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.”

Related Links:

Dorset’s Church Treasure: Telling the Story of Christianity through the Centuries

17th Century Chalice from SwanageAn exhibition of Ecclesiastical Silver at Dorset County Museum, Dorchester from 13th October 2014 to 18th April 2015.

In Christian churches, the act of communion has always been the most important religious ceremony. Traditionally congregations wished to have the very best communion vessels that they (or their richest members) could afford. As a result Dorset churches have a wealth of beautiful and rare collections of silver, some of it so valuable that it has to be stored in bank vaults. A new exhibition at Dorset County Museum provides a rare opportunity to see some of the finest pieces in both Dorset and the UK.

The new temporary exhibition in the Museum’s Victorian Gallery tells the story of Christianity for over 2000 years – from Pre-Reformation times to the present day. Crafted by world-famous silversmiths, the pieces include the Coombe Keynes Chalice from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London – an object of huge national importance.

Dorset appears to have had a strong Christian community as far back as Roman times. An example of this tradition is a Roman spoon from Dorchester with the “fish” Christian cipher.

By the early 16th century England was a devoutly Christian country and only the Priest was normally allowed to take full communion. He drank wine from a wide mouth vessel called a chalice and took bread, in the form of an unleavened wafer, from a small plate called a paten. Pieces of church silver from this period in England are rare and in Dorset only three pieces survive. All of these can be seen in the exhibition including the Coombe Keynes Chalice which has been said by the Victoria and Albert Museum to be one of the finest in the country.

Many consider the 18th century as the greatest period for church and domestic silver and Paul de Lamerie is generally accepted as the greatest silversmith of the time; some say of all time. On display is one of the three silver-gilt communion sets made by de Lamerie for Dorset churches. There is also a letter, dated June 1737, which records instructions on how to clean the silver as directed by Paul de Lamerie, himself.

In the mid-1800s a new Anglo Catholic movement wanted to bring more powerful emotional symbolism and energy to the Church. More elaborate church interiors were introduced and the design of communion ware moved to a more mediaeval style. The chalice on show from St Peter’s church Parkstone is a fine example of the richness and ebullience of this style. The chalice is inlaid with semi-precious stones and has a diamond cross on the front, reputed to be from necklace owned by the donor.

“This exhibition contains some of the finest pieces of church silverware in the country,” said Jon Murden, Director of Dorset County Museum. “We are grateful to all the Dorset parishes which have loaned items for us to display. We hope many people will be able to see these hidden treasures before they go back into safe storage.”

In addition to silver chalices, patens and flagons, there are other fascinating items including a very rare bread knife for cutting communion bread. Accompanying the exhibition is a booklet describing Dorset’s ecclesiastical silver and the development of Christianity in Dorset since the 4th century.

The exhibition will be formally opened by the Bishop of Sherborne, Dr. Graham Kings, and will run at Dorset County Museum from 13th October 2014 to 18th April 2015.

The award-winning Museum is open Monday to Saturday, 10.00am to 5.00pm until the end of October when it closes daily at 4.00pm.

For more information please Tel: 01305 262735 or visit our website at www.dorsetcountymuseum.org.