Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Wheatley, Oxfordshire


High security

Like some sort of rustic mausoleum – the pyramid of an old geezer – this little building pops up in the Oxfordshire village of Wheatley to surprise the passer-by. It’s not a mausoleum, though – there’s no churchyard hereabouts – but something that was an essential for a village of any size before the mid-19th century: a lock-up in which wrongdoers (drunks, petty thieves, kickers of buildings, and other ne’er-do-wells) could be detained overnight before being brought before the beak in the morning. They’re usually small, and built completely of masonry, usually stone, to prevent inmates from pushing tiles off the roof and climbing out.

English buildings don’t usually have roofs made completely of stone. We have stone-covered roofs here in the Cotswolds, but they’re made up of stone ‘slates’ supported on timber frames, and are far from secure. What I’m talking about here is a stone roof that’s as strong as the walls beneath it. Creating this kind of structure has led to some interesting designs, and this is one of the best: a tall hexagonal pyramid, with no distinction between the roof and walls at all.

Who came up with this unusual and arresting form? It used to be thought that the little building was designed by Vanbrugh. It’s certainly the kind of bold, uncompromising shape that Vanbrugh liked, but it’s a bit too rustic for him. The architect of Blenheim would probably have specified smooth, high-quality ashlar instead of the rougher, coursed rubble masonry at Wheatley. Perhaps too he would have made more of the doorway and designed a more elaborate moulded capstone to support the ball finial. No, this is the work of a local mason who had perhaps seen Vanbrugh’s work: apparently a man named Cooper, who built the lock-up in 1834 – more than 100 years after Vanbrugh died.

1834 is very late for a village lock-up. In 1839 the County Police Act allowed paid police forces to be set up in each county – and each force had to have police stations with cells built in. Lock-ups gradually became surplus to requirements and many were demolished. Quite a number survive, but few of them are quite as memorable as this little pyramid.

19 comments:

worm said...

I've visited this little pyramid before, and it is remarkable isn't it! The only other lock-up that I have visited is the one on the bridge at Bradford on Avon

Philip Wilkinson said...

Worm: There are quite a few lock-ups around, but they're not always noticed. Since one of the aims of this blog is to highlight the unnoticed, I must feature some more soon. The Bradford on Avon one is interesting as it started life as a chapel before becoming a lock-up, I think.

The Vintage Knitter said...

There's a lovely little lock up in Bisley, which is well worth visiting if you haven't done so already. Bisley has some very beautiful buildings - including my old primary school!

Philip Wilkinson said...

VK: Yes, Bisley is lovely - church, wells, lock-up, and all. Must go and have another look soon.

ChrisP said...

Castle Cary has a splendid lock up in the shape of a pepper pot - there is a pic here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/byjr/3203627845/
And right next to it in the photo stream is nice one at Mells that I didn't know, proving that random googling is educational.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Excellent. I'd not seen the Castle Cary one, so education all round.

peggy braswell said...

Love this blog. Thanks for the pictures. Will have to visit on next trip to UK..peggybraswelldesign.com

martin said...

An uneducated comment..Bizarre! I wasn't aware that they existed. Education all round indeed..

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peggy: Thank you.

Martin: You'll probably spot others now - on the 'wait for ages for one, then three turn up' principle.

Wartime Housewife said...

Have I imagined this, or were these lock-ups sometimes called 'tanties'?

Philip Wilkinson said...

WHW: I've not come across 'tanties' (or 'tanty') and can't find it in the OED, although I can imagine some beadle saying, 'We'll stick 'im in the tanty till 'e cools down,' or whatever. Maybe it's a dialect word.

Anonymous said...

The Tanty is a prison in Ankh-Morpork in the Discworld books, but I don't know whether Terry Pratchett borrowed the name from one in real life...

bazza said...

Hello Philip. This is completely new to me and fascinating. I liked the 'kickers of buildings' remark!
To anonymous: Did you know that in 2002, Wincanton in Somerset was officially twinned with the fictional city of Ankh-Morpork?
Anyway Philip, your blog gets another mention in my latest post.
Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Philip Wilkinson said...

Many thanks for the honourable mention, Bazza!

Sebastien Ardouin said...

Another lovely lock-up can be found in Lingfield, Surrey. Built in 1773 and last used in 1882, it is attached to the pedestal of St Peter's Cross (the cross erected by Sir Reginal Cobham is long gone and so is whatever was in its niches). As it stands by the village pond, did the law-enforcement officers plunge drunkards first into the water before they sobered up in the tiny cell?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Sebastien: Thank you, I'll look out for it if I'm ever in Lingfield. Dunking people in water was of course another punishment much used. In my own town in the Cotswolds there's a Duck Lane, which reputedly remembers the ducking stool kept there for the punishment of minor offenders.

Anonymous said...

The Wheatley lock-up is certainly one of the most bizarre examples but there are still quite a few examples to be found around the UK. I have some on my website including Lingfield. They seem to have different names around the country. Cage and round house are quite common for example. Some places even had two cells but whether this was due to particularly rowdy inhabitants or a need to have separate his and hers cells I'm not sure.

Jane Aston said...

Thankyou for this,I've not come across them. Your blogging is wonderful,lovely and random. I have lived in Malvern, Bromyard Presteigne, Aberystwyth and Worcester I am living in Burgundy, France at the moment.I have seen a few things you have blogged about. I have a few favourite places I like to visit myself in that vicinity. I love Much Marcle church for the gravestones and the tree, Canon Frome Font, Llanthony Priory, I love stone structures especially.Look forwards to your future posts.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Jane: Thank you so much for your comment. The places you mention are all fascinating (well I don't really know Presteigne). Llanthony is one of my all-time favourite places, although strictly, being Welsh, out of the scope of this blog, which is about English buildings. I've blogged about Malvern several times, but after the success of my recent post about decorative tiles I fell I must return and do one about the tiled decoration on Great Malvern's branch of W H Smith.