Ascension Day Customs: Beating the Bounds

Beating the Bounds Dorchester 2nd July 1901 DCM © 2015

Beating the Bounds Dorchester 2nd July 1901 DCM © 2015

Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote about the traditions of ‘Beating the Bounds’ on Holy Thurday (Ascension Day) in Dorset in his book ‘Dorsetshire Folklore’ published in 1922:-

Beating the Bounds.— It was the general custom in olden days, and is still observed in many parishes in Dorsetshire, for certain persons to go round, or perambulate the boundaries or limits of their own particular parish in Rogation Week, or,—to be more precise,—on one of the three days before Holy Thursday or Ascension Day, though more often, I think, on Holy Thursday itself. Upon these occasions, as Brand (i, 168) tells us, ” the minister, accompanied by his churchwardens and parishioners, were wont to deprecate the vengeance of God, beg a blessing on the fruits of the earth, and preserve the rights and properties of the parish.”

In Dorsetshire the last of these objects would seem to be the one principally or solely considered at the present day. This perambulation is known as “Beating the Bounds”.
Before I proceed to the ” perambulations” of particular parishes, I would like to produce in full the most amusing account of this interesting and useful custom contributed by William Barnes to Hone’s Year Book (p. 589) as existing in Dorsetshire in his younger days. He says :—

“A Perambulation, or, as it might be more correctly called, a circumambulation, is the custom of going round the boundaries of a manor or parish, with witnesses, to determine and preserve recollection of its extent, and to see that no encroachments have been made upon it, and that the landmarks have not been taken away. It is a proceeding commonly regulated by the steward, who takes with him a few men and several boys who are required to particularly observe the boundaries traced out, and thereby qualify themselves for witnesses in the event of any dispute about the landmarks or extent of the manor at a future day. In order that they may not forget the lines and marks of separation they ‘ take pains y at almost every turning. For instance, if the boundary be a stream, one of the boys is tossed into it; if a broad ditch, the boys are offered money to jump over it, in which they, of course, fail, and pitch into the mud, where they stick as firmly as if they had been rooted there for the season ; if a hedge, a sapling is cut out of it and used in afflicting that part of their bodies upon which they rest in the posture between standing and lying; if a wall, they are to have a race on the top of it, when, in trying to pass each other, they fall over on each side, some descending, perhaps, into the still stygian waters of a ditch, and others thrusting the ‘human face divine ‘ into a bed of nettles ; if the boundary be a sunny bank, they sit down upon it and get a treat of beer and bread and cheese, and, perhaps, a glass of spirits.

When these boys grow up to be men, if it happens that one of them should be asked if a particular stream were the boundary of the manor he had perambulated, he would be sure to say, in the manner of Sancho Panza ‘ Ees, that ’tis, I’m sure o’t, by the same token that I were tossed into’t, and paddled about there lik’ a water-rot till I wor hafe dead.’ If he should be asked whether the aforesaid pleasant bank were ,a boundary : ‘ O, ees it be, ‘ he would say, ‘that’s where we squat down and tucked in a skinvull of vittles and drink.”

With regard to any boundary perambulation after that he would most likely declare, ‘ I won’t be sartin; I got zo muddled up top o’ the banks, that don’ know where we ambulated arter that.'”

Melcombe Regis. — The late Mr. H. J. Moule, sometime curator of the Dorset County Museum at Dorchester, and a learned writer upon the county’s antiquities, in his account of the ” Weymouth and Melcombe Regis Borough Records “, which he edited in 1883, gives (p. 9) several extracts from a small folio volume, chiefly of law minutes, comprising depositions taken about the middle of the seventeenth century, recording a ” perambulation ” of the parish of Melcombe Regis about that time, in which one of the deponents, an old woman of 82 years of age, speaks of having joined in a ” Procession” round the bounds of Melcombe Regis nearly three-quarters of a century previously, and deposes to an ” old elderne stubb ” (stump) at Washford as having been one of the boundaries.
Radipole.—The same deponent also testified that the minister of the adjoining parish of Radipole, with his parishioners, used to go round their bounds on the same day; and at a pound on the bounds (“in the place of which pound a dairy house was sithence builded “) he read a chapter and ” alsoe a psalm there to be sung “. After this the perambulation was continued, the villagers on the west side of some rails then standing and the townsmen on the east side.

