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Berkshire Family Historian
June 2003

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Berkshire Family Historian
Main Page, June 2003 Contents

Rough music, or morality in the community
Neila Warner

In 1626 an English fanner, Robert Moxam, wrote that ‘William Merrydeth, servant unto William Hollowaie of Marden, and John Broadbanke, servant unto one William Lavington...with many others in a disorderly manner came through town of Marden with guns, drums, coalrakes, ovenlugs and staves, setting upon a horseback two young fellows, one of them arrayed and clothed in woman’s apparel; and. . . when they came over against this informer’s door they there made stand beating up the drums and shooting off their guns there in a scoffing and disorderly manner.’1 This was an early example of ‘rough riding’ or ‘rough music’ that Moxam describes as a type of shaming ritual. These rituals were often related to wife battering and cuckoldry. Those who took part saw themselves as preserving what they believed to be essential in maintaining communal morality.

Rough music was at times elaborate. E P Thompson writes in his seminal study that the ritual ‘might include the riding of the victim (or proxy) upon a pole or a donkey; masking and dancing ... mime or street drama upon a car or platform; the miming of a ritual hunt; or (frequently) the parading and burning of effigies; or, indeed, various combinations of all these.’2 Neila Warner at the Berkshire Record Office found some case-papers describing the practice as applied in Berkshire and how local residents reacted to a case of suspected wife beating.

'...a custom almost universally prevails in villages and rural districts whenever a quarrel takes place between a man and his wife and the husband resorts to violence against his wife for the labourers and other idle inhabitants of the parish & neighbourhood to assemble together equipped with flags, horns, bells, pieces of iron & all kinds of sonorous instruments with which they resort towards the evening to the house where the unfortunate couple reside and create all the noise and disturbance in their power much to the chagrin of the unhappy husband and greatly to the annoyance of the quiet & orderly inhabitants of the village & neighbourhood where these scenes took place.’3 William Goble of Bearwood was subjected to this treatment in 1839. On Saturday 17 August William had a quarrel with his wife at the end of which he is said to have struck her two or three times with a thin stick. He was apparently angry because for several nights she had persisted in going to the house of a neighbour where she stayed until two in the morning. On Monday 19 August he went to Sonning for the day and returned at seven in the evening to find his wife very unwell, with a Doctor Wheeler in attendance. Soon afterwards a group of 18 men and boys gathered outside the house to make ‘rough music’ for half-an-hour. On five further evenings in August the gatherings increased, until a mob of 40 took part. The result was an acrimonious exchange between Mr. Goble and the ‘musicians’. One, Richard Chap, reminded him, ‘this is always the rule where a man beats his wife’. William Goble denied the charge. The doctor who attended his wife testified that in his opinion ‘the indisposition of the wife did not arise in any way from the ill-treatment of her husband.’ The mob were not satisfied and carried on with the ‘music’. Eventually Robert Howard, a gardener working for a local landowner, John Walter, who lived close to the Goble residence, arrived with two companions to complain about the disturbance and to ask the mob to desist. When his plea failed, he and his associates seized some of the ‘musicians’ by their collars in an effort to disperse them by force, although apparently no actual blows were struck on either side. The struggle continued for half an hour, after which the mob left.

On Monday 2 September, there were again 40 people outside Goble’s house and Robert Howard sent for the Constable, George Blake, to disperse them. A half-hearted attempt to carry on the persecution was made by a few people the next day, but there was little disturbance and they soon moved away.

The strength of feeling in the community is further demonstrated in an anonymous letter to one of John Walter’s men which stated, ‘if I was your wife you should not have a bit of sugar in your tea. I would put a turd in to see if that would sweeten it’.

The gentry are generally thought to have turned a blind eye to ‘rough music’, and in this particular case there is a suggestion that another landowner, Mr. Simonds, may actually have been behind it, since he apparently found William Goble obnoxious and wished to drive him from the neighbourhood. There were certainly several of his labourers among the ringleaders.

The authorities in Wokingham deliberated over a prosecution of the ringleaders for nuisance and riot, but eventually decided that there was not enough evidence to present a case with any fair expectation of obtaining a conviction as no act of violence was intended or committed. They also feared that the case might come to be regarded as one between John Walter, the owner of the Bearfield estate (and also owner of The Times) and Mr. Simonds.

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A typical example of ‘rough riding’ with the husband riding with his back to the donkey’s head and being railed by men and women

Another case took place at Billericay, Essex, a year before the one in Berkshire; this time it reached the petty sessions and apparently ‘afforded considerable amusement’ to the community. Francis Hole, ‘a sporting gentleman of small fortune’ is said to have made himself ‘obnoxious to most of the inhabitants in the parish and neighbourhood’. A group of local men and women seemed to have hatched a ‘rough music’ session in the local public house, the Shepherd and Dog. They paraded outside Hole’s residence in the morning and according to one witness ‘mingled soft sounds of clarinets with the rough tones of saucepan lids and tins with stones in them’. The ‘rough music’ was played with the clear intention ‘of forcing the complainant out of the village’. A local farmer gave evidence for the defendants so it was apparent that there was considerable support for their campaign to oust this unpopular resident.

According to witnesses they were determined to evict him with a ‘little bit of music and indulge in village jollity’. It was clearly a day of general rejoicing in the village, but the defendants were found guilty and fined a shilling each and costs. However, a considerable fund was raised locally and their fines were paid immediately.4

As we have seen ‘rough music’ was not a specifically Berkshire pursuit. Thompson writes that it is a generic term for a wide variety of popular rituals in which an embarrassing punishment is meted out in public to individuals who have offended the community. He states that the term was coined in the late seventeenth century and is the equivalent of the French ‘charivari’, Italian ‘scampanate’ and German ‘haberfeld-treiben, thierjagen, or ‘katzenmusik’. In parts of Britain it was also called skimmity-ride.

In his novel The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy describes a skimmity-ride where effigies of the two victims of an unfortunate liaison were mounted on a donkey and accompanied by the ‘musicians’. The lady became so distraught that she died.

References and further reading

1 Ingram, Martin. ‘Ridings, Rough Music and Mocking Rhymes in Early Modern England’ in Barry Reay, ed. Popular Culture in Seventeenth-Century England, 1985

2 Thompson, E P. ‘Le Charivari anglais’, Annales (économies, sociétés, civilizations), 27e année (1972). Customs in Common. Chapter 8 ‘Rough Music’, pp 497-531. (1983)


4 The Times quoting the Chelmsford Chronicle, 29 October 1838, 6e

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