Punishment for petty offences such as drunkenness, swearing and antisocial behaviour was often taken into the hands of the offenders friends and peers with an act of public humiliation the order of the day, typically by a period of incarceration in the village stocks. While we have only one fleeting reference so far to the existence of a set of stocks in Great Linford, it is a good one, in that it purportedly names one of the chief offenders, which in turn gives us a chance to narrow down a period of time they were in use.
Attributed only to the initials T.A.U, a long article in the Bucks Herald of Saturday February 13th, 1926 reminisces on the fading and soon to be lost memories of the older inhabitants of the county, and not only tells us that there were Stocks in Great Linford, but that they were located on The High Street, in front of what is now St. Andrews School. The article further reveals that a man often in them was named Conquest, and providing some strong credence for the accuracy of the article, Conquest is certainly a name known in Great Linford, and unfortunately one rather synonymous with disorder in the village.
So who precisely might our villain in the stocks be? Turning to newspaper records we find a flurry of highly incriminating stories concerning a James Conquest, a serial offender in the 1840s and 1850s. Conquest was arrested in 1842 at Great Linford by the village constable Joseph Rivett, having been attacked in the course of his duties by Conquest. For this he spent a month in prison. At the Petty Sessions at Newport Pagnell held June 2nd, 1847 we find Conquest charged with being drunk and disorderly, in of all places Great Linford church! He received a fine of 5 shillings and costs of 3 shillings, but of a spell in the stocks there is no mention, though any man in those pious times who would dare to run amuck in a church must surely have had more than a passing acquaintance with them. True to form, he is back at the Petty Sessions in October the same year, accused again of assault. The victim this time is a Joseph Staines and the fine is much more substantial £5. Unable to pay Conquest is committed to 2 months hard labour. In 1854 he found himself on both sides of the dock. In January we find him on trial at the Newport Pagnell Petty Sessions accused of assaulting Henry Martyr on the 16th of that month. He was fined £1 3 shillings or a month’s imprisonment. In May that same year, it was James who was the alleged victim of an assault at an unnamed pub in Great Linford. The judge found the evidence, “very contradictory”, as most of the parties involved were very drunk at the time. Case dismissed. Unfortunately, things go downhill from there on, as he was charged in 1857 with beating his wife and deserting her to fend for herself. For this he received three month’s hard labour.
If James Conquest is not the man described as a frequent occupier of the stocks, it would be very surprising, but what else can we say about him? The parish records and census returns provide some further information. He was born and baptised at Great Linford in 1801, so he had just turned 40 when we first find him in trouble with the law. He is largely described throughout his life as an agricultural labourer and the place he called home was a house by The Green. He married a Lucy Ray, also of Great Linford on August 29th, 1822, and together they had at least six children, all sons. James was widowed in 1849 and in 1855 remarried to a widow named Maria Hooton, nee Smith. It is poor Maria he must have been convicted of beating in 1857. The couple are still together in 1871, but as a final cruel end to their story, we find them both as pauper inmates of the Newport Pagnell workhouse. Maria died that year, James a decade later in 1881.
The last known use of the Stocks in this country is thought to have been in 1872. Certainly there is no sign of the Stocks in photographs of The High Street taken in the early 1900s, but sadly, once they had gone out of fashion, why would anyone have thought to preserve them for the benefit of future generations? James Conquest does present something of a tragic figure, clearly a man with many demons, not least those that come from a bottle. The humiliation of the stocks, an experience which may well have included being pelted with rotten fruit or even stones seemed to do nothing to curb his excesses, and even repeated spells in prison left him unreformed. The constables of Great Linford must have had their hands full with James.