West Lulworth.— There is also in the same volume (C. p. 232) a reference to still earlier depositions (Elizabethan), in which an old man gives evidence as to his having often ” after he was of remembrance” gone on procession, as the custom then was, with the minister and parishioners to take ” view” of the boundaries of the parish of West Lulworth. The witness describes the route, ending at Furzeymill Pitt, ” where they had usuall Beere and Cake-bread.”

Chideock.— A very complete account of the ” perambulation ” of the bounds of a parish and manor as entered in old records is that of Chideock, in West Dorset, which took place before the steward of the manor and many inhabitants of the parish. It is given by the Rev. T. Worthington in his History of Chideock, and copied by the late H. N. Cox in his account of that parish, contributed in a series of papers to the Southern Times in 1886. Mr. Cox also, like Mr. Barnes, alludes to the various steps that were sometimes taken to impress upon the memory of the boys who accompanied the perambulation the exact situation of the boundaries.

Bridport.— Although the main incidents of these several ” perambulations ” may have been very much the same, yet occasionally they have been varied by others of a more interesting or amusing character. A modern instance of the latter, fortunately attended by no serious result, occurred on the occasion of “beating the bounds ” of the borough of Bridport in 1891, which was reported in several West Country papers. The following account, taken from the Bath Daily Chronicle of 24th October, 1891, appears in the Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries for December, 1891 (vol. ii, p. 305) :—

“The historic function of walking the boundaries of the Borough of Bridport by the Mayor and Corporation and the principal inhabitants was the occasion of an amusing contretemps. In the course of the perambulation the city fathers came to a large millpond, which marked the boundary of the town. It was necessary to the performance of the ceremony that the pond should be crossed, and the Mayor, the Borough Surveyor, and another embarked on a large raft, on which they were to be towed across. They had not been long afloat when the raft was submerged by their weight, and the trio were standing up to their knees in water. When half-way over, to make matters worse, the rope became entangled, and, amid the laughter of the townspeople, the Mayor toppled over into the pond, and his two fellow-citizens were also precipitated into the water. They quickly regained the raft, but were as quickly thrown again into the muddy pool. The Mayor promptly described the boundary by swimming ashore, and his example was followed by one of his companions, but the Borough Surveyor remained alone on the raft, and was eventually towed to land completely drenched.”

Marnhull.— The Rev. Canon Mayo publishes in the Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries (vol. xv, pp. 19-21 and 29-31), 1917, a long account of a perambulation held for the Manor of Marnhull on 7th and 8th June, 1808, and made by the then Lord of the Manor, John Hussey, Esq., his steward, and the principal inhabitants of the parish. A copy had been furnished to the Dorset editor of that periodical of the perambulation contained in a MS. book of Rentals and Quit Rents relating to the Manor.

As Canon Mayo says : “It has a value as being a record of local boundaries, and illustrates a custom which at one time was universal in our county.”

Beating the Bounds Weymouth 13th May 1896. The Mayor of Weymouth Claiming a Boundary Stone at Radipole Bridge DCM © 2015

Beating the Bounds Weymouth 13th May 1896. The Mayor of Weymouth Claiming a Boundary Stone at Radipole Bridge DCM © 2015

Wyke Regis.— The Bound Stone.—The following account of the annual visit paid by Portlanders to “The Bound Stone” on the Chesil Beach at the Fleet appeared in the Bridport News in May, 1893, under the heading of ” Wyke Regis : The Bound Stone ” :—

“The Portlanders seem determined to keep up their rights, which they annually maintain by an official visit to the well-known ‘ bound stone ‘ on the Chesil Beach. Holy Thursday, or Ascension Day, is, as by custom, the day on which the ceremony takes place. This year the number attending seems to have been augmented for some reason or other ; perhaps the fact of a new stone being used added importance to the affair. Be that as it may, there were many visitors, both by sea and land.

“It is said the rights of the Portlanders extend to the new bound stone opposite Fleet, but the public would like to be enlightened as to the nature of those rights. There is one right at all events which does not extend beyond the Portland side of the stone, that is, we are informed that the lord of the manor of Abbotsbury, or rather the Earl of Ilchester, does not interfere with or claim the foreshore. Not that such a right would be of any use whatever, seeing the difficulty of telling where it is. The shingle shifts with the weather, and with it the foreshore, if ever such existed except in fertile imagination.”

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Dorset County Boundary Seminar at Museum

Dorset County Boundary Research GroupThe Dorset County Boundary Research Group is holding a seminar on Saturday 15th November 2014 from 9.30am to 2.00pm. The subject is Charting and Chartering the Borders of Dorset: county boundary-making set in a wider historical context. The guest speaker will be Dr Mark Gardiner of Queen’s University, Belfast.

