Beating the Bounds

By Dr Jonathan Oates

One of the most ancient forms of boundaries are those of local government. In order to govern, land is broken down into segments, each with different rulers and different customs and rules.

Until the later nineteenth century the main boundary known to most people would be the parish boundary. This was because the parish was the basic unit of what we would now call ‘local government’. Each parish was ruled by a group of men collectively called a vestry and they would set a rate to be paid by parishioners in order to finance spending by the said vestry, on the upkeep of the parish’s poor, the church fabric, roads and bridges and other local matters.

Parishes often strove to curtail expense, so the travelling poor would be passed on as quickly as possible to the next parish, especially if the pauper was pregnant. There were often disputes between parishes over who should foot the bill for someone as parochial responsibility was limited to those born in the parish or who had married someone there. It was also important to know who the ratepayers were, as different parishes set different rates. Modern local government has some of the same issues.

Knowledge of the boundaries was important to the parish. Some parishes commissioned maps to be drawn of the parishes in order to show boundaries, as general maps, such as that of John Rocque, 1741-5, did not do so. Ealing parish had a map commissioned in 1777 and this was redrawn in 1822. At this time, and until 1863, Ealing’s southern boundary was the Thames at Brentford as both places were the part of the same parish. But most people would not have had access to such maps, though there was another method of inculcating this knowledge. 

Map of Ealing Parish, 1777

   Above: Parish Map of Ealing, 1777 

This was known as Beating the Bounds. This was, in theory, a walk in spring around the parish boundaries, led by the parish officials, to which parishioners were invited to. In the sixteenth century, the parish became an important part of local government and it was then that it was designated as an annual event, with the curate and other important parishioners taking part. It was to conclude at the parish church. Prayers and gospel readings were to take place along the route, thanking God for His goodness, though it seems, by the nineteenth century, to have been more of a convivial social event. They seem to have occurred locally in Acton, Ealing, Southall and Hanwell.

It is first known to have happened for Ealing in May 1741 and for Hanwell on 22 May 1782 but may well date beyond this time. Such an event did not take place annually and often five or 15 years might pass by before it was carried out again. In Ealing the bounds were beaten in 1832, 1869, 1874, 1881, 1899, 1903, 1908 and 1925. In Hanwell it was recorded in 1848, 1869, 1881, 1899, 1905, 1925 and in 1926 (when Hanwell was amalgamated into Ealing and therefore the parish boundaries were of less significance). Local newspapers often went into great detail about these events, retailing the route and the incidents which took place thereon. I will try and summarise these, rather than to relate each one as it was reported, as this would lead to much duplication.  

Photo showing Beating the bounds at a parish marker, Hanwell, c.1925

   Above: Beating the bounds at a parish marker, Hanwell, c.1925 

Those who took part included the parish officials, especially the overseers, and also might include the clergyman. Councillors might also attend. Some schoolboys might come along, too, those chosen by schoolmasters as being particularly good (once they was a prize competition for the best essay about the event but only one entry was submitted). Women and girls seem to have been excluded, though an Edwardian era photograph shows two women as part of the group. Participants would often be given willow wands from six to ten feet in length; the purpose being to hit the boundary stones as they stopped at each one. In 1908 someone asked the group and asked ‘Where are you going, guv’nor? Fishing?’ Sometimes a few of the walkers would not complete the whole route. 

Photo of Ealing men and boys about to go beat the bounds, 1900

            Above: Group of men and boys about to beat the Ealing bounds, c.1900 

One feature of these walks was the ‘bumpings’. This was where heads would be bumped on the boundaries stones. This often occurred to the beaters; Ealing’s vicar, Dr Oliver, being bumped in 1905, the first time in at least 50 years that this had happened. Apparently ‘he enjoyed it’. Other officials were dealt with likewise. Sometimes the words, ‘Remember your boundaries, Remember your boundaries, Remember your Ealing boundaries’ would be said at this time. Sometimes others would be bumped; in 1908 they tried to bump a police sergeant in Hanwell, but he escaped them; a constable in Gunnersbury Lane was less fortunate. On another occasion, in 1925, Alderman Eden separated two fighting dogs by hitting them with his stick and suggested that the day’s excursion be known as beating the hounds. In 1869, those who wished to bump others had to pay cash for the privilege. 

Photo of Rev Dr Oliver, Vicar of Ealing

                                         Above: The Rev. Dr Oliver, Vicar of Ealing 

Not all took such bumping in good spirit. In 1881 there was a letter in the local press objecting to bumping as being a relic of ‘barbarism’. At the beginning of the nineteenth century a Hanwell clergyman was bumped and charged his assailants with assault; they were fined £5 each or had to spend a month in prison. 

