Friday, 11 November 2011

Tales from the Parish Clerks’ Memoranda No.11: Beating the Bounds

The year 1587 was an interesting time for the rowdy ritual perambulation known as “beating the bounds”, in which parishioners set out en masse with large wooden sticks to confirm the boundaries of their parish. Originating as a pre-Christian practice, beating the bounds served the very practical purpose of ensuring that each successive generation of a largely illiterate community knew the boundaries of their own area, in order to make sure that no over-zealous adjacent land-owner encroached on their territory. But it also provided an excuse for a raucous day out, in which the locals, traditionally partaking of ale and bread (one suspects more of the former than the latter), would set out to impress upon the young lads of the community the extent of the region to which they owed allegiance. And when I say “impress upon”, I unfortunately mean this literally. In medieval times, the young boys were likely to be beaten with sticks, thrown over walls, or turned upside down to have their heads knocked against the actual boundary stones to make sure that they remembered where these were. Clearly, the links between trauma-induced brain damage and loss of memory had not yet been established. In Elizabeth I’s reign, the mob-like quality of these outings was toned down considerably, but there were still hazards to making the parish perambulation...
25 Maye Ano 1587

Ower preambulationn
Memerandumm that Mr Hayse ower minister wt Richard Casye the aldermans Depuetie and Sertenn otheres of the Auntientes of this ower parishe of St Buttolphes extra Algate Londonn Ded go the Surcute of the Sayde parishe the xxvth Daye of maye in ano 1587 In Maner and Forme Followinge at the Whiche tyme theie ded Beginn there Surcute Fromm the churche & So thorowe the churche yearde and thorowe Mris Shingwelles howse Beinge Builte of part of the churcheyeard And fromm thence theye Went to Whightchappell Barres retorninge from thence to Sparrowes corner and So went downe Hogg Lane and So went thorowe the Well close and from thence theye went or ded go Downe Nyghtingeale Lane and to to the midle of the mill theare where the 100 psalme was Songe and mr Hayes Havinge Read ann Epistell wt a gospell and havinge also prayed for the Longe preservationn of the Queenes Moste exilent Matie we ded go from thence thorowe St Katherynes and So a longe By the Iorene gate of the tower up towardes the pownde and there kepinge the Queenes Maties Highe waye towardes the postarne we weare there mett By onne Jhon Phillips the under porter of the tower beinge Accommpaned Withe three warderes of the tower the wch three Warderes had there halbardes and there neckes and the Sayde Jhon phillips Demanded of the minester wt the rest whether theye Weare goinge that waye the wch minester wt the rest Aunswered that accordinge to the Queenes Maties Lawse and Awnsient costom they Weare goinge towardes the posterne where theye Ded meane to Reade a gospell accordinge as they Weare Wonte to do unto whom the Sayd Jhon Phillips And the rest with him Sayde that the liefe tenaunnt had commanded the contrarye Wherefore he chardged the Whole companye in the Queenes Maties name not to comm any nearer that waye for if that theye Ded comme anye Nearer that it Showld be upon there owne parcell, But willed them to go up towardes the crosse Whiche thinge the minester withe the rest accompaninge hem Ded Did, and at the Sayde crosse the 117 psalme beinge Sonnge and a gospell red the Minister wt the rest of the parishioneres Ded go a longe towardes algate and So from thence theye Ded go to the mother Jacksons howse in Hownsdiche and a part of the 103 psalme beinge Songe and A gospell Read the Sayde minester ded go From thence into the churche wheare the Lettanye wt the Soffrages beinge Redd the minester and the parsihioneres Ded depart in peace et ces

P69/BOT2/A/019/MS09234/001 fol 78v

I can’t help feeling sorry for poor Mrs Shingwelle who had to put up with all and sundry tramping through her house! But why did the parishioners have such a difficult time when they reached the postern gate of the Tower of London? The ever-obliging Mark Merry explains: “The reason the parishioners/parish officers were turned away from the Tower – somewhat ostentatiously on occasion! – was that the Tower was a (Peculiar) Liberty free from the jurisdiction of both the City corporation and the normal parish/Church administrative system. As with all the Liberties they were constantly being pressed into defending their privileges and freedoms in the face of encroachment from the City/ parishes, and so met the perambulators of Aldgate on their annual stroll to make the point ceremoniously and symbolically that they had no claim on the Tower.”

Well, thank goodness we no longer have disputes between the Corporation, the Church, and the good people of London about the proper use of public space in the City…

Today, the bounds of Portsoken Ward, in which St Botolphs without Aldgate is located, are still ceremoniously marked every year – as are those of the Tower of London – although I am happy to report that instead of beating the children with sticks, the children instead now use the sticks to beat the boundary markers. This is a very colourful ceremony as can be seen in these excellent photos from the 2010 beating of the bounds of Portsoken Ward.

Many thanks to St Botolph without Aldgate and London Metropolitan Archives for permission to reprint extracts from the Parish Clerks' Memoranda.

The Parish Clerks' Memoranda transcripts were prepared by the Centre for Metropolitan History team as part of their Economic and Social Research Council-funded Life in the Suburbs project (Grant Reference: RES-062-23-1260;

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