“We will be exploring the wider concerns, the deeper history of boundaries; those processes involved in boundary-making over time,” said Dr Gardiner.

Dorset, as a defined territory, is extremely old. Hints of British origins are found in its very name, Dornsaete. The first written mention is in 845 when a combined Dorset and Somerset force attacked the Danes raiding up the river Parrett. The boundary was redefined by the Normans in 1086 and more recently in 1974 when Bournemouth was brought into Dorset to increase county revenues.

Members of the Group will be picking up these themes with reference to the exploration of Dorset’s boundary since 2007 using evidence from six Anglo-Saxon charters. The day will provide a rare opportunity to explore and discuss the composite nature of this unique historic linear landscape feature, lengths of which are now being submitted for formal Dorset County Council listing and protection.

Everyone is welcome – enquiries can be made to Katherine Barker on 01935 816764.
Tickets cost £12.50 for adults and £5 for students and are available from the Museum Shop on 01305 756827. Alternatively send your request with a SAE to Charting and Chartering Dorset, Dorset County Museum, High West Street, Dorchester DT1 1XA. Cheques are payable to the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society.

The Dorset County Boundary Survey Day School 2014

Lyme in Dorset and Lyminge in KentOn Saturday 15th November 2014 at Dorset County Museum from 9.30am – 3.30pm the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society ‘The Dorset County Boundary Survey‘ are holding their annual day school ‘Charting and Chartering the Borders of Dorset: county boundary-making set in a wider historical context’.

This years guest speaker Dr Mark Gardiner, who will be exploring the wider concerns, ‘the deeper history of boundaries; those processes involved in boundary-making over time.’
Katherine Barker will be picking up these themes with reference to the discoveries made in the exploration of Dorset’s boundary since 2007. Members of the Group will then be taking as base that ‘eye-witness’ evidence presented by those Anglo-Saxon charter boundaries coincident with Dorset’s border. To help ‘set the scene’ we will be pleased to welcome Dr Alex Langlands of the ‘Mapping Anglo-Saxon Charters Project.’ The day will provide a rare opportunity to explore and discuss the composite nature of this unique historic linear landscape feature, lengths of which are now being submitted for formal Dorset County Council listing.

During the intervals an aerial view-cum-perambulation of the Up/Lyme Anglo-Saxon charter boundary will be digitally-staged by Mark Ford on the big screen.

Day School Programme:

  • 9.30-10.00 Registration (coffee will be available). Welcome by Dr Jon Murden, Director
  • 10.00-10.10 Introduction by Andrew Morgan, Chairman
  • 10.10-10-50 Dr Mark Gardiner, Senior Lecturer in Medieval Archaeology, Queen’s
    University, Belfast; ‘Boundary-making as a Long-term Process: examples from
    Anglo-Saxon England and elsewhere’
  • 10.50-11.00 Questions
  • 11.00-11.20 Coffee with Dorset biscuits and apple cake
  • 11.20-12.00 Katherine Barker, Hon Research Fellow, Bournemouth University ‘Dornsaete-shire: charting the identity of Dorset’s boundary’
  • 12.00-12.10 Questions
  • 12.10-12.30 Robin Walls, ‘Latter-day Meresmen: the establishing of a contemporary methodology for recording and classifying boundaries’
  • 12.30-1.30 Lunch – please make your own arrangements. The Museum café will be open.
  • 1.30-1.40 Dr Alex Langlands, Winchester University, ‘The Mapping Anglo-Saxon Charters Project.’ Followed by short presentations by members of the Group on those lengths of Dorset’s boundary coincident with Anglo-Saxon charter boundaries.
  • 1.40-2.00 Andrew Morgan, ‘Dorset East with Damerham AD 944 & Ringwood AD 961’
  • 2.00-2.20 Graham Hoddinott, ‘Dorset North with Handley AD 956’
  • 2.20-2.40 John Newbould, Dorset West with Halstock AD 847 & Abbot’s Wootton AD 1044
  • 2.40-3.00 Katherine Barker; ‘Dorset South-west with Uplyme AD 938 and AD 151.
  • 3.00-3.30 Questions and closing session (the Museum closes at 4pm)

Tickets are £12.50 for adults and £5.00 for students available from the Museum Shop telephone 01305 756827 – or at the door on the day. Just phone and pay by card or, if you prefer, send your request with a SAE to ‘Charting and Chartering Dorset’ Dorset County Museum, High West Street, Dorchester DT1 1XA. Cheques are payable to the ‘Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society.’

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