IN days gone by, if your sexual shenanigans became public knowledge, you faced humiliation and ridicule in a riotous, drink-fuelled ceremony, in which your effigy was burned outside your own door.

This was known as “riding the stang”.

It was a folk punishment for outraging common decency – usually for extra-marital affairs, but also for beating either your wife or your husband.

Loading article content

For instance, in 1877 there was what the Darlington & Stockton Times’ headline writer described as a “matrimonial scandal near Barnard Castle”.

Robert Plews was in court for soundly thrashing a man half his age, Henry Coates, whom he had found hiding barefoot in his coalhouse.

Robert knew that Henry, 20, had been carrying on with Mary, his wife of 20 years who was the mother of his “eight or nine children”. In fact, the whole of the dale knew about it.

Henry had lodged with Robert and Mary in their home in Boldron, a village near Bowes on the A66, but the lodgings had developed into longings, and Henry and Mary had run off together to Guisborough for a month. From there, they had had the “crowning impudence” to send Robert a bill for £1 five shillings to cover Mary’s share of the cost of her illicit getaway.

When they came home, and Robert found Henry cowering in the coalhouse in a suspicious state of undress, he delivered the thrashing.

“The ‘yarking’ which the complainant got, he richly deserved,” said Robert’s defence solicitor. “Here was a man after 20 years of married life, with a family of eight or nine children living, having the decency of his home outraged by such disgusting proceedings which had become the common talk of the whole countryside.”

Not just common talk – common action. Effigies of Henry and Mary had been made, drink was consumed in great quantities, and then “riding the stang” began.

“Both (Henry and Mary) were burnt in effigy for three successive nights in the village, when great stir was made,” said the D&S Times.

A “stang” was a pole. In some places, the effigy of the adulterer was tied to the pole and carried around the village until it was burned; in other places, the pole was placed across two strong men’s shoulders and the stangmaster sat upon it, banging a pan and orchestrating a fearful din; and in really vindictive places, the victims of the stang themselves were tied to the pole and dragged shamefully around the village.

Usually, the stangmaster shouted a rhyme which included details of the supposed crime. For instance, this is rhyme from Muker shaming a wife-beater:

Ran, dan, dan.

It is neither for thy part nor my part that I ride the stang. It is for Mrs X and her old man.

He banged her, he banged her, he banged her indeed. He banged poor Mrs X till she did bleed.

He neither took stick, stone, nor stour. But he up with his fist and knocked her three times o’er.

So all you good neighbours that live in the row, I’d have you take notice that his is our law.

If you or your neighbours should chance to fall out, we’ll do the same trick without any doubt.

In the Boldron case, the defence solicitor suggested that this vigilante action showed the community at its best.

“With regard to the custom of riding the stang, which had been observed at Boldron for three successive nights, it was an evidence of the reputability of a place whose inhabitants openly disavowed such immoral conduct,” said the Teesdale Mercury, paraphrasing him.

The solicitor urged the magistrates to “return the Welsh verdict of ‘served him right’,” said the Mercury.

Mary, who had also been beaten by Robert following the coalhouse yarking, claimed that he had been carrying on with a 22-year-old woman while working away in Hexham. She also said that “the men who burnt the effigies were hired for drink”.

The chairman of the bench, WT Hustler, said that “during his 30 years’ experience as a magistrate, he had not known such disgraceful conduct”. But rather than fine or even imprison Robert for his violence, he merely bound him over to keep the peace and advised him “to arrange a separation”.

The D&S concluded its report: “The decision was greeted with applause by the crowded court.”

MEMORIES 352 told of an incident of “riding the stang” in Richmond in November 1867 when 400 people turned up outside the house of Mrs Edys Moore in Frenchgate for several nights of “creating a violent noise and riotous conduct”.

Mrs Moore’s crime is not recorded, but her effigy was burned, and when eight men were fined for their part in the stang, there was a whipround in the town, suggesting that, just like in Boldron where the lenient sentence given to Mr Plews was applauded, the community was backing the vigilante action.

Richmond has a long history of stang-riding, although the 1867 incident is unusual as it happened in a good area of town, and the turn-out was huge – the town’s population was about 4,250. If you were a boisterous young man, being paid in beer to go riding the stang was probably very good fun.

GAYLES is a three-street village a little to the south of Boldron where riding the stang was fairly frequent 150 years ago.

“They commandeered old Bob Marwood’s flat cart, placed a box on it on which the leader of the stang sat, while the rest of the party pushed and pulled the cart to the top of each of the streets,” recorded Isaac Coates in his memoirs of life in the village near Richmond in the 1850s.

He says that a long piece of doggerel was shouted, which ended by threatening any would-be wifebeaters: “If any of your wives you do bang, we’ll mount the ladder and ride the stang. Hip hip hooray!”

Issac also noted that the victim of the stang – the stangee? – would sometimes respond by bombarding the stang party with stones in a bid to disperse the people taking part.

THE stang seems to have lived longest in the Leyburn area. In 1900, there is a report from the village of Thoralby of a wife-beater getting the humiliating treatment. On this occasion, the stangmaster’s poem recorded the nature of the husband’s violence:

“He threw her downstairs just like a bull mastie,

And swore he would kill her if she went wi’ his pastie.”

One reader kindly sent in a cutting from the Lincolnshire Echo dated January 21, 1901, headlined “riding the stang” and telling of a juicy incident at Coverdale, near Leyburn.

The cutting said: “The ancient custom of ‘riding the stang’ has been revived in the North Riding of Yorkshire. In the three townships of Carlton, West Scrafton and Caldbergh, in Coverdale, three unfaithful husbands have just undergone the salutary punishment of being forcibly seated on a stang (or pole) hoisted on men’s shoulders, and so carried in procession through the villages of the accompaniment of hooting and jeering.”

Our informant is the great-grandchild of one these unfaithful husbands, and this appears to be the last time that the stang was ever ridden in this nick of the woods.

MANY thanks to everyone who has been in touch, including Boldron historian Catherine Ryan, and Jon Smith of the award-winning Barningham Local History Group which recently republished the memoirs of Isaac Coates of Gayles under the title of A Farmer’s Boy. Jane Hatcher of Richmond has also been an invaluable help.

Other contributors include Trev Pearson, and David Oliver, who wrote: “This custom was named differently in parts of England. Thomas Hardy writes a wonderfully evocative description of it in The Mayor Of Casterbridge, which is based in Dorset where it was known as a ‘Skimmington Ride’.

“There was a similar incident recorded in Oxfordshire in the late 1950s which is thought to have been the last.”

  • If you have any more stang-related tales to tell, please get in touch: chris.lloyd@nne.co.uk.