‘Then was the Scold herself,
In a wheelbarrow brought,
Stripped naked to the smock,
As in that case she ought:
Neats tongues about her neck
Were hung in open show;
And thus unto the cucking stool
This famous scold did go.’
When delving into the ancient customs and traditions it is easy to get side-tracked down different avenues, for instance how can one start off with sheep rustling and end up with ducking stools, easy…
Today, the long suffering husband who has ended up with a wife that has, to put it mildly, a wagging tongue, just has to grin and bear it or escape to the pub or garden shed. However, there used to be a much simpler idea – the ducking stool, in fact the early models were known as ‘cucking stools’. It has been suggested that the term derived from the word ‘cuck‘ which means to ‘void excrement’ this in turn comes from the old Norse word, ‘Kúka‘, (OED 2008, online source). This referred to the very fact that the ‘stool’ was very often a commode, hence Cukken Stool – Cucking Stool – Ducking Stool. An early author describes the terminology thus:
‘I allude to the custom of ducking scolds; which was done by suspending them over some deep water in a ducking stool, and plunging them thrice under the water. The more proper name of this engine seems to be a cucking stool, or cookstool, it was anciently called tumbrel and Trebuchet and is defined an engine for the punishment and cooling of scold and unquiet woman. In Domesday it is termed cathedra stercoris. It was much in use among our Saxon ancestors, who called it scalding stole, that is scalding stool’. An ancient law writer says, “every one having a view to frank pledge ought to have a pillory and a tumbrel.’
The whole idea was that a ‘scold’ or nagging woman would be sentenced to sit in the cucking stool and be dunked in the local pond, stream or river. The number of duckings she received depended on how sharp her tongue was but normally three or four was the norm. One style of cucking stool was described in a book of the mid 1850s:
‘The way of punishing scolding women is funny enough, they fasten an arm chair to the ends of two beams, twelve or fifteen feet long, and parallel to each other, so that these two pieces of wood with their ends, embrace the chair, which hangs between them upon a sort of axle, by which means it plays freely, and always remains in a horizontal position, that a person may conveniently sit in it, whether you raise it up of let it down. They set a post upon the bank of a pond or river, and over the post they lay almost in equilibrio, the two beams, at the ends of which, the chair hangs over the water; they place the woman in the chair, and so plunge her into the water, as often as the sentence directs, in order to cool her immoderate heat.’, (Church, 1854, p.227).
‘There stands, my friend, in yonder pool,
An engine call’d a ducking stool:
By legal pow’r commanded down,
The joy and terror of the town,
If jarring females kindle strife,
Give language foul, or lug the coif;
If noisy dames should once begin
To drive the house with horrid din,
Away, you cry, you’ll grace the stool,
We’ll teach you how your tongue to rule.
The fair offender fills the seat,
In sullen pomp, profoundly great.
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.
So, throwing water on the fire
Will make it but burn up the higher.
I so, my friend, pray let her take
A second turn into the lake,
And rather than your patience lose,
Thrice and again repeat the dose.
No brawling wives, no furious wenches,
No fire so hot but water quenches
In Prior’s skilful lines we see
For these another recipe:
A certain lady we are told,
(A lady, too, and yet a scold)
Was very much reliev’d, you’ll say,
By water, yet a different way;
A mouhful of the same she’d take,
Sure not to scold, if not to speak.
Benjamin West – 1780
All well and good, but what has all this to do with Dartmoor? Well, the additional mention of the cucking stool I first came across was the two extracts below which appeared in the Exeter Flying Post in 1842 and 1850:
‘At Belstone, the cucking stool or ducking stool, for that new exploded class of uproarious ladies, scolds!! still exists with its two granite pillars or supports.’, (Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post or Plymouth and Cornish Advertiser (Exeter, England), Thursday, October 27, 1842; Issue 4012)
‘The remians of that curious relic of barbarism the “cucking stool” for scolds, still exists in this village, and a babbling brook, the limpid laundress, pearls of which were once undertaking to contract the “babbling” ladies, still seeks its way through the devious stagnations of the adjoining cottages, in “babbling runnels.“, (Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post or Plymouth and Cornish Advertiser (Exeter, England), Thursday, September 19, 1850; Issue 4424.).
Here we have two different authors stating that in the mid 1800s the cucking stool was in existence beside a, ‘babbling brook‘. In 1889 William Crossing notes the following: ‘On the village green are two upright granite posts about the height of a tall man and a few feet apart. These I have been informed, are a portion of the old village stocks…‘, (1974, p.119). These village stocks still stand on the village green today but the posts are not the height of a tall man, I am 6ft 2″ and they only come up to my chest. However, by 1909 Crossing seems to have changed his ideas somewhat when he noted in his Guide to Dartmoor that, “Among old-time objects to be seen there (Belstone) are a small manor pound, and the pillars between which formerly swung the castigatory, more often spoken of as the ducking stool.”, (1990, p.208). So, it seems that at Belstone at least the women of the village had been discouraged from serving up ‘Tongue Pie’ for supper. Except… ‘However, although an open stream used to pass this spot there has surely never been enough water to duck anyone. More likely, from the tall man reference, is that this was once the stand-up version of the stocks, a pillory.‘, (Walpole, 2002, p.29). As always, nothing is ever straight forward. In 2000 some restoration work was carried out on the village stocks and it was found that the two granite pillars were sunk into the ground to an excessive depth of about five feet. This being the case then allowing for a sensible stability depth the two pillars would have stood above ground level at the, ‘height of a tall man‘. Taking this into consideration and the fact that it is very difficult to estimate the width and depth of an ancient watercourse the yes, just possibly, there was a cucking stool at Belstone,
Incidentally, the last recorded instance of the cucking stool being used in Devon was in 1808 when a scold recieved a dunking at Plymouth. That was only two hundred years ago, my, how quickly things change?
Church, J. M. 1854. Bizarre, For Fireside and Wayside. Philadelphia.
Crossing, W. 1990 Crossing’s Guide to Dartmoor, Peninsula Press, Newton Abbot
Crossing, W. 1974. Amid Devonia’s Alps. Newton Abbot: David and Charles.
Walpole, C. & M. 2002 The Book of Belstone, GTi Print, Okehampton.