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  • William Tyler

Social Protest, Social Support

'Rough Music' is the usual name given in England to the old, largely rural custom, of showing community disapproval of marital infidelity or other sexual impropriety. It took the form of a procession to the miscreant's house and the summoning of him/her to the door by the playing of pots, pans, kettles, spoons, cow horns, etc. to make a loud and discordant noise. This custom of humiliation is known across Europe, and the French name, Charivari, is often also used to describe it.


Thomas Hardy in his novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, uses the word Skimmington. This West Country word is said to derive from the use of a ladle used by women in cheesemaking (a Skimmington, ie a skimmer). An irate wife would use her ladle to belay her errant husband. Hardy, writing in 1884, puts the following words in the mouth of one of his characters, ''tis a' old and foolish thing they do in these parts when a man's wife is - well, not too particularly his own'. How nicely coy and middle-class of Hardy! In fact, it was the late Victorian middle class that saw of many of our traditional customs as being too rough, including 'Rough Music', and they sought to ban them. The Act of Parliament which drew a line under 'Rough Music' activities was The Highways Act of 1882. Some of the last recorded cases come after The Second World War in Sussex, at West Hoathly. However, the custom has become quite a tourist attraction today in the Northamptonshire village of Broughton, where 'The Tin Can Band' parade the village at midnight on the third Sunday in December.


Perhaps the best known historical example is given by Samuel Pepys in his diary entry for 10th June 1667. He observed the custom, which he called 'a riding', in Greenwich. He was only at Greenwich because on that very day the Dutch Fleet had reached The Nore, thereby threatening London itself. Pepys writes, '....Greenwich, where I find the stairs (landing place) full of people, there being a great riding there today for a man, the constable of the town, whose wife beat him'.


In the riotous years following the Napoleonic Wars, the custom came to be used as a form of social and communal protest against the actions of landowners, farmers, clergy, Poor Law Officers, etc whose actions fell harshly on the poor. In my county of Sussex, 'Rough Music' was employed, along with far more violent actions, during the agricultural Swing Riots of the 1830s.


In fact, it was in Sussex that some of the last examples are to be found, in the village of West Hoathly after The Second World War.


However, in Sussex, and across the country, 'Rough Music, has been re-invented for a new cause, not one of protest this time, but one of support - support for The NHS workers and others at 8pm on Thursday evenings. I am pleased to report that my wife and I jumped at the chance of making rough music by beating an old brass gong. I wonder why the neighbours are no longer speaking to us!

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