Offending village morals once ran the risk of provoking a strange ritual response, writes CHRIS KOENIG

Might I have been one of the last people in Oxfordshire to witness a Skimmity Ride? It must have been in about 1957 or 1958, when I was a child in Combe. The scene was the village green, outside The Cock pub, and the commotion was a group of women and girls, clattering and shouting about, banging saucepans together.

Only by diligent inquiry addressed to embarrassed adults did I gather that disapproval of an unmarried girl who had got herself pregnant was being expressed.

If there was more to the story than that (and there probably was) I never learned the details.

Elsewhere in Britain, such activities were known as rough music, lew balling, riding the stag, stag-hunting, ran-tanning or skimmington, but in Oxfordshire skimmity-riding was the expression used.

But whatever the name, the practice, described in fiction in Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge and painted by Hogarth, has an ancient history as a way of a community condemning any perceived moral laxity, such as a man marrying too young a girl, adultery, a widow remarrying too soon after the death of her husband, illegitimacy, wife-beating, hen-pecking of husbands, scolds, men who neglected their families or any 'loose' sexual behaviour.

Participants in the ritual believed that, provided the victim was not actually named, the activity was perfectly legal. They therefore started the proceedings with an anonymous accusation, often couched in doggerel verse, known as a nominy.

The diary of a young carpenter of Lower Heyford, called George James Dew, describes a skimmity ride in which he participated almost exactly 140 years ago, on Valentine's Day, 1867.

"Rough Music was heard tonight, although not an organised band, on account of some misdeeds on the train between a married woman a Mrs Thomas of Aston and George Coggins, baker, of Lower Heyford. The man in question is a drunkard." The next night, though, things were better organised.

Mr Dew wrote: "This evening there was a regular organised band both at Aston and Heyford of rough music. The Heyford party went down to George Coggins and the Aston party followed them."

And on the third night, things were no better either: "They had effigies of Mrs Thomas and George Coggins; she with a large crinoline and bonnet, and he a stout fellow with his baking apron on. They were mounted on poles and kissing each other at every short interval."

Our diarist adds: "This has been the practice in all occasions of known adultery or a man beating his wife. The punishment to the offenders must, I am sure, be very sharp. I somehow approve of it because it is a manifestation of the hatred of the public to such acts."

The pole upon which the effigies of the targets were displayed was known as a stang. Sometimes, the effigies were mounted on a donkey facing backwards. I am grateful for these details to Steve Roud and his book The English Year.

It seems that what I saw and heard in Combe was a very tame reflection of a full-blown skimmity ride. It was all fairly good-humoured. Sometimes, rides in the past were anything but. Effigies were shot, burned, or beaten to pieces and, worse, occasionally the real people were caught and almost killed: a dunking in the village pond was the best they could expect.