Charing Cross Pillory 1808, by Thomas Rowlandson
In 1816, a group of MPs and Lords who had, in the same year, tightened the game laws to stop poaching, allowed the price of bread to rise, raised indirect taxes for the poor, and fully endorsed the draconian punishments for property crime, decided to abolish the pillory for all crimes except perjury and, in Scotland, the crime of persuading others to perjury-subornation
They did so because they feared for the integrity of the law. The truth was that the pillory was not working and was probably working against the establishment. The members of the Imperial Parliament would have read about and seen some terrible incidents over the year, with some telling examples in the period after 1810.
The ruling classes needed to feel in control of the spectacle of justice and the outcome. While the pillory did offer opportunities to provide a punishment that was feared, there was a real problem that the nature of the punishment actually put more power in the hands of the mob, leading to a diminution in respect for the law. Reformers such as Cobbett and traditionalists such as the reactionary Lord Ellenborough agreed that the Pillory brought an unwanted degree of inequality and uncertainty to punishment
There was a fixed tariff of punishments for crime, but the pillory was a random punishment. When a Mr Vigners was put in the pillory as part of his punishment from sodomy in September 1810 at Cornhill,he was at first pelted with eggs, mud and potatoes but later in the hour he was pelted with stones and blinded. A number of spectators climbed on to a balustrade in Charlotte Row- it collapsed and many were rushed to St Bartholomenew’s hospital with cracked skulls. The streets in the surrounding streets of Poultry and Cornhill were blocked and their shops closed. There was no doubt who was in charge during these exemplary punishments, and it was certainly not the government.
By the late Regency period, the pillory –usually a spectacle that took place at lunchtime to encourage the crowds-was used a part of a period of imprisonment for crimes that also demanded some organised public humiliation. There were arsonists thieves perjurers and pimps who were subject of the pillory but increasingly it was used as a way of punishing acts of sodomy
The Pillory of the Vere Street Coterie of homosexual men is a case in point. Some of the men were pilloried in Oct 1810 and the streets were too full for any business to take place, except the trade in rotten vegetables and undesirable objects, including according to Bells Weekly Messenger “ the diverse remains of dogs and cats” The “Kentish Gazette estimated that there were 40,000 spectators and 200 soldiers to control them. Disrespect for the law began earlier as the Official in charge of putting up the pillory-Jack Ketch was his usual nickname- was pelted with stones as he tried to set up the punishment. The position of the constables was also compromised; they were there mostly to make it possible for a mob of women to effectively assault the prisoners
The De Vere “Gang”- James Cook, William Amos, Phillip Kett , William Thomson, Richard Francis and James Done – were unpopular and therefore the received rough treatment from the mob. Other individuals who did an hour in the pillory had completely different experiences. Many members of parliament who wished the Pillory removed were aware that sometimes the pillory added to the reputation of those in the stocks. Daniel Defoe was famously pelted with flowers in the pillory in 1703, and the satirist John Shabbeare had his tea, was protected from the elements and was hailed by the crowd in 1757. Although the Defoe story is a little doubtful, the story of John Shabbeare is not; they both faced the pillory for criticising the government, and it is clear that the freeborn English preferred satire to sodomy.
Another objection to the Pillory was one based on class distinction. Humiliation was more a a punishment for those with some social standing and something to lose. This is what one caring MP said in the 1816 abolition debate
“The punishment, he insisted, was unequal: to a man in the higher walks of life, it was worse than death: it drove him from society, and would not suffer him to return to respectability; while, to a more hardened offender, it could not be an object of much terror, and it could not affect his family or his prospects in the same degree”.
The best example of this is the government’s failure to pillory Lord Thomas Cochrane. He had been convicted of a major Stock Exchange Fraud in June 1814 and had been punished with a prison sentence and two hours in the Royal Exchange pillory. By dint of his prison sentence he was also ejected from this position as Member of Parliament for Westminster, one of the few seats that had a large electorate out of the control of individuals.
He was never pilloried; partly because his record as a naval officer created some sympathy for him and partly because the government could not predict how the mob would react. His fellow MP for Westminster, the radical Sir Francis Burdett, promised/ threatened to stand with him.
After 1816 only perjurers were pilloried. Most pillories outside London fell into disrepair. James Bossy was the last victim, in 1830.
For more on the Vere Street Coterie
Rictor Norton, “The Vere Street Coterie”, The Gay Subculture in Georgian England. Updated 28 May 2012 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/vere.htm>.