Skimmerton Riding in Stoke St Gregory
This form of ‘rough justice’ was common in Victorian England, but it seems that Stoke was host to the ‘Mother of all Skimmertons’. On 24th May 1879, the Bristol Mercury reported the incident. Here are a few excerpts:
“SKIMMERTON RIDING - William Pearce, Edward Pearce, James Dare, Thorn Boobier, John Boobier, William Hembrow, Benjamin Johnson, Samuel Loveridge, Lambert Hearne, William Chedzoy, James Burt, John Brewer, and William Hearne, all from Stoke St Gregory, were charged with rioting and assaulting seven police-constables on the 1st of May.”
The ‘great disturbance’ of the previous evening was brought about by the alleged behavior of the local constable, PC Sparks. “a man who was alleged to have taken undue liberties with a young girl, from the result of which she was enceinte [pregnant], and, as the solicitor for the defence put it, the virtuous indignation of the inhabitants was aroused.”
“seven policemen were despatched to the place, but they were knocked about and severely ill-used by a crowd of 150 - 200 persons, who belaboured them with heavy bludgeons . . . several of them were knocked down senseless, two of whom were severely wounded and had to be removed from the scene in carriages.”
Hogarth's depiction - "Hudibras Encounters the Skimmington"
All the men were committed to trial. The woman concerned was Ellen Kinglake, who died giving birth to the resulting child. Born in 1858, Ellen was the daughter of Samuel and Sarah Kinglake, the family living in Meare Green, somewhere near Squire’s bakery. Samuel had died by then. Sarah and her older daughter Matilda were both noted as washerwomen in the 1871 census.
Skimmertons, Skimmingtons or Charivari, are recorded from medieaval times, the name possibly deriving from the skimming ladle used to take the cream off the milk in dairy processing, which was also supposed to be the weapon used by a woman to beat a henpecked husband. The justifications varied, a favourite being the villagers' disapproval of a man for weakness in his relationship with his wife, maybe even accepting her extra marital relationships. Communities, however, used "rough music", as it was also called, to express their disapproval of any violation of community norms.
Depiction of a Charivari from the Roman de Fauvel C 1300
The noisy parade passed through the village, and also served as a warning to others to abide by community norms. In its most violent form, a wrongdoer or wrongdoers might be dragged from their home or place of work and paraded by force through the village. In the process they were subject to the derision of the crowd.
Sometimes special rhymes were written for the occasion:
“Has beat his wife!
Has beat his wife!
It is a very great shame and disgrace
To all who live in this place
It is indeed, upon my life!”
Some will remember Thomas Hardy's 1884 novel,‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’. Effigies of Mayor Henchard and Lucetta, a former lover, are paraded through the streets on a donkey by a noisy crowd. Lucetta, now respectably married to Henchard's rival, collapses in humiliation. More recently, there was a depiction of an incident in a Warwickshire community in 1909 (Fig 3, from Illustrated London News, 14 August 1909).
Finally, Midsomer Murder fans might remember the episode where John Nettles has to to come to terms with the principles of Skimmerton. Out on a family trip, the Chief Inspector finds himself investigating a murder, but they were all there to attend the annual Skimmington Fair, a decades-old village féte that pitted the women against the misogynist men.
At the hearing, the Stoke men were accused of “assaulting W. Dicks, R. Raymond, J. Sparks, T. Stuckey. M. Coles, H. Brimble, and W. U., police-constables.” According to the police statements: “the mob began to surge and sway about, and they succeeded in surrounding Constable Sparks . . . Constable Dicks received a wound which felled him to the ground. It was a mercy that some of the constables were not killed. One of the policemen was struck with something which cut through his helmet, and made a wound on his head . . . heard a blow, and on looking round he saw blood streaming from the forehead of Constable Dicks. The lamp he was wearing was smashed in." The magistrates then retired, and after consulting for some minutes returned with their decision that all should be committed for trial.
The story was repeated at the jury trial on 9th July, with additional material being discussed about the behaviour of Constable Sparks. He was asked “if he had ever had illict intercourse with a young woman named Ellen Kinglake.” There was no denial, although Ellen’s age was disputed. The Vicar of Stoke, The Rev Gurney, also had a part in the story. After the disturbance of 30th April, he had written to Superintendent Goldsmith asking for men to be sent the next day. “It was also suggested that the men should be sent in plain clothes and should secrete themselves in the vicar’s garden, so that they might see what persons took part in the disturbance.”
The way the police had handled the situation, combined with the behaviour of Constable Sparks, must have influenced the jury: “The jury after retiring to consider their verdict returned into court and in answer to the formal question said they had found all the prisoners Not Guilty on all counts.”
Download the pdf HERE which includes more details of the hearing and trial