Location: Whitchurch Canonicorum.
A Skimmity we shall go
Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote in his book 'Dorsetshire Folklore' published in 1922:
"No account of Dorsetshire customs connected with marriages would be complete without some reference to a "Skimmington", or, as it is sometimes called, a "Skimmity Riding", which is a kind of matrimonial lynch law or pillory intended for those in a lower class of life, who, in certain glaring particulars, may have transgressed their marital duties and have thus brought upon themselves this, the strongest expression of outraged public opinion that a country district is capable of conveying.1 There is such an excellent and full description, both as to what a "Skimmington riding" is, and of the causes for which it takes place, given in Roberts's History of Lyme Regis, published in 1834, that I cannot do better than quote it in full here :—
"Skimmington riding still continues to hold its ground. In an account I gave of it to the late Sir Walter Scott in 1828 is the information contained in this narrative. Skimmington riding is a great moral agent, not perhaps so much in restraining the vicious as in causing them to shun public observation, thereby not holding out bad examples to the rising youth of both sexes; in a word, it checks those instances of openly profligate and licentious conduct, which else might become too prevalent among the lower orders, who cannot, like their superiors, have recourse to legal proceedings against the person who has injured them, or divorce; it brands with infamy all gross instances of licentiousness, and exposes to lasting ridicule those couples who by their dissensions disturb the quiet and order of the neighbourhood, and so set a bad example either by struggling for domestic ascendancy, or by their quarrelsome dispositions. A Skimmington riding makes many laugh ; but the parties for whom they ride never lose the ridicule and disgrace which it attaches. So far, it is a punishment, like the visit of Mumbo Jumbo in Africa.2 The following are the principal causes for riding the Skimmington:
(i) When a man and his wife quarrel and he gives up to her.
(ii) When a woman is unfaithful to her husband, and he patiently
submits without resenting her conduct.
(iii) Any grossly licentious conduct on the part of married persons."
As an instance of the first cause Mr. Roberts cites from Hudibras, Part II, Canto ii, 11. 685 et seq., and continues :
"About dusk two individuals came out of some obscure street, attended by a crowd, whose laughter, huzzas, etc., emulate the well-known Charivari of the French. The two performers are sometimes in a cart, at other times on a donkey, one personating the wife, the other the husband. They beat each other furiously with the culinary weapons above described, and, warmed by the applause and presence of so many spectators for all turn out to see a Skimmington), their dialogue attains a freedom, except in using surnames, only comparable with their gestures. On arriving at the house of the parties represented in this moving drama animation is at its height; the crowd usually stay at that spot some minutes and then traverse the town. The performers are remunerated by the spectators ; the parties that parade the streets with the performers sweep with besoms the doors of those who are likely to require a similar visitation
See Dr. King's Miscellany :
'When the young people ride the Skimmington
There is a general trembling in the town ;
Not only her for whom the party rides
Suffers, but they sweep other doors besides.
And by that hieroglyphic does appear
That the good woman is the master there.'
"Mr. Douce derives Skimmington from the skimming-ladle used in the procession. Mr. Brand says ' None of the commentators on Hudibras have attempted an elucidation of the ceremony. Hogarth has illustrated it.'"
Mr. Roberts's account drew from the great " Wizard of the North " a very interesting reply, and as it gives a variant of the custom as obtaining in Scotland, and, moreover. Sir Walter Scott's letter does not appear to have been otherwise published or known, I give it here :—
"We had, or perhaps I might say still have, a similar ritual of popular interference in Scotland, in case of gross scandal or nuptial transgressions and public quarrels in a household It is called ' riding the stang ', the peccant party being seated across a pole (or stang) is no very comfortable position. You will find some notice of the custom in Jamieson's Scottish Dictionary voce Stang. I think the Doctor does not mention that men and women also were sometimes exposed to ride the stang on account of incontinence.
"Then followed the custom-kept rout, shout, and flare
The Bride-night Fire by Thomas Hardy
Burns made some clever verses (not in his collected works) on a comrade of his who had been accessory to such a Saturnalian scene of punishment, in which the exposed female had suffered bodily injury, upon which account the regular police had looked after the parties who had interfered with their regular vocation. I have read in Brand's Popular Antiquities, or some such authority, that scholars in the English Universities were subjected to the stang when they neglect prayers. You will find a poem on the Skimmington among Prior s poems, not the folio edition where it is omitted, but in the large collection. When they ride the Skimmington, it would seem they swept the doors of those whom they threatened with similar discipline."
It will be noticed here that "Riding the Stang" approaches more nearly to the African ceremony of Mumbo Jumbo where in the " peccant party " takes an active — or perhaps I should rather say a passive — part in the performance; whereas in a "Skimmington-riding" the punishment, in its physical effects at all events, is vicarious, and the whole ceremony is in character an effigy.
