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Women, out beating the bounds in 1913

Customs uncovered: Beating the Bounds

Everything you ever wished to know about the long-surviving custom, beating the bounds, but were too afraid to ask.

“Pardon me, but what know you of beating the bounds?”

“Beating the what, sir?”

“The bounds, sir. Beating the bounds.”

“How very dare you, sir? What a man does in the privacy of his bathroom is his own business.”

Or, at least, that’s the conversation we imagined when we were sent this rather peculiar screenshot from a Facebook group in Liverpool.

“These people are beating the bounds around Toxteth,” the admin notes by way of desultory explanation, adding sharply, “I have no further information”. You can almost hear them mutter beneath their breath, “So don’t bother asking. I don’t associate myself with their sort.”

Sure, we’re given a date – one that seems somewhat specific for a time so distant in the past – but the real question is left hanging in the air, unanswered. “What the heck is beating the bounds, and how can I get involved?”

What is beating the bounds?

Beating the Bounds goes back to medieval times. Sometimes called ‘Gangdays’, groups of people (usually the parish priest and a selected gaggle of boys) would walk the parish borders as a way of preserving the folk memory of where the boundaries existed.

They would thrash the boundaries with green birch or willow boughs to mark the boundary lines, which sounds like a jolly day out. It wasn’t always fun, however. The boys would sometimes be whipped at certain spots to try and enforce a memory of specific landmarks. From folk memory to folk horror in one quick, ecclesiastical bruising.

It seems that there was an early science to the violence involved. Pain association as a memory aid was an important part of beating the bounds, the idea being that you’d be more likely to remember the parish boundaries if you’d experienced something in their vicinity that you weren’t likely to forget. According to documentation, if they arrived at a stream, the children might have their heads shoved under the water. If they came to a wall, they’d be encouraged to run along it at giddying speeds until they fell off into the brambles either side.

Indeed, such was the importance placed on beating the bounds, and so striking were the memories created, they could be used as evidence in court. One 75-year-old gentleman’s recollection of being thrown into a patch of stinging nettles helped his parish win a legal case.

Thankfully, the brutality has subsided over the years, often replaced by high jinks which would take place as a way of noting specific markers en route. But, as the following images attest, the frivolities had their origins in those darker activities. While the boy in the first picture is proudly lifted above a route marker, the boy in the second image is being spun upside down. In times gone by, his head would’ve been banged against the nearest boundary stone to make sure he remembered where he’d seen it. The legacy of this particular ritual is seen in the third picture, where a lifted boy is being given “the bumps”. This is a common activity in more recent interpretations of the custom.

Lifting a boy above a landmark while beating the bounds in Saltash, 1934
More hijinks in Saltash, 1951. Note the lifting (and spinning) of another boy.
Boy-lifting (and bumping) while beating the bounds in Redbourn, Hertfordshire, 1977. Photo credit: Geoff Webb

Does beating the bounds still happen?

As the Toxteth image near the top of this article attests, people still beat the bounds in certain parts of England, even though it may leave onlookers perplexed. A brief glance across Instagram, that most traditional of digital platforms, reveals that beating the bounds (or “perambulation of such-and-such a place”) has become more of a pleasant communal walk.

Beating the bounds in Worcester
From the @discoverhstph Instagram account

When does beating the bounds happen?

While there’s no legal requirement to hold off perambulating your parish until a certain day, traditionally the activity took place on the Feast of the Ascension, or Ascension Thursday, which is 39 days after Easter, or on Rogation Days (often the three days preceding Ascension Thursday).

The English botanist, Thomas Johnson, wrote in 1633 that this was known as Crosse Week, in which, “It serveth well to the decking up of houses and banquetting-rooms, for places of pleasure, and for beautifying of streets in the Crosse or Gang Week, and such like.” So if you fancy sprucing the place up while you’re about it, why not kill two birds with one stone?

In short, in these less god-fearing times, you may beat the bounds whenever you fancy. Boy-lifting continues to be an option.

The images in this article were copied from hertsmemories.org.uk and saltash.org.