By Cassie Watson; posted 26 December 2022.
The records created by the criminal justice system can reveal ancillary details about people’s lives that are far more interesting than any crime or punishment. A case of vitriol throwing that occurred in March 1842 provides an unusual example of this kind, and may force us to revise what we know about the Scottish experience of ‘rough music’.
The circumstances in which Ann Beaton threw vitriol at two teenage boys stands out as a possibly unique instance of the use of a burning effigy in a Scottish episode of rough music. Historians of shame David Nash and Anne-Marie Kilday found that effigies were neither used nor burned in Scotland or Wales, only in England. Yet in Pathhead, Fifeshire, Ann Beaton was subjected to just such a shaming ritual.
A Riotous and Disorderly Assembly
The incident occurred the week after Beaton’s husband, a manufacturer and grocer, was found on his business premises with another man’s wife, a discovery that caused a good deal of excitement in the neighbourhood. On 21 March a large crowd of men, women and children assembled outside the Beaton house, jeering, throwing stones and calling out that Peter Beaton’s effigy would be burned on account of his immorality. Verbal insults were shouted, and Beaton called in the police for protection. The crowd dispersed without burning the effigy, but a mob of 60 to 100 boys and girls returned the next evening, intent on “conducting themselves in a riotous and disorderly manner, calculated to hurt the feelings of [Mrs Beaton] and her husband.” Ann Beaton was not alone in the house — her young children, a female visitor and a servant girl of 12 were with her — but her husband was in his warehouse some distance away. He had, however, given notice to the police that they would again be needed. But this information was not passed on to the local constable, who had been criticised for staying too close to the crowd the day before.
Mrs Beaton put up with the commotion for as long as she could, though it made her cry. But when the teenage boys started waving burning sticks and rattling her door, one took hold of her dress as she tried to close the shutters, and she was struck in the leg by a small stone, she reached the end of her forbearance: she threw a small basin of vitriol at those nearest the front door, hitting two of her tormenters. The police arrived at 9pm, as the mob was dispersing, and Ann Beaton “reproached them for being lax in their duty and said she’d done for them herself.” In her own defence, she referred to the annoyance and irritation the crowd had caused, not to a sense of shame at her husband’s alleged misbehaviour; but this was clearly a full-blown episode of rough music, designed to humiliate both husband and wife. The jury at her trial evidently empathised with Beaton: they convicted her of common assault, but strongly recommended her to the mercy of the court, “owing to the great provocation she received.” She was sentenced to six months in gaol.
“They intended to show their displeasure at such conduct by burning what is called an effigy.”
Popularly sanctioned shaming rituals were called by different names in different parts of the United Kingdom, including charivari, riding skimmington, riding the stang, rough music and the ceffyl pren. The term ‘lewbelling’ was used in Warwickshire; the image below depicts an incident that occurred in 1909. Rough music was, broadly speaking, a noisy, mocking demonstration against individuals who had committed some infraction of a community’s moral or social norms. It could take different forms depending on when, where and why it occurred, but it often targeted people who had engaged in sexual immorality. Miscreants were paraded in effigy and, according to Stephen Banks, many such episodes “terminated with the additional burning of the effigy.”
This is clearly what the children who taunted Peter Beaton intended to do, and the teenager who was carrying the effigy was one of the two boys splashed with vitriol. It is certain that the effigy was set alight before Ann Beaton threw the acid: witnesses testified to seeing a burning stick four or five feet long being waved in front of her window and front door. They did not describe exactly what was burning atop the stick; but all the witnesses, and the press reports, referred to an effigy. If, as Nash and Kilday assert, the burning of effigies was not typically practiced in Scottish examples of rough music, then this incident stands out as unique. It was not unusual for young men and adolescents to deliver popular justice, but why were these boys so determined to burn an effigy?
