Debate on Abolishing the Pillory



The Earl of LAUDERDALE rose to move the committal of the Pillory Punishment Abolition bill. The punishment of the pillory had been condemned by almost all those who had studied and written upon the philosoophy of criminal law, almost by all the politicians who had attended to its nature and effects, and even by some of the Judges who had to apply it. No principle in criminal law was better established than this, that the punishment ought to be commensurate to the offence. In this respect the punishment of the pillory was extremely objectionable. In one of the older statutes, it was put in the alternative, that a man should pay a fine of 20s. or be put in the pillory, so that the same punishment was to be inflicted on one who could not pay 20s as on one who had attempted to commit an unnatural and abominable crime. Such a state of the law was a disgrace to the age and country in which it existed. Another remarkable feature in this punishment was its gross inequality and uncertainty. The punishment was not that which was consonant to the nature of the offence or to the intention of the Court which awarded it,, but depended on thehumour of the mob. – The case of Dr Shebbeare was a remarkable one. He had been sentenced to the pillory, but though this was intended as disgrace, it turned out a sort of triumph. He was put upon, but not in the pillory; the Sheriff held an umbrella over his head to shelter him from the rain orthe sun; and a servant stood by to attend upon and hand him refreshments, while he was at the same time applauded by the spectators; so that the punishment, instead of being disgraceful to him, was an insult upon the law. Another case applicable to the point was that of Daniel Isaac Eaton. – He had been put in the pillory for a very seerious offence, that of endeavouring to throw contempt and ridicule on the fundamental principles of the Christian religion; and as an example to the prisoners, he presumed, he was pilloried opposite to Newgate jail; but the crowd, probably from some mistake as to the nature of the offence, applauded him. In this case too, the punishment was far more lenient than the Judges intended. In other cases it was more severe; for instance, when the punishment of the pillory was inflicted for offences which had a tendency to exasperate the feelings of the populace, such as the attempting to commit an unnatuural and horrible crime. Neither the law nor the juddge intended that this crime, abominable as it was, should be punished with death, and yet such was frequently the result. The death too, which such criminals sometimes met with was more severe than thee punishment of death when inflicted in the ordinary way. He himself had witnessed an instance of this in 1780. A person was pilloried in Southwark for an unnatural crime, and the criminal by the fall of the pillory was killed. [This was the death of William Smith in the pillory in April 1780, an event that prompted Edmund Burke to propose abolution of the pillory in Parliament.] He saw no great inconvenience in abolishing the punishment of the pillory at present, and leaving the offences in which it had been usually inflicted to the punishment by fine and imprisonment, till some additional regulations should be framed in a subsequent session. He therefore submitted that the bill ought to proceed even in this session, and moved that it be now committed.

Lord ELLENBOROUGH said, if the punishment were to be abolished, it would be requisite at the same [time] to substsitute some other punishment in its place. This the bill had not done. He could not admit, however, that the punishment ought to be altogether abolished, because there was several offences to which it was more applicable than any other that could be found. With respect to the inequality and uncertainty of which the Noble Earl had spoken, the objection might be in some degree applied to all other punishments, unless the officers of the law entrusted with the execution did their duty. As to the punishment being more severe than was intended, the officer was empowered to see to the proper execution of the sentence, and arm himself with the whole force of the posse comitatus for that purpose, if necessary; but it was no good argument against the punishment to saw that it was not properly executed. Considering that the punishment had existed so long, and that no regulation was made for the substitution of another punishment, he could not agree to the passing of this bill. He was adverse, at any rate, to this sweeping abolition, though he admitted, that in that instance mentioned by the Noble Earl, where it might be inflicted on a person because he was not able to pay 20s. and in some other instances, it might be abolished; but in cases of perjury and fraud, and in some others, the punishment was particularly suited to the offence and ought to be preserved. The sbject could not, however, be sufficiently considered this season. He moved that the bill be read a second time this day two months.

The Lord CHANCELLOR was of opiinion that there were offences with respect to which it would be unwise to abolish the punishment of the pillory; for instance cases of perjury or fraud, or cheating, and especially in cases of mixed fraud and perjury. The best mode of proceeding would be, to desire the Judges in another session to prepare a bill on this subject, pinting out the cases where, according to their experience, the punishment of the pillory was proper, and the cases to which, though at present applicable, it was not suited.

The Earl of LIVERPOOL approved of the proceeding just suggested by the Noble and Learned Lord on the wool-sack.

Earl STANHOPE – As to the punishment of the pillory, he detested it on account of its inequality. Suppose, said his Lordship, the Noble Earl (Liverpool) and myself had been found guilty of publishing a libel, for which offence the punishment of the pillory has been sometimes inflicted, and suppose we had been pilloried about the time when the corn bill was passing, the Noble Earl would have been confoundedly pelted, and I should not.

The bill was then ordered to be committed this day two month. – Adjourned.

SOURCE: Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh, Scotland), Monday, 10 July 1815; Issue 14600.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "Debate on Abolishing the Pillory, 1815," Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook. 6 Aug. 2009, updated 6 June 2021 <>.

Return to Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England