Village Lockup: Finding History on A Walk in England
Recently I left my trekking poles in The Old Crown Inn and so when I went back to get them, I decided to walk a new route in the area.
I was by myself, so there was no one else to ask about this strange little stone structure as I walked by.
The building, which was part of the actual wall, was just outside the village of Kelston. I went in for a closer look at the hobbit-sized door, and though it might have been the inspiration on the outside for a home in the shire, up close it was dark and dank inside.
And there was a tiny little sign on the door.
It said Village Lockup.
I snapped a picture and kept going, thinking I would look it up later.
But while I walked, I tried to guess at the building’s use. Maybe people were locked into this building for disorderly conduct in the pub down the road? Or for some other offense?
But the more I thought about it, I decided that no, surely not. You wouldn’t put a person in there. I don’t think it was even tall enough to stand up in, and there was almost no light.
It must be for stray animals, I thought.
Yes, that seems right. If someone else’s cow or sheep wandered into your field, then maybe you put it in the village lockup until your neighboring farmer could be notified to go pick it up.
But then I got home and looked it up.
And of course, I was wrong.
The building was for people.
Local parishes owned village lockups, and the constable used them to hold someone until they could take them to justice in a town.
It was intentional that they had no light source, scant ventilation and no form of sanitation. Sometimes a village lockup had hay on the floor or stocks and chains on the walls.
The majority of surviving village lock-ups date from the 18th and 19th centuries when rural communities struggled to police thefts, burglaries, shootings, drunkenness, the obstruction of watchmen and the stealing of livestock. During this period a number of lock-ups were built as a temporary place of detention for local rogues and miscreants until they could be removed to a town.
Many of the village lockups in England are round, which explains their other common name: the round house.
A line from a Charles Kingsley novel seems to imply that if someone put you in the village lockup for drunkenness, then you could be set free from the dark little hole after sleeping it off.
Put him in the round house till he gets sober.
However, sometimes local folks tormented people in the village lockups to drive them crazy as a kind of insurance that they would leave their village when someone came from the outside to assess them.
The lockups fell out of use in the nineteenth century with a government act that established a paid police force in each county, as well as police stations with prison cells.
I have a lot of recent curiosity about police in my own country, so this history was interesting to me.
The constables that existed in England before the paid police force were unpaid officials. They were either elected or appointed by the justice of the peace.
Like volunteer firefighters or mountain rescue teams, the constable was a community servant.
The first police in England were the River Police in London. In 1798, England’s busiest port needed to employ someone to protect all the cargo. (source)
The difference between the constable and a police officer is noteworthy.
The former volunteered to keep the peace between people and the latter accepted employment to protect property from people.
Still though, I wouldn’t have wanted to be responsible for putting someone in the village lockup.
Now that I think about it, even a cow or a sheep would probably find it pretty depressing in there.