Heritage: Beating the Bounds of Havering

In 1700, Upminster people gathered near the Ingrebourne river in what is now Hornchurch Country Park

In 1700, Upminster people gathered near the Ingrebourne river in what is now Hornchurch Country Park. Picture: Lindsay Jones - Credit: Archant

Professor Ged Martin looks at a forgotten ceremony that checked Havering’s parish boundaries.

In bygone times, clergymen needed to know the boundaries of their parishes. There were no maps: Havering’s first field plan dates from 1618.

Clergy lived off tithes. They had to watch that their fields hadn’t been annexed by some rival reverend.

Each year, parishioners processed around their boundaries, checking that markers remained in place and landmark trees had not been blown down.

The ceremony took place around Ascension Day, a religious holiday in late May. Children were involved, so they could memorise parish boundaries for the future. They carried wands, supple branches, often painted white. These were thrashed on the ground at key points as a memory aid.

Boys were often bumped at road junctions or near big trees, to help them remember the spot! It was called Beating the Bounds. The official term was “perambulation”, the source of our word perambulator – “pram” for short.

In medieval times, Beating the Bounds was a religious ceremony, with prayers and Bible readings along the route. That’s how Gospel Oak in north London got its name.

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Sixteenth-century Protestants banned these rituals as superstitious. In 1605, 57-year-old Collier Row man Samuel Brockis remembered religious banners from Havering-atte-Bower church being carried through the fields.

John Shonke, aged 68, had walked the course every year since Henry VIII’s reign. He described the route followed by Havering villagers in loving detail, even naming “the great hawthorne bush”.

At set points, everybody stopped to pray, or to have “a drinking together”, with snacks of cakes and cheese. Beating the Bounds created a sense of community. Neighbours from Romford and Navestock tagged along on their shared sections of boundary.

In 1700, Upminster people gathered near the Ingrebourne south-west of Hacton Lane. The oak tree where they met has gone, but the location is part of Hornchurch Country Park.

Upminster was a long north-south parish: its 15-mile perimeter probably wasn’t perambulated in one day. Above Tylers Common, a house had been built across the parish boundary. The procession marched straight indoors, checked that the letters X and V were still carved on the parlour doorpost to indicate the frontier with Great Warley, and climbed out of a back window. In Nags Head Lane they examined a post marking the boundary with South Weald.

In 1830, William Henry Tollbutt, a gentleman who lived in Romford’s still-rural South Street, decided to revive the custom. Romford’s boundaries hadn’t been beaten for fourteen years.

Townsfolk assembled in the market at 8am (in pouring rain) and were led up North Street by a band, plus twenty “charity children” from St Edward’s School. Varying the tradition, Mr Tollbutt consented to be bumped when they reached the boundary.

Not everyone enjoyed the custom. One “furious personage” violently resisted a gang “who claimed the honour of bumping him”.

“The cavalcade halted at Collier-row, where they partook of refreshment.” They then followed Romford’s northern border to Wrightsbridge Farm, at Noak Hill, where there was more hospitality, some of it probably involving alcohol. That may explain why one participant insisted on dutifully walking chin-deep straight through a pond, singing the Scottish ballad “Coming through the rye” as he splodged forward, determined to establish the limits of Romford.

Many took part on horseback. Some commandeered quadrupeds that weren’t used to passengers. One elderly mare simply flopped on the ground to dump her rider. Two youths who jumped on a mule discovered that mules are obstinate creatures.

The procession returned to Romford that evening, now bizarrely accompanied by three chimneysweeps in outlandish fancy dress and riding ponies.

Romford’s southern boundary followed Brentwood Road, on past Gallows Corner and along the A12 Colchester Road. There was no need to beat these bounds. The roads were such clear markers that territorial aggression by neighbouring Hornchurch was unthinkable.

The custom died out locally in Victorian times, when detailed maps made Beating the Bounds unnecessary.