During May the spring festival of Rogation-tide was celebrated. This word comes from the Latin rogatio which means to ask for or to beg. In spring, seeds were sown and this was the time when God was asked or begged for them to grow.
It was during Rogation-tide that the church would sometimes confirm the boundaries of its parish by ‘Beating the Bounds’. This is an ancient ritual which may have originated in pre-Christian times. Before the advent of mapping, the ceremony was a means to remember land boundaries. Similar rituals can be found in many different cultures around the world. Chambers “Book of Days’ defined the custom as having two aims. Firstly to ‘supplicate Divine blessing on the fruits of the earth’ and secondly ‘to preserve in all classes of the community a correct knowledge of, and due respect for, the bounds of parochial property’.
A group of local people, including the vicar, parish elders and children would walk around the land surrounding a farm, manor, church or other area. The elders would point out the extent of the boundary by using certain trees, marker stones, field corners etc. The younger members of the village would be expected to remember these boundary markers to ensure that there was a ‘collective memory’. Often members of one parish would meet those of adjacent parishes at certain points to agree on the boundaries and often prayers would be said. This is the origin of place names such as ‘Amen Corner’ or ‘Gospel Oak’.
But how were youngsters expected to remember all of these locations? Well the best way was to quite literally beat the information into them. At certain locations whilst progressing around the boundary, boys would be beaten with sticks, however where there were boundary stones they would often be tipped upside down and their heads banged against the stone. This was known as ‘bumping’. Although this sounds an extreme way to mark a boundary, it was this violence that helped the young to remember ancient parish limits. In later years the ceremony changed and the actual boundaries (and not the local boys) were hit by sticks which were traditionally made from birch or willow.
Beating the Bounds occurred every 7 – 10 years to ensure that each succeeding generation retained the knowledge. In Seaford however the boundaries of the town were checked every 1st May when the freemen of the Corporation “Trod the Bounds”. This carried on for a few years after the Corporation was succeeded by Seaford Urban District Council and the last time it is recorded that this happened was on 3rd May 1903 when the Town Clerk and members of SUDC performed this ritual.
There are references to the Bounds being beaten in Findon on 7th May 1777. On this occasion the party consisted of the vicar, two gentlemen, a labourer and two youths. The Findon parish bounds were not beaten for another 40 years, however more people attended the ceremonial beating on 30thApril 1817 probably as each participant was not only paid but also received a meal at the Gun Inn at the end of the day.
Over in Hastings the boundaries had been beaten by the Corporation Officials every seven years by the Mayor and all Councillors since 1835. Some parts the parish however were not in Hastings as they had small ‘enclaves’ in Pevensey and near Rye so railway passes were issued to the councillors to get them there. Sometimes it was difficult to find the actual boundary. In 1877 it was reported that some Hastings boundary stones were found in back-gardens and others deep in woods or amongst hedges. A prize of 3d was given to the boy that found any hidden boundary stone. By 1887 it was costing Hastings Corporation £100 to beat the bounds and this was discussed at a council meeting. It was heard that it was the duty of the council members to beat the bounds however they would in future try to keep the expenses down.
There is a reference to the boundaries being beaten in Brighton in 1857 when Parish officials, accompanied by boys from the workhouse, set off from the entrance of the Chain Pier for the eight mile perambulation around the Brighton boundaries.
The bounds of St John Sub Castro Church Lewes were beaten in 1823, 1834, 1896, 1906 and 1919. On one occasion the Sussex Express recorded that the event was celebrated with ‘amusing incidents’ but sadly does not expand on what these were. However, the Lewes route required the civic party to walk through several hedges and cross a pond! In Wilton, West Sussex, in 1889 councillors had to wade through a stream in their ceremonial robes which must have been fun to witness!
It seems that in some places Beating the Bounds was a civic duty whereas in others it was a church responsibility. In Hanwell (Middlesex) in 1881 the vicar, The Rev Blinkhorn refused to take part in beating of the bounds which he called “antique and entirely unnecessary”. Making his feelings known during the perambulation he was seized, lifted off his feet and was himself ‘bumped’. He was not amused and made a complaint to the police.
Towards the end of the 1800s the custom of Beating the Bounds was dying out. Ordnance Survey mapping now clearly showed parish boundaries. In the few locations where it was still continued, it was because it was a tradition and not a necessity
The bounds were beaten by children in Worthing in 1929 but as the borough was rather large used bicycles to get around. A large crowd gathered at the Town Hall at the end of the route where the Mayor was waiting to ceremoniously ‘bump’ one of the children. Later in the day the children were treated to a firework display.
It was suggested that Crawley celebrate the Millennium by beating its (rather large) boundary. I am not sure if this was done but in 2009 I helped to organise Beating the Bounds of Bishopstone. On Saturday 16thMay 2009 about 30 of us met at Denton Corner, to beat the bounds of the Parish. About 10 miles was walked (and beaten) – a route that had been taken by previous generations for maybe thousands of years previously and it took all day.
The weather was perfect for a steady walk towards the Golf Club at Blatchington via Newhaven Harbour and Tide Mills where some surfers enquired about what we were doing. There were several stops en-route where the boundaries of the parish were literally beaten with willow sticks (a decision had been made that it probably was no longer wise to beat boys!) After lunch at the Golf Club we set off inland towards Five Lords Burgh where originally five parishes met. The boundary markers here (carved LG for Lord Gage) received a good beating and prayers were said.
Only a few hours before this, the same spot was visited by members of St Andrew’s Church, Alfriston who were beating their bounds. We then headed back towards Bishopstone where a welcome cup of tea and slice of cake were waiting.
I think the practice of Beating the Bounds deserves reconsideration. It can be a fun, healthy community event which helps people form a link not only to their local history but their local landscape too. Because of the lock-down I doubt if any boundaries will be beaten in 2020 but maybe it is a tradition that could be revived in the future.