Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857 - Beating the Bounds

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A STRANGER to the civic customs prevailing among the English, is sometimes startled with curious out-of-door exhibitions, which defy all his attempts to fathom them; and it sometimes happens, too, that on seeking an explanation from those who are supposed to know all about it, he is put off with a conjecture, more or less fortunate, instead of a veracious solution of the problem. The wisdom of our forefathers is often a riddle to their descendants; and though she lift up her voice in the streets as in affairs municipal she is very much given to do, she cries in an unknown tongue to the majority of those who hear. In the streets of London, numberless demonstrations are made, from time to time, before the eye of the public of the signification of which the larger portion of spectators know but little, and care less ; yet they all have a signification, if we choose to look for it ; and primitive and even puerile as some of them may appear, they might hardly be abolished without the risk of losing with them some positive advantage which it would be better to retain. Among these out-of-door observances, one of the most frequent occurrence in the summer months, is, that procession of juveniles which once a year, in every parish in London, starts from the vestry-door of the parochial church to traverse the limits of the parish, or, in colloquial phrase, to "beat the bounds.'' The practice is a very old one - how old, we have no means of ascertaining. Every parish is of course in possession of maps of its own domain; but something more than this is supposed to be necessary in order to [-110-]  prevent its limits from being encroached upon. In London, a single yard of land may chance to be worth a large sum of money and every possible precaution is taken to prevent any doubt as to the proprietorship of every square inch of the soil. Cast-iron plates bearing inscriptions in raised letters, indicative of the claim of the parish to the land upon which they stand, are inserted in the walls of houses and ware-rooms, or affixed to beams of timber or upright posts along the whole route of the parish boundaries ; and these are formally visited and identified once a year, to ascertain that they stand where they did ; and the boys of the charity-school are always chosen as visitors, in order that the rising generation may be duly impressed with their parochial rights and privileges, and made intimate with the extent of the territory which at some future day may chance to be confided to their guardianship. In ancient times, as we are informed upon very good authority, the custom of beating the bounds, which is now one of unmingled pleasure and festivity, was celebrated in a manner not exclusively joyous. The boys did not then regard it altogether as a holiday, seeing that certain of their number, who, it is to be hoped, had earned a right to that distinction, were regularly horsed and soundly whipped in presence of the several inscription-plates defining the boundaries. The castigation, it was shrewdly judged, was an efficient means of impressing the localities upon their memories. There is no doubt that our forefathers were right in that respect : a fact thus effectually brought home to an individual's consciousness, at that tender age when the mind (and the epidermis) is susceptible of the slightest impressions, was not likely to be forgotten and there is no record to show that it ever was. It is long ago, however, since innovations crept into this part of the ceremony ; and within the memory of man a different practice has prevailed. At the present day, the boys carry in their hands willow-wands peeled white; and with these they [-111-] commence a combined assault upon the cast-iron inscription-plates wherever they find them - a process which, in the opinion of our modern humanitarians, is thought to answer quite as well, though dissentients from that opinion are not wanting among time admirers of hoar antiquity.
    In ancient times, too, unless my authority is himself mis-informed, the boundaries of the London parishes were all beaten in one day, which must have been a memorable day for the boys of the city, considering the cakes and ale, which were always abundant upon the occasion, to say nothing of the flagellations above alluded to. This practice, however, was found to have its inconveniences. It may happen in the case of a destructive conflagration, that in spite of all precautions, the boundary-mark of a parish, if not obliterated, is overthrown and buried in a mass of ruins - and when recovered, there may be a doubt or a dispute as to the precise position it previously occupied. This actually took place some years ago : a large warehouse, which stood partly in the parish of St. Botolph Aldersgate, and partly in St. Bartholomew's, was destroyed by fire. The premises were in ruins when the day for beating the bounds arrived. It chanced, unfortunately, that two armies of charity-boys met upon the spot, and, as a matter of course, disagreed as to the position of the boundary-mark, which, in this ease, it was their business to replace. They quarrelled, and fought a bloody battle. The inscription-plate, raised upon a pole, was the object of a furious contention ; now it was in possession of one party, who endeavoured to plant it too far west  - and anon it was in the hands of another, who bore it a full half yard to the east. It was a new battle for the standard. The fight raged round the pole amidst a volcano of dust that rendered the combatants invisible now and then, a disabled champion with black eye or bloody nose emerged from the cloud, and sought the refreshment of the pump. They made a good many broken heads among [-112-] them but they never settled the dispute after all. The combat was only put an end to by the police securing the bone of contention and carrying it off. Since then, it has not been deemed advisable that two adjoining parishes should beat their bounds on the same way ; and care is taken that two irascible factions shall not have the opportunity of breaking the peace of the City. The parishes now choose different days for the ceremony - saints' days generally having the preference.