A possible explanation lies in the fact that there was also a tradition of burning effigies of national figures, as a form of political statement. Waves of burnings targeted Lord Bute and Thomas Paine in the eighteenth century, and national enemies such as Napoleon Bonaparte in the nineteenth. In February and early March 1842, Sir Robert Peel was burnt in effigy in a number of manufacturing towns throughout England, Wales and Scotland, as a mark of popular detestation of his proposed modification of the sliding scale of duties imposed on imported corn. This timing is suggestive, as burnings took place in several Scottish towns in Fifeshire, including Cupar, Auchtermuchty, and Milton of Balgonie (where the effigy was first shot, and then burned). Peel was also burnt in effigy in Dundee and Montrose (this article described him as “England’s prime minister”), in the neighbouring county of Forfarshire.
In his recent work on the Welsh ceffyl pren, Richard Ireland noted that “The reporting of this ‘ancient Welsh custom’ may have encouraged its adoption in areas which had no first-hand experience of the practice itself.” Something similar may have occurred in Pathhead. Peter Beaton’s misbehaviour was discovered the week before he was targeted for rough music, and the events that followed occurred on the evenings of Monday and Tuesday, 21 and 22 March 1842. By then, reports of Sir Robert Peel being burnt in effigy had been appearing for nearly three weeks. Although the local youth may not have been reading about these protests, it is conceivable that their elders, or they themselves, devised the idea to burn Beaton in effigy as a consequence of the political disturbances going on around the district.
Main image: A skimmington or charivari: people make noise and are violent in the street as a form of rough justice exercised by women against men; on the right Hudibras enters on horseback, and is hit in the eye by a thrown egg. Etching by W. Hogarth, 1726. Wellcome Collection. Public domain.
S. Begg, Lewbelling: A Survival in Shakespeare’s Country, Illustrated London News, 14 August 1909. Wikimedia Commons. A depiction of an incident in a Warwickshire community in the twentieth century. The caption stated that the custom, although dying out, was still occasionally observed.
 David Nash and Anne-Marie Kilday, Cultures of Shame: Exploring Crime and Morality in Britain, 1600–1900 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010), 42, 201 n.78.
 Perthshire Courier, 28 April 1842, 3.
 National Records of Scotland, AD14/42/15, Perth April Circuit 1842, Precognitions against Ann Dewar or Beaton, deposition of Esther Bennett, 28 March 1842.
 Ibid., deposition of PC Hugh Gibson, 29 March 1842.
 Ibid., declaration of Ann Dewar or Beaton, 23 March and 26 March 1842.
 Fife Herald, 5 May 1842, 4.
 National Records of Scotland, AD14/42/15, deposition of PC Hugh Gibson, 29 March 1842.
 Nash and Kilday, Cultures of Shame, chapter 2; Joan R. Kent, “’Folk Justice’ and Royal Justice in Early Seventeenth-Century England: A ‘Charivari’ in the Midlands,” Midland History 8 (1983), 70-85; Martin Ingram, “Ridings, Rough Music and the ‘Reform of Popular Culture’ in Early Modern England,” Past and Present 105 (1984), 79-113; Martin Ingram, “Juridical Folklore in England Illustrated by Rough Music,” in Communities and Courts in Britain, 1150–1900, ed. Christopher W. Brooks and Michael Lobban (London: The Hambledon Press, 1997), 61-82; Stephen Banks, Informal Justice in England and Wales, 1760–1914 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2014), 62-63, 94-98; Richard W. Ireland, “Absence of Evidence or Evidence of Absence? Welsh Extra-Curial Dispute Settlement Revisited,” Welsh History Review 30 (2020), 56-87.
 Banks, Informal Justice, 62.
 Perthshire Courier, 28 April 1842, 3.
 National Records of Scotland, AD14/42/15, depositions of David Burnet, James Duncan, John Henderson, Deborah Melville, and Ann Dewar.
 Banks, Informal Justice, 38.
 Ibid., 176-181.
 Fife Herald, 3 March 1842, 2.
 Fife Herald, 10 March 1842, 2.
 Fife Herald, 3 March 1842, 2.
 Northern Warder and General Advertiser for the Counties of Fife, Perth and Forfar, 1 March 1842, 3.
 Northern Warder and General Advertiser for the Counties of Fife, Perth and Forfar, 8 March 1842, 3.
 Ireland, “Absence of Evidence or Evidence of Absence?,” 86.