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…
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.
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.”
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 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.
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.
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.
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!