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Beating the Bounds in the City of London

May 14, 2010
by the gentle author

Yesterday, I joined my old friends from the Lord Mayor’s Parade, the Portsoken Militia, along with a host of City worthies and the children of Sir John Cass Primary School at the annual Beating of the Bounds ceremony, setting out from St Botolph-without-Aldgate to walk the boundaries of the Portsoken ward in the City of London. As we set forth with the Ward Constable in front, followed by the Beadle leading the Potsoken Millitia and the Aldermen of Portsoken, ahead of the mass of schoolchildren straggling along at the rear, we made an unlikely procession, but one impressive enough to stop the traffic, cause every office worker to reach for their camera phone and generally bring the City to a halt around us.

First stop was Mitre Square, where a bunch of tourists on a Jack the Ripper tour had the shock of their lives as we all came round the corner, walking out of history with a mob of children in tow. “Get your cameras ready!” quipped the Ward Constable, with a smirk of pride, occasioning a dramatic moment seized by Laura Burgess, the Rector of St Botolph, to announce the first stop on our circuit, causing everyone to gather round in a crowd.

There is a curious mixture of civility and anarchy about the Beating the Bounds ceremony, held annually on Ascension Day, which the Rector explained dates from a time when maps were rare and the community joined together to mark the boundaries of the parish, and to pray for God’s blessing to ward off evil from the territory. Civility is represented by the dignitaries and anarchy is introduced when the children are handed sticks and given liberty to use them. Although, in the absence of boundary stones, lampposts, bollards, signs, railings and a wall had to stand substitute, none of the children seemed disappointed. Without hesitation, they all embraced the absurdity of this extraordinary moment, in which the adults distributed long sticks and stood around in approval, as the children worked themselves up into a state of great excitement, battering the designated inert objects with gleeful enthusiasm. In fact, I can confirm a proud consensus held by the adults present that the children all played their part well.

Naturally, there is a certain necessary ritual that precedes this invitation to violence. In each location, as a precursor, the Rector delivered a brief history lecture followed by a quiet prayer. Then the Alderman gave the instruction, “Now let us beat this boundary!” and everyone chanted “Cursed be he that removeth his neighbours’ landmark.” while wielding their sticks, and the children cried, “Beat! Beat! Beat!

We moved on swiftly through Devonshire Place, Petticoat Lane, across Aldgate High St, down to Portsoken St, St Clare St and back up the Minories to St Botolph’s Church in an hour’s circuit, stopping off for the ritual beatings as went. As the journey progressed, the various constituencies in our procession mingled, acknowledging that we were fellow travellers upon some kind of pilgrimage with our particular chosen purpose, that set us apart from the present day world around us. During the Rector’s history lectures we all nodded in reverence to the waves of immigrants in Petticoat Lane, the memory of Wat Tyler and the Peasants’ Revolt, in whose footsteps we trod when in Aldgate High St, and William the Conquerer, who entered the City through Portsoken St and is known to this day here as William I, because he negotiated a truce with the City of London, he did not conquer it.

Arriving back at St Botolph, the children were invited to beat upon the churchyard railings one last time, and then the sticks were summarily removed from their sweaty hands and locked away in a vestry cupboard until next year, before the possibility of any improvised high jinks could occur.

When the children went home, the adults, who were now feeling rather playful – catching the infectious holiday spirit engendered by all the excited children – had their pictures taken on the steps of St Botolph. This was followed by tea and iced cakes inside and, for the duration of the party, the atmosphere was of a parish tea in a small village. The bounds had been truly beaten for another year. We were celebrating. We all felt we have achieved something, although no-one quite knew what. Children and adults together, we had left our daily routines for an hour and shared our delight in the romance of the great city, enacting a ritual that drew us closer to each other and to all those who went before.

Brian Buckington, the Commanding Office of the Portsoken Militia, enjoys a well deserved cup of tea, served by the ladies at St Botolph without Aldgate, after leading his troops around the City of London.

8 Responses leave one →
  1. sam permalink
    May 14, 2010

    Wonderful. Especially like the photo with the Gherkin rising between the trees behind the beadle and militia.

  2. mcneill permalink
    May 14, 2010

    Glad I’m not a boundary.

  3. mcneill permalink
    May 14, 2010


    Haha. Yes. Looks like something has landed doesn’t it? Only thing missing is Doctor Who.

  4. Herry Lawford permalink
    May 14, 2010

    Fascinating and beautifully written as always. I wish I had joined in in the many years I worked in that ward.

  5. Rebecca permalink
    May 14, 2010

    This tradition lives on (albeit with less sumptuous costume) in some New England towns. It is usually combined with fence inspection, as maintaining good fences was important to the local economy.

  6. May 18, 2010

    How wonderful that some of our ancient traditions are maintained and that excited children learn the significance of keeping history perpetuated. If only the erotic Gherkin hadn’t replaced the previous Baltic Exchange in all its splendour, that “Dr Who / Tardis” photograph would be even more appropriate for this annual ritual. Long may traditions survive.

  7. Anonymous permalink
    May 19, 2010

    This still goes on in Cambridgeshire… Great and Little Shelford groups of residents meet each other as they beat their boundary. (see the Cambridge News)

  8. July 14, 2014

    This has just been revived in Nunhead SE15 (2013 was the first year). It’s a fascinating tradition. Your uniforms were definitely more special than ours.

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