by Jeannie Swales
Spare a thought for poor Mrs Gamble.
In 1795 – and that may seem an awfully long time ago, but do bear in mind that it’s a scant 221 years, or just over three lifetimes back – that unfortunate lady was the last person in Scarborough to fall victim to this ducking stool.
She was, apparently, ‘ducked three times over the head and cars’, whatever that means. And you can’t help wondering if a ducking in Scarborough was worse than elsewhere, where they would take place in a river, or pond – here, the stool was located at the end of the old pier, and the women were ducked into the freezing cold North Sea.
The ducking stool is not to be confused with the cucking stool, which was a rather different thing, used to punish fraudulent tradespeople, both men and women, by carrying them through the streets in humiliating fashion.
The ducking stool seems to have been aimed squarely and almost exclusively at women. It is described by a French gentleman by the name of Misson, writing around 1700, as follows: “The way of punishing scolding women is pleasant enough. They fasten an arm chair to the end of two beams, twelve or fifteen feet long, and parallel to each other, so that these two pieces of wood, with their two ends, embrace the chair, which hangs between them upon a sort of axle, by which means it plays freely, and always remains in the natural horizontal position in which the chair should be, that a person may sit conveniently in it, whether you raise it or let it down.
“They set up a post on the bank of a pond or river, and over this post they lay, almost in equilibrio, the two pieces of wood, at one end of which the chair hangs just over the water. They place the woman in this chair, and so plunge her into the water, as often as the sentence directs, in order to cool her immoderate heat.”
Despite Monsieur Misson’s assertion that the punishment was ‘pleasant enough’, it seems that women were often ducked to the extent that they died, although whether from drowning or hypothermia, I’m not sure.
As well as being used to quiet the tongue of a scold, the ducking stool was also employed to punish women who were ‘guilty’ of various sexual offences, including prostitution and bearing an illegitimate child.
The ducking stool is part of Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects that have been acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.firstname.lastname@example.org or (01723) 384510.