Locked up in Leicestershire…and Derbyshire too!

Last month was Local and Community History Month here in the UK, which aims to celebrate and increase awareness of local history. And why not? After all, history is all around us if we only know where to look, or, to be more precise, if we can only understand just what it is we are looking at. Take, for example, those small, round, pyramidal-roofed buildings that are dotted here and there around our neighbouring county of Leicestershire. Their former role in community life is fascinating, but far from obvious at first glance. Read on to find out more…

Smisby lock-up, Derbyshire (the brick building on the left of the image). Now a picturesque feature of the village, it hides a grim past

The buildings in question are lock-ups, in effect holding pens where drunks and suspected criminals were held for a day or two until the civil authorities were ready to determine their fate. They would then be taken before a Justice of the Peace (aka J.P. or magistrate), whose job it was to decide what should be done with them.

Some would be fined or sent to prison. The most serious offenders would be sent to face trial before a jury, while those deemed to have suffered sufficient punishment through their incarceration in the lock-up would be released to return, shame-faced and chastened, to their local community.

Close-up of Smisby lock-up

There must have been thousands of these lock-ups in 19th century Britain. They came in all shapes and sizes. Several hundred still remain, scattered across the length and breadth of the country, including several fine examples in Derbyshire and Leicestershire (for overseas readers unfamiliar with the idiosyncrasies of English place names and their spellings, that’s pronounced Lester-shire!)

Smisby lock-up looked picturesque when we visited a few weeks ago, a small, round brick-built structure (well, octagonal if we’re being strictly accurate) just a stones-throw from the village church, its tiled, pyramidal roof partly clothed by a climbing plant bearing a mass of handsome blossom. It’s been there since the early 18th century when it was used to lock up drunks and minor lawbreakers while they sobered up, or until they could be taken to court at Derby. It was also used to temporarily confine paupers and vagrants. 

Spare a thought, if you will, for the poor souls who spent time there, perhaps guilty only of enjoying rather more ale than was good for them. The space in which they were confined was tiny. It had no windows, light being admitted only through a few holes drilled into the sturdy wooden door – it’s no surprise, therefore, that lock-ups were popularly known as “Blind Houses.”

Breedon-on-the-Hill lock-up, Leicestershire

And let’s not dwell too long on how the men, women and children detained there managed when they had bodily functions to perform! It must have been a wretched, stinking hovel, freezing in winter and like an oven in the height of summer. Quaint and quirky though it looks today, Smisby lock-up was a grim place in which to spend time.

Built to the same basic design, although fashioned out of local stone, Breedon-on-the Hill lock-up was a similarly miserable place of confinement. It was built in about 1793, and remained in use until 1885.

Worthington lock-up, Leicestershire. Note the firing-slit window, added in WW2 for use in the event of a Nazi invasion

Worthington lock-up also dates from the 18th century. It sports an unexpected slit window, which is believed to have been inserted during World War 2 when the building was earmarked as a potential defensive pillbox for use in the event of a successful invasion by Hitler’s Nazis.

Alfreton lock-up, Derbyshire, (photographed in 1985)

Most of the lock-ups I’ve featured so far are to be found on the border of or in our neighbouring county of Leicestershire. But I wouldn’t wish you to think that Derbyshire folk were all so well-behaved that similar provision wasn’t needed here. Indeed the nearby town of Alfreton boasts an unusually large lock-up, perhaps reflecting the locals’ unusually large appetite for strong ale! It dates from around 1843 and contains multiple cells, evidence that bad boys abounded in Alfreton town in the mid-19th century.

Sandiacre lock-up, Derbyshire

Derbyshire’s Sandiacre lock-up dates from 1660, although it was substantially rebuilt in the 18th century. Above the door is a plaque bearing the words “Erected as a village lock-up and pound for the imprisonment of stray animals about the year 1660 AD”, which I guess tells us all we need to know about how drunkards, rogues and ne’er-do-wells were regarded when buildings like this were in use.

