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Somerset Heritage: Locking up the louts

PUBLISHED: 15:30 29 March 2017 | UPDATED: 15:30 29 March 2017

The stout lock-up at Monkton Combe is a scheduled ancient monument, and said to have had stocks outside it until the end of the 19th century (c) Neil Owen

The stout lock-up at Monkton Combe is a scheduled ancient monument, and said to have had stocks outside it until the end of the 19th century (c) Neil Owen

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Dene Bebbington looks at the history behind the mysterious, small stone buildings in Somerset's community

Dating to the late 18th and early 19th centuries, village lock-ups in England and Wales were built for temporarily holding drunks and criminals until they could be sent to a town magistrate. Many of them are free standing, while some are attached to another building or a wall.

Being locked in one would have been very unpleasant since they were dark, damp and had poor ventilation. Built of brick, stone or maybe timber, they are typically a few feet wide. Inside there may have been a bench with straw bedding and a basic toilet. Roofs were often spire or domed in shape, and usually made of stone rather than wood to prevent occupants from trying to escape. Some had an iron ring fastened to the structure in case an offender had to be restrained. Most were designed to hold one person, but there are a few with separate cells for men and women.

It’s not surprising that a death occurred inside a lock-up from time to time. Inmates could die from severe cold, especially in winter, or burn to death if they accidentally set the straw alight with a candle.

Criminals stuck in a lock-up had other woes because they couldn’t always rely on family or friends to help. Perhaps hoping to be rid of the miscreant, people were known to supply an inmate with alcohol rather than food. Appearing drunk before a magistrate, or at least hungover, he was less likely to receive a sympathetic hearing.

Built into a wall, the lock-up in Freshford was later used to store the village fire engin (c) Neil OwenBuilt into a wall, the lock-up in Freshford was later used to store the village fire engin (c) Neil Owen

Lock-ups acquired many local nicknames. They are also known as a round house, blind house, bone house and black hole, to name a few.

Most counties have at least one remaining lock-up and Somerset has many. Across the country several hundred were built, a number of which have gone due to house building and other developments. Being small they’re not easily amenable to other uses or high on council funding priorities.

Built in 1779, the lock-up behind Castle Cary’s market house is said to have inspired the shape of the police helmet, although there are others with a similar shaped roof. Unusually, it’s now available as a place in which to get married.

The round house was such a part of society at the time that it gets a mention in classic literature. The Reverend Charles Kingsley published his children’s novel The Water Babies in 1863. One of the characters when asked by a policemen what should be done with the drunken sailor so early in the morning replies:

A plaque on the Kilmersdon blind house gives a brief history of the building (c) Neil OwenA plaque on the Kilmersdon blind house gives a brief history of the building (c) Neil Owen

“Put him in the round house till he gets sober, so early in the morning.”

Social unrest during the industrial revolution and men returning from the Napoleonic wars made the lock-ups a rural necessity. They are yet another part of Somerset’s history with a tale to tell. The County Police Act of 1840 made them redundant as police stations were to be built with facilities for holding prisoners.

A register of all lock-ups is being compiled, partly funded by the Government, and currently stands at more than one million words. Expected to be complete by 2020, it will provide much information on these fascinating buildings.

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