioners carried out brutal sentences like being burned at the stake (the fate of heretics and women found guilty of treason) or hanged, drawn and quartered (the punishment for men found guilty of treason) in full view of bloodthirsty crowds. Successful executions “pinned the public torture on to the crime itself, [establishing] from one to the other a series of decipherable relations,” wrote philosopher Michel Foucault in his seminal 1975 book Discipline and Punish.

Ducking, in comparison, didn’t aim to punish the subject in the most torturous manner possible, but rather to humiliate them in front of their peers—a punishment that theoretically befitted the lesser crime.

Burning of Anne Askew, a Protestant martyr
Anne Askew was burned at the stake for heresy on July 16, 1546. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Most punishment in this period is public,” says Sharpe. “The whole thing is designed to be a public shaming ritual. And that’s where the impact would really lie on the person suffering.”

Still, the ducking stool could be fatal. In 1731, a woman in Nottingham was strapped into a ducking stool for immorality. Mayor Thomas Trigge allowed the mob of spectators to duck her, and they were so brutal that she died soon afterward. According to Bygone Punishments, the mayor was prosecuted for allowing the death to happen, and the town’s ducking stool was destroyed.

Sharpe points out that the ducking stool’s peak, between about 1550 and 1700, coincided with a specific phase of development in early modern England. Communities were dealing with population increases, tension over resources, and less access to land and work. These factors could have contributed to more interpersonal disputes and, subsequently, more accusations of scolding.

Though ducking was different than swimming suspected witches, the targets of both practices shared certain characteristics, says Gibson. Loud, poor and often older, they were seen as burdensome to their communities at a time when silence was viewed as a virtue—and an indicator of feminine modesty.

Cultural studies scholar Jilly Kay’s latest book, Gender, Media and Voice: Communicative Injustice and Public Speech, focuses on the contemporary silencing of women but opens with an account of Pipes, the last woman to be ducked in England. Kay grew up in Pipes’ hometown of Leominster, yet she knew very little about the ducking stool before starting her research.

“The local legend is that [Pipes] was ducked, but she just kept on shouting,” Kay says. “They were trying to silence her, but she just kept coming up and shouting abuse at the magistrates. It didn’t work. It didn’t silence her. She just kept on hurling insults at the men.”

In her book, Kay argues that demonizing women’s speech was a way of controlling them.

“Women were often really punished for challenging power, for challenging patriarchal power, and capitalist power as well,” she says. “The idea was that you were being humiliated because you are transgressing the acceptable limits of what it is to be a woman.”

An illustration of a ducking stool used in colonial Jamestown, Virginia
An illustration of a ducking stool used in colonial Jamestown, Virginia New York Public Library

Sharpe, for his part, doesn’t believe that the women ducked were silenced.

“There are so many references to women railing against the people who are ducking or [shouting] when they come out [of the water],” he says. “On balance, a lot of these women were coming out … more angry than [when] they went in.”

Pipes may hold the official title, but she wasn’t the final attempted victim of ducking in England. In 1817, Sarah Leeke was paraded through Leominster and brought to the water’s edge. She escaped ducking, but not through any change of heart on the part of the magistrates: Instead, the water was simply too low.

The names of several other ducking victims survive, but little is known about them beyond their punishment. A Mrs. Gamble was ducked in Scarborough in 1795, while Anne Saul was ducked in Leeds “for daily making strife and discord amongst her neighbors” in 1694. In Wakefield in 1671, Jane Farrett was ducked three times over the head and ears for disturbing her neighbors.

The Leominster ducking stool
The Leominster ducking stool Courtesy of Robert Walker

The ducking stool from which Pipes shouted obscenities has not been forgotten. Housed at the Leominster Priory since 1895, it was hidden away for more than a century before being moved to a prominent position in 2004. Today, the stool stands in an aisle running alongside the church pews. A prayer asking for pardon for the “pain and anguish that has been, and is still inflicted by the powerful on the weak,” appears next to it.

In Christchurch, Dorset, meanwhile, a replica ducking stool sits on the riverside next to a plaque describing it as a “means of public ridicule and humiliation.”

“People want to see ducking stools in the same way that they want to see scold’s bridles, and they want to see pillories, because they think it’s part of this long history of barbaric punishments,” Gibson says.

With a touch of irony, she asks, “Of course, we’re better than that now, aren’t we?”

When the Leominster stool was moved to its new position in the priory in 2004, locals held a service of penitence. The meeting aimed to make amends for historical injustices while also recognizing the intolerance and prejudice still pervasive today. Ducking stools like the Leominster one are reminders of the difficult women who were silenced—or who refused to be silenced.

As “The Ducking-Stool,” a 1780 poem by Benjamin West of Northamptonshire, put it, “Down in the deep the stool descends, / But here, at first, we miss our ends; / She mounts again, and rages more / Than ever vixen did before.”

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