Beating the Bounds

Beating the bounds

The traditional perambulation of the parish boundaries


Beating the bounds is an ancient custom dating back to Anglo-Saxon times (it was mentioned in the laws of Alfred the Great) in which a group of old and young members of the community would walk the boundaries of the parish, usually led by the parish priest and church officials, to share the knowledge of where the extents of the parish lay, and to pray for protection and blessings for the lands of the parish.

Since there were few, if any, maps in former times it was usual to make a formal perambulation of the parish boundaries during Rogation Week. Some places on the outer limits of the parish might be marked with boundary stones, such as the Hound Stone in Thorne Lane.

Perambulation means "walking around" and in traditional English law, it is used specifically to mean "determining the bounds of a legal area by walking around it", meaning physically walking around the parish boundaries. In such a way the parish boundaries were verified annually. Also known as 'Beating the Bounds', it was an important custom since knowledge of the boundaries of each parish needed to be handed down to ensure, for instance, that liability to contribute to the repair of the church, or the right to be buried within the churchyard was not disputed. The parish priest and churchwardens, together with the parochial officials, headed a crowd of boys from the Charity School. The object of taking boys along was to ensure that witnesses to the boundaries should survive as long as possible.

“Many of the inhabitants speak with great delight of the old times, when the Portreeve and Burgesses beat the bounds, as it was then called; upon the performance of which ceremony, three days of general holiday were spent, and no small quantity of toast and ale drank.” (Vickery, 1856).

 In Yeovil the annual perambulation was a three day event that continued into the nineteenth century and the three main points in the parish visited were Yew Tree Close on the first day, Brimsmore Tree on the second day and Pen Mill on the third. Those making the perambulation would be supplied with cheese and biscuits, cider and beer and occasionally cakes, tobacco and pipes and the Churchwardens' accounts refer in each year's accounts to the expenditure incurred, such as this entry for 1697 (which reads a bit like a lads' outing to me!).

Pd for preambulacon in Bisketts & Cake   -                        12s 0d
Pd att the same tyme for Cheese   -                                     2s 6d
Pd att the same tyme for Tobacco & pipes   -                         11d
Pd att the same tyme for Sider & beere   -                      £1 2s 4d

There again, the Perambulation of 1761 must have been a real doosie and is the first time that the Charity School Boys are recorded as being in attendance. It should, perhaps, be noted that two hogsheads of cider is one hundred and five gallons or eight hundred and forty pints!!!

Paid for 2 Hogsheads of Cyder at the Procession   -      £3 5s 0d
Biscuits and Cheese   -                                                   £1 9s 6d
Biscuits & Cyder for the Charity Boys at Pen-Mill   -            2s 6d
Paid for Mugs and Cups   -                                                  1s 8d
Carriage of ye Cyder   -                                                       2s 6d

And another thing - I don't know how much biscuits cost in 1761, but cheese cost 3¼d a pound so, even assuming that 9s 6d went on biscuits, they must have had over seventy five pounds (in weight) of cheese!

The last recorded occasion of Beating the Bounds was in 1804 when, according to a note in the Churchwardens' Accounts "The procession was kept with very great glee all the days and with a Band of Music playing in the afternoon to make a finish. Upwards of sixty gentlemen sat in the Market House and spent five shillings each (around £20 at today's value) in Punch, singing with a Band of Music playing."