Photo of Ealing Bound Beaters, 1908

             Above: Ealing bounds beaters, 1908 

Another issue was where the party would meet obstacles. One lad recalled them having to get through barbed wire and then jump over a ditch. A lad once wrote that ‘It was fine fun to see the fat and elderly councillors’ do so'. Permission had to be asked to beat boundary stones in private property. Walking on top of the high foot high wall of Ealing sewage Works occurred in 1908. Rivers also posed a difficulty. Ladders were once used to cross one river, whilst punts were used to travel down the Brent from Hanwell bridge. Two men even swum in the Brent to show that they had been around the exact boundary. In 1817 the canal and ponds in Acton were swum and the swimmers later claimed 10 shillings for this.

Sometimes the walkers would meet deputations from other authorities. In 1869 the Ealing walkers met representatives of Acton parish at Mason’s Green Lane and discussed the footpath to Twyford Abbey. They also, at Chiswick Common, met the Chiswick Vestry, to talk about land taken by Chiswick from Ealing. In 1870 there was conflict over the boundary at Green Lane. The Acton beaters found that the boundary stones were on the wrong side, so on their perambulation they took them up and placed them on the other. Later on the Ealing walkers moved them back again.  

Photo of a group of Norwood Beaters, 1927

             Above: Men and boys beat the Norwood bounds at Hanwell Bridge in 1927 

They did not always walk every part of the route, which in Hanwell’s case was 17 miles. The Hanwell walkers took a tram along the Uxbridge Road and then a train to get to the detached portion of Hanwell near Twyford Abbey. Wheeled vehicles were used to cover part of the route for Ealing walkers in 1908.

The walks always included stops at hostelries on the way, and most importantly at the end.  The Fox and Goose in north east Ealing was a popular place for lunch. In the later nineteenth century, it was customary for numerous speeches to be made after their dinner. In 1817, the beaters of Acton’s bounds went to six pubs and spent most of their budget of £54 therein. In 1741 the Ealing beaters were given a maximum of £20 out of vestry funds for their dinner but in the next century it was noted that they would have to pay for it themselves. 

Photo of Ealing Bound Beaters at Fox and Goose Pub, 1887

             Above: Ealing bounds beaters at the Fox and Goose pub, 1887

In the nineteenth century, Ealing’s boundary was thought to be 21 miles and Brentford was included, so the dinner at the end was at the Star and Garter pub by Kew Bridge. In 1898 Ealing historian Edith Jackson wrote, ‘it is, however, like to be lost sight of in these days of stress and hurry, and rapid change’. This was a little premature, for it continued until after the First World War. In 1925 it was stated that that year’s beating might well be the last. No reason was given, but it was probably because in the following year the old borough of Ealing, which was almost synonymous with the parish, was to be expanded threefold by the amalgamation with neighbouring parishes and so the old boundaries had gone. It seems that Acton’s bounds were not beaten after 1890.

Bounds beating seems to have been rare in Southall; it occurred in 1882 and the next, and last, instance was in 1927. The parish overseers were involved, as was a police constable and several schoolboys. This may have taken place because, due to local government changes, the post of overseer was to be demolished and before they handed over to the new authority they wanted to know every yard of the parish and the condition of markings there. Apparently there was some land near Studley Grange Road which was on the Hanwell side of the Brent but was actually part of Southall. It was thought that the boys who came along were enthusiastic and that the exercise they had undertaken would be a lesson in citizenship and the knowledge of boundaries might be useful for them in later life. There was no report of any pub visits, however. 

Photo of Norwood Beaters

            Above: Norwood bounds beaters by the River Brent in 1927

Sir Montagu Sharpe (1860-1942), Hanwell historian and magistrate, mentioned the decline of bounds beating in Hanwell, which he claimed (in 1924) had ceased in 1905, and stated that it had been an occasion for jollity in an otherwise monotonous agricultural existence. He was a little premature, but parish boundary walking seems to have ceased locally in the 1920s. This was probably because the parish boundaries were no longer of any practical significance, but also perhaps because the district had become almost wholly suburban with few patches of countryside left and so was less attractive as a prospect to walkers.

However, doubtless to the delight of Sharpe’s shade, there was a revival in interest in walking parish boundaries in Hanwell in the early twenty first century. This was on behalf of the Hanwell Carnival. It is now walked every May, with a half route for children. Many walkers are sponsored for Carnival funds.   

Photo of Sir Montague Sharpe

                                   Above: Sir Montagu Sharpe 

This is a condensed version of a talk to be given in Ealing Central Library on Tuesday 4 April by the author of this article, titled Setting the Boundaries

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