Jaggers Keep lock-up outside the village of Curbar, Derbyshire

Finally in this round-up of local lock-ups, consider Jaggers Keep in the Derbyshire village of Curbar. This substantial two storey, single room building dates from the 18th century and boasts a conical roof and stone chimney pot. It was apparently used to temporarily detain drunken and miscreant miners who were on their way to Derby jail, and is conclusive proof – if ever it were needed – that folk in my home county knew how to party!

43 comments

  1. tanjabrittonwriter · June 8

    I’m not really surprised that the lock-ups existed, but that they were used in the 19th century still. The structures and the idea of public shaming and punishment have a medieval aura about them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · June 8

      C19 prison reformers tried to encourage minimum standards, but the mere existence of such places in the 19th century gives an interesting insight into what we refer to here as “Victorian values”.

      Liked by 1 person

      • tanjabrittonwriter · June 8

        They were tough, those Victorians!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · June 12

        I’m happy to read about Victorian lives and to see them depicted in movies, but I’m so glad to be alive now and not then!

        Liked by 1 person

      • tanjabrittonwriter · June 12

        In some respects, I completely agree. In others, I long to live in the 19th century when the earth wasn’t nearly as “developed” and destroyed as it’s now. When I read about flocks of Passenger Pigeons that took days to pass overhead, I’m overcome with much melancholy and longing for how things used to be.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · June 13

        Totally agree. From the perspective of the natural world the 19th century was better than now, and the 9th century better than both (before the development of commercial whaling, the invention of the firearm, the rape of the natural landscape by high intensity farming etc). Oh to see – and hear – those flocks of Passenger Pigeons!

        Like

  2. Great photos, fascinating stuff! I knew nothing about them. I am willing to guess some choice words came out of those lock-ups 🙂 On the subject of pronunciation I was instructed that it is “Lester-sher” and “Darby-sher” but don’t know why.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Platypus Man · June 12

      You’re right. When I read, the word I hear in my head is “-shire”, but in everyday conversation, I would usually stress the first part of the place-name, reducing the emphasis placed on the second part by saying Lester [Darby] “-sher”, or maybe “-sheer”. If I were doing a formal presentation, however, I would say “-shire”. I think that putting more stress on “-shire” reminds listeners that you’re talking about the whole county, and not just the county town that gives it its name.

      Liked by 1 person

      • ThoughtsBecomeWords · June 14

        Thank you for the elaboration, I find variations in pronunciation fascinating, e.g. Worcester.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · June 14

        And often completely baffling to “outsiders”. Close to where we live in Derbyshire is the village of Crich. Anyone who pronounces it to rhyme with “witch” can immediately be identified as “not from around ‘ere” because people born in these parts or resident here for a few years understand that they must call the place “cry-ch”. It’s like a secret masonic handshake, enabling members of the exclusive club that is “good Derbyshire folk” to recognise one another. What a nightmare1

        Liked by 1 person

      • ThoughtsBecomeWords · June 17

        Nightmare indeed, coupled with regional dialect, but often a cause for hilarity between speakers 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Paddy Tobin · June 8

    Very interesting history and amazingly solid and long-lived buildings.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Platypus Man · June 12

      Thanks, Paddy. They were definitely built to last, and remain a quirky – but little understood – fixture in the local landscape,

      Liked by 1 person

  4. blhphotoblog · June 8

    Pity they aren’t still in use, might quieten down the weekend yobs who patrol the streets in the early hours when the clubs chuck them out!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · June 12

      Definitely places in which to reflect on the consequences of over-indulgence in alcohol! A short, sharp shock maybe?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Laurie Graves · June 8

    Never would have guessed that’s what those buildings were used for—as far as I know, we don’t have them in Maine. They look so quaint and charming. A perfect example of how looks can be deceiving. Thanks for the fascinating history.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · June 12

      Yes, driving past these lock-ups they do indeed look “quaint and charming”, and it’s impossible to imagine what could have prompted their construction. Only upon closer inspection does their grim purpose become evident. I’m truly grateful that I am only acquainted with them from outside!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I thought they were letter boxes. Who knew? Fascinating stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · June 12