    My own experience in this way is but small, having officiated but on one occasion. What took place then, I shall relate for the satisfaction of the curious. I have been a shopkeeper in the City for more than twenty years, and am considered to do a good stroke of business. When I was chosen select vestry-man last year, I cannot say I was very much surprised. I was not sorry either perhaps I felt a little flattered. At any rate, I did not refuse the office, which in our parish is, to say the worst of it, at least as convivial as it is burdensome. We dispense a good deal of charity one way and another ; and if we make merry after it now and then, nobody is the worse for that - not ourselves, I'm sure, whatever cross-grained folks may think about it. A few weeks ago. I received an intimation that my attendance at the parish church, where I was to join the procession to traverse the bounds, would be expected on a certain day, at an hour specified. On the morning of the day named, there came to my shop by way of reminder, and perhaps, too, as one of my neighbours hinted, by way of placebo to my wife, a paper packet, which, on being opened, was found to contain five or six yards of elegant white ribbon - a sort of thing which the ladies, bless their hearts! always know what to do with - and a couple of pair of silk stay-laces al a rather antique breadth - such, I fancy, as used to be worn at the time when the plump citizenesses followed the fashion of lacing their bodices on the outside. We had a hearty [-113-] laugh, my good dame and I, over the contents of the packet, which were soon whipped out of sight ; and then I brushed up a bit, and set off to the church. I met my colleagues at the vestry at the hour appointed. Here, while the boys were getting into marching-order, we took a friendly glass of wine together; and when all were prepared to set forth, I found myself at the head of the column, armed with a bunch of flowers as big almost as the head of an ox, and with a companion furnished in a similar manner on each side of me. It wanted an hour of noon when we sallied forth down the street. Our way lay through various streets, lanes, courts, and alleys, and along the bank of the river. I cannot say that I traversed the whole limits of the parish myself, but I can certify the boys did. At all the recognised boundaries, they set up a jovial shout, and battered away at the iron landmarks with their willow-wands. In some places, they had to climb ladders ; in others, to dive into cellars now their yellow breeches and blue stockings were seen cascading through an open window now the whole school marched bodily into a tailor's shop, and began jumping and poking with their sticks at the ceiling then they would knock at the door of a private dwelling, and the moment it was opened, rush down to the cellar in search of the rusty plate, emerging again with three cheers, in token that all was as it should be. In this way, we spent, I should say, something like four hours, without exciting much attention from the public, who, in London city, have a rather characteristic habit of attending to their own business, and leaving other people to follow theirs. Here and there we attracted some observation, anti our yellow-legged regiment picked up a few recruits of their own age and standing, who seemed to desire nothing better than to share in the frolic of the procession. When we had completed the survey of the boundaries, and ascertained that the parish stood in the same place it did on that day twelve-[-114-]month - none of the cast-iron tablets having disappeared from their positions - our business was concluded. What followed, I do not consider myself bound to state categorically. If we gave the boys a substantial dinner, which is quite as agreeable a thing to remember as a sound whipping ; if they got a glass of wine after it, as well as a slice of cake ; if young Bob Grimes carried home a couple of tapped bottles of port, to help his mother over her convalescence after a rheumatic fever and if, after the boys had gone home, we also sat down to a comfortable dinner, a snug party of twelve, and enjoyed ourselves in our turn, after a walk that had given us all an appetite - nobody has a right to complain ; because I defy any man to come forward and prove that he or his ever contributed a single penny towards the expense.
    This old custom of beating the bounds of parishes is by no means confined to London, as most of my readers know, although it differs there in some important respects, as I have shown, from the practice prevailing in country towns. In rural districts it is not always so harmless as it is within the sound of Bow bells. I have seen the ceremony performed many years ago, in my young days, by an awkward squad of clodhoppers, headed by the beadle in his magisterial robes, in a way not at all indicative of the march of intellect in that quarter. I have known a troop of heavy-heeled rustics tramp over the boundary-line, clean through a farmer's rising crop, or over a gentleman's, or even a lady's flower-beds, in spite of any remonstrance the owner could make to deter them ; and I have seen walls overthrown, and fences pulled up, when there was no necessity for touching them, solely because the spoilers had a prescriptive right to make their way through them on one day of the year. Those who remember how these "possession days,'' as they were then called, used to terminate in the old times before corporation reform - with what quarrelling and drunkenness the [-115-] nights closed in - how the parishes were literally in possession of the mob till past midnight - will not be disposed to find fault with the citizens of London for the way in which they manage the matter.
