The Hackney Whipping Post
There is sometimes a certain tendency to talk about the past as if it were a better place, as if relics automatically speak of our ‘glorious history.’ Yet, occasionally, truth breaks through to remind us that, speaking of the past in this country, it was for many a place of suffering, of want and of violence – an inescapable but far less palatable historical reality.
Thus the emphasis of retelling history can often tend towards the celebratory and so, when the churchyard of St John-at-Hackney was handsomely restored with Lottery funds in recent years, the seventeenth century whipping post was conveniently consigned to the nearby backyard of Groundwork, the organisation which supervised the renovations, where it has been rotting ever since.
Historian Sean Gubbins of Walk Hackney drew my attention to this neglected artefact and took me there to see it last week. He showed me a photograph of it standing in the churchyard in 1919 and confirmed that it had decayed significantly in the last couple of years. Apparently, Hackney Council owns the whipping post but Sean can find no-one who wants to take responsibility for it and many would prefer if it simply rotted away.
In former centuries, the stocks, the whipping post and the pillory were essential elements of social control, but today these fearsome objects are treated with indifference or merely as subjects of ghoulish humour. Since they became defunct, they have acquired a phoney innocence as comic sideshows at school fetes where pupils can toss wet sponges at popular teachers to raise money for a worthy cause.
Yet the reality is that these instruments of violence and public humiliation were used to subjugate those at the margins of society – to punish the poor for petty thefts that might be as small as a loaf of bread, or to discourage vagrants, or to chasten prostitutes, or to drive homeless people out of the parish, or to subdue the mentally ill, or to penalise homosexuals, or to demean religious dissenters, or to intimidate immigrants into subservience, or against anyone at all who was considered socially unacceptable according to the prejudices of the day.
We need to remember this grim history, which reminds us that the struggle towards greater social equality and tolerance of difference in this country was a hard one, only achieved by those who resisted the culture of obedience enforced by state-sanctioned violence and enacted through instruments such as this whipping post.
Extract from Benjamin Clarke’s ‘Glimpses of Ancient Hackney & Stoke Newington’ 1894
Postcards supplied by Melvyn Brooks
Model of the Hackney whipping post
Tudor stocks and whipping post in the entrance to Shoreditch Church
If anyone is interested in helping to save and restore the whipping post please contact Sean Gubbins email@example.com
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