5th November 1884. ‘Riding the Skimmerty’.

‘A punishment invented to awe Masculine wives who transgress Nature’s Law’. (Andrew Marvell).

He was talking about the ‘Skimmington (Skimmerty) Ride’, which Thomas Hardy tells about in his Mayor of Casterbridge, which was part of British folk-lore until the early 20thc. (1)

It was a rustic tradition along with ‘rough music’, banging pots and pans or anything to make a noise, and which involved effigies of shrewish, scolding or licentious women and weak husbands such as cuckolds, or those beaten by their wives.

It was a matrimonial lynch law, or metaphorical pillory, for the village lower orders against those transgressing marital duties and enraging public opinion. Often it meant the departure of those offending the village sense of decency and accepted norms of behaviour.

It was a similar thinking and punishment to the old 17thc custom of putting women to the cucking (ducking) stool, and was still going strong, for Today on ‘Wednesday the 5th instant’ the Bridport News in 1884 reported  ‘A Skimmerton Riding’ that had recently occurred in the Parish of Whitechurch Canocorum West Dorset.(2)

‘This unusually quiet parish was in a state of some excitement…About six-o-clock…just as darkness began to reign a strange noise…of the sound of trays and kettles, and it was soon found that a ‘Skimmerton Riding’ was in progress’.

Hogarth. Sir Hudibras encounters a Skimmington.

Sir Hudibras by Samuel Butler, encounters a Skimmington. William Hogarth.

The  Dorset County Chronicle also about this time reported a prosecution for assault at Okeford Fitzpaine which arose from Skimmington-Riding, which according to the Chairman of the Bench, ‘revealed not for the first time the discreditable state of the village’.

The Diarist, Samuel Pepys describes how on 10th June 1667, he went ‘down to Greenwich where I find the stairs full of people there being a great ‘riding’ there today for a man constable of town whose wife beat him’.

Husband rides on cowle staffe to expose him and his wife. Montacute

Husband rides on cowle staffe to expose him and his wife. Montacute House frieze.

At Montacute House there is a 17thc rustic frieze showing the rough justice being meted out to a man, showing him being hit by shoe for drinking instead of looking after baby. This being witnessed by the neighbours, the man was paraded as effigy on a pole round the village whilst playing a flute.

The name Skimmington appears to come from the skimming ladle used in butter and cheese-making, and is associated with the wood and pasture areas in England’s West Country and elsewhere.

Direct action by these villagers, as a kind of vigilante exercise, was felt to be needed, as opposed to the more cohesive arable areas where parson and squire could exert some kind of influence.(3)

The 1882 Highways Act regarded Skimmington Riding as obstruction, but was largely ignored.

(1) Ch VXi V 2.  Mayor of Casterbridge 1886. Describes tragic effect on Lucetta ex wife of the Mayor, who after seeing their effigies paraded round the village dies.

(2) Article in Bridport News, 14th November 1884.

(3) There is said to be a 13thc portrayal in an English church which depicts a man being hit with skimming ladle which I need to research.

Ref: Order and Disorder in Early Modern England 1987. Fletcher A and Stevenson J.

Ref: wikipedia.org/skimmington/Pic of Hogarth.

Ref: montacutehouse.blogspot/Pic of frieze.

Ref: darkdorset.co.uk/skimmerty-riding.






About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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