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The Independent Culture
you and i take for granted a moderately efficient police force which guards our safety and property and trust the judicial system will ensure that wrongdoers are punished and the innocent set free.

But what happened in the centuries before Sir Robert Peel introduced his Metropolitan Police Force in 1829? The authorities relied on communities to police themselves - an early form of Neighbourhood Watch - but if offenders were caught then punishment was violent and public.

Death by hanging was the most obvious deterrent: the low-born were dispatched at Tyburn Tree, close to where Marble Arch now stands. The high-born were executed on Tower Hill. Public executions were spectator sports. In the 18th-century a farmer's widow called Mother Procter used to erect temporary grandstands at Tyburn so that, for a fee, onlookers could enjoy a good view.

Hanging was often so painfully protracted that family and friends used to pull on the thrashing legs of the victim in order to speed up the process and shorten the agony. Those were the days...

But clearly not every wrongdoer could be hanged, or else the British people would have wiped themselves out. Other more immediate but less terminal punishments were required: thus the stocks. One authentic example survives in the churchyard of St Leonard's, Shoreditch, the fine Georgian church which stands at the junction of four major London roads.

Most people nostalgically think that a spell in the stocks would have been a relatively gentle affair: just a few rotten eggs and bits of festering tomato running down your face.

If only that were true. The missile favoured by bystanders packed rather more punch than fruit and veg. Have you ever had your face rearranged by a brick? No? Well, clearly the stocks would have been a fresh experience.

Funnily enough, the ferocity of the punishments made no difference to the crime rate. Perhaps members of the law-and-order lobby might care to spend a couple of hours here in Shoreditch trying out the stocks and judging their efficacy for themselves. As it happens, there are some discarded bricks nearby in a builder's skip.

Who knows, perhaps standards in public life will take a marked turn for the better.

The stocks are in the churchyard of St Leonard's, Shoreditch, on the corner of

Hackney Road and Shoreditch High Street, E1

Andrew John Davies