Mr. Roberts states that in 1828 " skimming-riding" still continued to hold its ground. The lapse of another half century, with its increased enlightenment and education amongst the masses, leaves us in the same position—so far, at least, as Dorsetshire is concerned—if we believe the account given in the Bridport News in November, 1884, of a "skimmerton-riding "(as it is there called) that had recently occurred in the parish of Whitechurch Canonicorum in West Dorset, which is interesting as showing us what changes (if any) have been wrought by that half-century in the character of the performance. The extract is as follows :—
"On Wednesday, the 5th inst., this usually quiet parish was in a state of some excitement, owing to a demonstration of a peculiar character, not immediately connected with the day, which, however, was selected for the purpose by the superior judgment of the promoters. About six o'clock in the evening, just as darkness began to reign, a strange noise was heard as of the sound of trays and kettles, and it was soon found that a "skimmerton-riding" was in progress, such a thing not having been known for years in this parish. Three grotesquely attired figures were to be seen escorted by a procession consisting of persons dressed in various queer and eccentric costumes, and who paraded the parish, also visiting Morcombelake and Ryal. The figures alluded to appeared to the villagers to represent three personages who were very well known to them, there being a male and two females, whose past conduct had caused them to be made the subject of this queer exhibition. The two female characters were conveyed about on the backs of what are described as celebrated 'Jerusalems', which certainly seemed pretty well to enter into the joke, for one of them particularly displayed his innate agility in a surprising manner. One of the females was represented as having an extraordinary long tongue, which was tied back to the neck, whilst in one hand she held some note-paper, and in the other pen and holder. Those forming the procession were literally 'wetted' at the various inns, and after their perambulations were concluded they repaired to a certain field where a gallows was erected, and on which the effigies were hung and afterwards burnt, having previously been well saturated with some highly inflammable liquid. Nearly two hundred people assembled in the field, and a naming light was maintained by torches. The extraordinary proceedings terminated with a fight, in which black eyes and bloody noses were not absent. However, the Riot Act was not read, the military was not called out, and the crowd dispersed about midnight, when the village resumed its wonted quietude."
This does not appear to have been the only "Skimmington-riding" that took place in the county that year, for in the 'Dorset County Chronicle' appeared an account of certain proceedings for assault taken by one woman against another at Okeford Fitzpaine. The proceedings arose out of certain circumstances which had occasioned a "Skimmington-riding " in the parish, and that not for the first time, the evidence revealing, as the Chairman said, a very discreditable state of things in the village.3
It is not often that the representation of a "skimmity riding" is conveyed in sculpture, but at a visit of the Dorset Field Club to Montacute House on the somerset borders' in September, 1908, Mr. Edward Phelips, son of Mr. W. R. Phelips, the owner of the property, read a short paper upon the many objects of interest contained in the house, in which, in speaking of the hall, he said :—
"The interestof the room centres in the plaster work at the northern end of the room representing the old custom of 'Riding the Stang' or Skimmity Riding '. The story represents the master of the house helping himself to beer with one hand, while with the other he nurses the baby. His wife is just about to chastise him with her shoe, while interested neighbour is watching the proceedings from the background. The sequel is also shown, when the poor man is paraded round the village, exposed to public ridicule for his inability to keep his wife in order"
Mr. Phelips spoke of the style of the ornamentation of this room as having been introduced into England from Holland in 1580; so that we may gather some idea as to the length of time that "skimmity riding " has been a popular institution in the West of England.4
"I say, what a good foundation for a skimmity-ride," said Nance.
'The Mayor of Casterbridge' by Thomas Hardy, 1886
Probably few readers of the Wessex Novels will need to be reminded of the dramatic description of a "Skimmington-riding" given by Mr. Thomas Hardy, in chapter xvi of the second volume of "The Mayor of Casterbridge", published in 1886, and the tragic effect which that coarsely humorous spectacle had upon the unfortunate woman whose supposed laxity of conduct had afforded the excuse for the exhibition.5
1. For instances of such mediaeval lynch laws now in modern use, see Notes and Queries, Ser. vm, xii, 465, and Sen ix, i, 27.
2. See Mungo Park's Travels in the Interior of Africa (1799), and Notes and Queries, Ser. vm, ii, 95.
3. The same paper, about this time, contained references to similiar proceedings which took place at Hope Square, Weymouth.
4. See Dorest Field Club's Proceedings (1908), vol. xxix, p. lxxxiii
5. According to Rev. C. W Whistler, in Folk-Lore, vol. xix, p.90, Black Torrington, in North devon, still keeps up the ancient custom of "Skimmington riding" when some village scandal is to be held up to public reprobation. The Rev. S. Baring -Gould's novel, Red Spider, is also there referred to for a very full description of such a function, the scene being laid in a village close at hand, and the ritual observed being still in use.