      I’m sure many locals driving/cycling/walking past them everyday are totally oblivious to what motivated their construction, and can’t begin to imagine the misery they inflicted upon their temporary residents.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. June’s Travels · June 9

    I would not have known these old buildings are lock-ups, if not reading this post. They look cute. The punishments in olden days are harsh. Thanks for fascinating history!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · June 12

      Such a contrast, the quaintness of the buildings and the misery that was suffered within them. Thank you for reading and commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you for explaining a structure that I otherwise would celebrated for its simple beauty (and cleanliness). Your research and photos remind me once again that historical bits and bobs from past centuries — including here in the States — often are sanitized of their smelly (and sometimes terrible) history. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · June 12

      Thank you. You’re right about smell, for me the most evocative of the senses. If movies and television dramas and novels came with built-in smells from the periods/events they depict we would have a less romantic view of history.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Ann Mackay · June 10

    I think the miserable conditions in those lock ups must have been enough of a threat to curb a few drinking sessions! They look lovely from the outside though, and the tall conical roofs are very quirky.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · June 12

      I find it odd that our ancestors invested so much in these buildings. Simpler, less visually appealing structures would surely have been just as effective and cheaper to build. Luckily for us today, they chose a more extravagant path.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ann Mackay · June 12

        Those conical roofs intrigue me – maybe they were intended to mark the buildings out as a reminder that they were waiting for you if you misbehaved!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · June 12

        Yes, a very visible reminder that a hangover will be the least of your worries if you drink too much beer!

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Obong eno · June 18

    A beautiful place
    Love your shots
    Interesting backstory

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · June 18

      Thank you for reading my post, and for your kind words. It’s good to know this post captured your imagination.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. wholelottarosie · June 18

    Platypus Man, it was very interesting for me to read about the counties of Leicestershire and Derbyshire in your post. I have never visited them, but they must be very beautiful places. I always enjoy visiting historic sites and learning about the history of the place. Thanks a lot for this! 🙂 🙂
    Have a nice Sunday….Rosie from Germany

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · June 19

      Thank you for dropping by, Rosie, and for the follow. I write quite often about the history and cultural heritage of my local area, so as you read more of my posts you’ll find out a bit more about my wonderful county.
      Thank you also for commenting in English. I’m ashamed to say my knowledge of German is almost non-existent, and I must rely on my laptop to automatically translate your posts. Those translations seem good, but I wish I didn’t need them…however at my age there is no chance of my being able to learn a new language!
      Best wishes to you from sunny Derbyshire in the heart of the English Midlands.

      Liked by 1 person

      • wholelottarosie · June 19

        Platypus Man,tThank you for your kind words and your thoughts. I agree with you, history is a good teacher. It teaches us, for example, that nothing will stay the way it is. After all, isn’t it the case that almost everything we take for granted today turns out to have grown historically and is therefore changeable on closer inspection?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · June 20

        Yes, I agree, our instinct is often to assume that “it’s always been like this, and always will be in the future”, but in reality the only truly constant thing in our lives is change.

        Liked by 1 person

      • wholelottarosie · June 20

        👍🏼

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Jet Eliot · June 19

    I found this very interesting, Platypus Man. You did a good job of capturing the spirit of what the lock-ups must’ve been like in their day of locking up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · June 20

      Thank you, Jet. These quirky lock-ups are an asset in today’s urban landscape, but I doubt that those who spent any time incarcerated in them took such a positive view!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Priti · June 19

    Beautiful history and the building very old ! Thank you for sharing such a beautiful blog!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · June 20

      Thank you for reading my blog, Priti. I’m pleased you were interested by the little insight into the history of my area.

      Like

  14. Ju-Lyn · June 22

    How fascinating! If I chanced past one of these interesting ‘buildings” I’d have assumed they were sentry posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · June 22

      That hadn’t occurred to me, but now you’ve pointed it out I can see exactly what you mean!

      Liked by 1 person

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