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What is a Catchpole?

A catchpole, historically, refers to an official, often seen as a lower-ranking law enforcement agent or bailiff, whose primary duty was to capture and detain debtors until they paid their debts. The term originates from the Middle Ages in England, where catchpoles were notorious for their aggressive methods of collecting debts. They would "catch" or apprehend individuals who owed money, using a "pole" or staff as a symbol of their authority.


Today, the term is largely obsolete and has taken on a more figurative meaning, describing someone who is seen as a henchman or an enforcer for another's bidding, particularly in a manner that is aggressive or underhanded. While the role of the catchpole has faded into history, the concept of debt collection remains, with modern-day agencies and legal frameworks that regulate the process to ensure fairness and prevent abuse.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A catchpole is a long pole with an attached noose at one end, used for controlling animals. Catchpoles are used by animal control officers and other people who interact with animals who may be dangerous or frightened, and thus difficult to control. This term is derived from a word meaning “chicken chaser,” a reference to one animal that can be chased down and captured with the use of a catchpole, and it has medieval origins.

According to some sources, catchpoles were once used in the capture and control of criminals during medieval times. Law enforcement in the medieval period was harsh, and devices known as “neck traps” were indeed used to control prisoners, but the design of such devices was significantly different from the modern catchpole. The belief that the catchpole was a law enforcement tool is probably the result of the historic use as “catchpole” as a slang term for law enforcement officers, referencing the aspect of the job involving tracking down criminals to bring them to justice.

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Woman posing

Referring to law enforcement officers as catchpoles is archaic, and this term in reference to a job title is usually encountered only in historical documents or works of fiction set during this era, although it lives on in the surnames of some families. The position of catchpole could be a busy one, as people were subject to criminal punishments for a wide variety of activities, including matters generally handled in civil courts today. People subject to apprehension were also usually eager to avoid capture because the conditions in medieval prisons could be very unpleasant.

The jailer's or gaoler's neck trap, sometimes confused with the catchpole, was a device used to control prisoners during interrogation and torture, in addition to being utilized to steer prisoners as they were moved around a jail or similar facility. The device had a large u-shaped attachment that could be used to encircle the neck of a prisoner for control, and sometimes barbs were added to make contact with the edges of the ring unpleasant. Modern catchpoles use a soft loop and the loop is usually designed to be as painless as possible to avoid causing injury or trauma.

Some training is required to learn to use a catchpole safely, as it is possible to cause strangulation or injury with the device. A trained animal control officer can successfully catch and control an animal with the device. Adjustable loops are available for handling everything from large dogs to snakes, with the long pole creating distance between handler and animal so handlers aren't injured.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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