THE practice of ducking women in water dates back to Saxon times. When witch-hunting was at its height in medieval times, the suspected witch had her right thumb tied to her left big toe and was thrown half-naked into a river. If she floated, she was guilty because it proved she was in league with the devil and so was rejecting the baptismal water; if she sank, she was innocent.

But she was dead.

For centuries, some women were ducked just because the male community leaders didn’t like the way they conducted themselves, always nagging, scolding, bickering…

In Darlington at the start of the 17th Century, when there was a national craze for ducking offensive women, there was a ducking pond in the River Skerne at Northgate, behind Mr Robson’s cabinet-making shop.

We know that there was a “duckstoole” because in 1615 it needed five shillings worth of repairs to the “iron pynne and stowpe of wood”.

“The ducking stool, or chair, was at the end of a long pole which worked on an upright post,” explains the historian William Longstaffe in his 1854 history of Darlington.

Women who were found guilty of being “scolds” – of being argumentative and troublesome. The ducking was supposed to cool the heat in their tongue, and embarrass them into silence.

Longstaffe also lists some of the women that were ducked in Darlington:

1612: Marie, wife of William Adamson, punished for “scolding”;

1614: Jane Wilson and Rose Litle “guiltie of an unseemlie assault and an open scolding betwixt them in the open marquet to be ducked three times”;

1619: Dorothy, wife of George Metcalfe, was “a common scold to the common nuisance of the neighbours and against the peace of our Lord the King, shall be forthwith sett on the cuckstoole and ducked according to the custome of the borough”;

1620: The wives of Roger Beecrofte, Henry Beecrofte, Nicholas Hinde and Reginald Shawe were all ducked for being “common scolds” and, in the case of Henry’s wife, a “common evisdropper”;

1621: After a trial, Mrs Hinde was once more found guilty of being a “common scold” and sentenced to be ducked. The jury ordered the Darlington constable to “set upp the Duckingge Stoole within tenne days” or he would be fined 6s 8d.

Perhaps this indicates a reluctance on the part of the constable to carry out the duckings, because this is the last record of a woman being publicly humiliated in this way in the town.

In 1622, Dorothy Metcalfe, who had been ducked in 1619, was once more found guilty of being a common scold and also of perpetrating a “savage attack” upon a market official going about his work. This time she was fined – and seems nevermore to have offended.

THE last recorded ducking in Britain was in 1809 in Leominster in Herefordshire, where Jenny Pipes, a “notorious scold”, was paraded through the town half naked before being submerged. Sarah Leeke was sentenced in 1817 in the same town to the same fate, but when they reached the river with her, the water was too low, so she was just humiliated by being paraded through the streets.

The ducking stool is now on display in Leominster priory. The law allowing women to be ducked remained on the statute book until 1967.