    Talking of that, reminds me of a "possessioning'' in which I once bore a part when I was a boy. I served my apprenticeship in the gay and brilliant city of Bath, and, as near as I can calculate, it must have been somewhere about the year 1819 the event which I am going to narrate took place. At that time, the beating of the bounds of the city came off in June, and was a grand summer-day's holiday for all concerned in it. A great deal of fun was mixed up with the ceremony; bushels of buns, baked for the purpose, were scrambled for by the mob, among whom they were thrown. A part of the route lay through the city and suburbs, and a part along the course of the river Avon. A canal-boat, decked out for the occasion, served for the corporation barge, from which a shower of buns flew continually to the banks, from whence half of them rolled into the water, whither they were followed by eager urchins, who made no account of a ducking in such a cause. A band of music accompanied the cortege, which consisted of members of the corporation, townsmen with their sons and apprentices, and a hundred or so of school-boys. The procession was in movement nearly the whole clay, stopping occasionally at various places, and partaking of libations more copious than prudent. The latter part of the route along the boundary lay across the river, at a ferry near South Parade, the once fashionable promenade of Beau Nash and his followers. Here the whole party of us, numbering some hundreds, had to cross in a flat-bottomed boat, which was pulled over the river by means of a rope strained across. The boat would carry safely, perhaps, a dozen persons ; but thirty rushed into it, and, for a wonder, reached the other side, and disembarked without accident.
    [-116-] At the second trip, above forty, half of them men full-grown, and three-parts intoxicated, jumped into it, lowering it in the water to within an inch of the gunwale. The ferryman expostulated in vain, and was compelled to attempt the passage. When about half-way over, the boys began rocking the boat - in an instant, it toppled over, turned bottom upwards, and immersed the whole living mass, in one dense cluster of struggling beings, in twenty feet of water. A fearful shriek rose on the banks, and then a few moments of terrible silence, as we viewed the evidences of the struggle going on beneath the surface of the river. The water surged and bubbled, and seethed and twisted in a hundred whirlpools, as we held our breath and strained our eyeballs for a sight of our lost companions. There were at least a dozen strong swimmers among them, but they had all gone down in one entangled mass, and no sign of a swimmer appeared above the foam. No boats were near, and although messengers had started off to fetch them, it seemed an age before any arrived on the spot. The ferryman clung to the rope, and, in spite of the drowning men pulling at his legs, managed to warp himself ashore. The ferryboat floated slowly down the sluggish stream, and three or four boys who had clung desperately to it, were taken up by an advancing wherry. After an interval which I cannot attempt to measure, a number of hats and garments belonging to the drowning crew floated into view, and a few minutes later, several inanimate bodies rose, one or two at a time, to the surface. These were pulled out with all haste, and laid on the shelving bank, where, under the care of a few medical men hurriedly called to the spot, means were adopted to restore animation. There was a cry for bedding and blankets, I remember, and the inhabitants of the South Parade threw the desiderated articles plentifully from their windows. The green bank of the river was soon converted into a sort of hospital, and a hundred hands were engaged in stripping, [-117-] chafing, and roiling the insensib1e bodies. By this time a number of boats, in which men armed with long hooked poles, and groping with them in the deep waters, kept up a continual search, were upon the spot, and paddling about in all directions, every now and then lifting another body from the depth, and sometimes two or three clutched together in the death-grasp. News of the calamity had spread like wild-fire throughout the whole of the town, and now crowds of distracted friends came rushing bareheaded through, the streets to the scene of the disaster - mothers and sisters to find their sons and brothers dead or dying on the banks, and wives whose husbands were yet at the bottom of the flood. The dragging of the river continued all the evening till long after dark. Most of the bodies were recovered that night - a few, having been carried down the stream, were not found for some days. Of the number of the victims, I have no distinct remembrance at this distance of time. I lost two of my most intimate companions, both of them excellent swimmers. No one sat down that day to the plentiful dinner to which all had been hastening so jovially. The event cast a gloom over the fashionable city which was not soon dissipated. That day twelvemonth the city bounds were not beaten, and I have no recollection that the holiday connected with such a fatal remembrance was ever renewed upon its former footing.
    There is no parallel to be found to the above miserable tragedy in the whole annals of the London corporation - although we have our aquatic processions, as all the world knows. The grandest of these is of course that which takes place on Lord Mayor's-day, the particulars of which are too well known to be repeated here. But there are other excursions upon the river on a smaller scale, which also take place periodically, of which those who do not participate in them know but little or nothing. One of these has received from the populace the sarcastic designation of swanhopping, from [-118-] the ignorant notion which prevails, that the members of the corporation embark on board their barges in a body to count the swans on the river, which are supposed to be, and for aught I know may be, their property. Perhaps the term may have originated in the fact, that this kind of excursion being one in which business and pleasure are united, the common-councilmen sometimes take their wives and daughters with them, when a dance may happen to take place upon the sward of some shady meadow. The real object of the excursion is, however, the survey of certain estates which belong to the City, and which lie on the banks of the river, and are leased to tenants bound over to the observance of specified conditions, and therefore requiring occasional surveillance. When it comes to pass that a "griffin" joins one of these parties he becomes conventionally liable to certain practical jokes, which have for their object the making him intimately acquainted with an old landmark, in the shape of a big stone on the bank of the river at Staines, which is said to have been set up originally as a memorial of the disafforesting of the Warren of Staines, by virtue of a charter of Henry III., which granted to the citizens of London, and all free tenants of the county of Middlesex, liberty of warren and forest in that district.
    Another excursion, and one which, I believe, is a source of much enjoyment to the voyagers, is the annual trip of the Navigation Committee, to whom the conservancy of the banks of the Thames is entrusted. The Lord Mayor of London has been, time out of mind, bailiff or conservator of the river Thames. James I., by a charter, confirmed him in the office, the functions of which devolve upon the Navigation Committee, composed of common-councilmen. The lord mayor appoints a water-bailiff who is called the subconservator, and who, taking his instructions from the Navigation Committee, executes their commands. He controls and licenses the fisheries, superintends the repair of the [-119-] banks, and keeps the bed of the river in a fit state for navigation. Some time in one of the leafy months of summer, the committee make their annual voyage, to inspect his domain, and see that Father Thames suffers no neglect at his hands, or wrong from evildoers. This important business, I am credibly informed, is never hastily slurred over or thoughtlessly undertaken. The barge which is to be freighted with the commonalty being first duly provisioned with all the requisites for an al-fresco collation, and with an assortment of wines, in bottles of all shapes, and suited to civic palates, is despatched in charge of the water-bailiff up the river as far as Reading, or perhaps up the Isis to Oxford. The members of the Navigation Committee run to the latter place, say, in the evening by rail, and, after a sunset ramble among the universities, and a becoming supper at the Mitre, pass the night in the arms of Alma Mater. Next morning, they embark on board the barge, and, drawn by a horse at a walking-pace, commence the voyage back to London, commenting, it may be, by the way, on the state of the river, and suggesting the adoption of any fresh measures necessary for the conservation of the banks, the dredging of the bottom, or the regulation of the fisheries. The chief characteristic of this return-journey is the deliberation with which it is conducted. The voyagers are seldom known to proceed further than Henley on the first day. There are a good many things to be looked into, and more to be got to the bottom of; and there are fortunately many pleasant shady nooks on the banks, where, in clear moss-bordered springs, claret is known to cool, in the course of an hour or so, to a state of delicious perfection. A table-cloths, spread upon the ground by the side of a rustic fountain, and garnished with a cold venison-pasty, a brace or two of plump capons, and a Westphalia ham, with here and there a Strasburg paté standing upright among tall crystal goblets, into which the red juice of the Rhine-grape gurgles forth from sombre-coloured [-120-] bottles responsively to the ripple of the fountain such is the delightful mixture of nature and art which completes the summer landscape in the eye of the civic connoisseur. A lunch thus luxuriously partaken of is a thing to be enjoyed and remembered, and a worthy prelude to the dinner which comes off at Henley, whither a turbot or a fine salmon or perhaps white-bait or turtle, have been thoughtfully forwarded from sympathising friends at the Mansion House, to enrich the larder of the landlord, and enable him to do honour to his guests. The party sleep at Henley ; the next morning they embark again, and proceed with the same deliberation, and the same agreeable intervals devoted to the contemplation of nature under the most favourable circumstances, until they arrive at Windsor, or perhaps at Hampton. The third day wafts them pleasantly into the heart of the great city, and lands them at London Bridge, whence they return in peace to their families, grateful, it may be presumed, for having been preserved from the perils of the deep.
    I could say something more on the subject of these aquatic excursions, and their excellent effect upon the river population and the river property ; but too much writing somehow makes my head feel as though it did not belong to me; besides which, there is waiting in the shop a particularly good customer of mine, who will never be served by anybody but myself. So perhaps I am justified in leaving off here, and deferring the rest to another opportunity, if that should ever occur.