Beating the Bounds – also sometimes called ‘Gang-Days’ – was an old folk custom, generally used to keep alive knowledge of the boundaries of a parish, and pass this knowledge on from older to younger generations. In centuries before mass literacy and availability of consistent maps and charts, this was achieved by parading round a parish boundary once a year, and ensuring the markers and landmarks associated with this border were drummed into the heads of the youth – often by literally beating them at each marker.
Beating the Bounds may have evolved from a collection of diverse origins in pre-christian ceremonies, adopted into Christianity like so much pagan worship was. Early-mid May is often a glorious time of lovely weather, longer days, blossom; a great time for festivals and outdoor activities. From celtic Beltane, through Roman to medieval Mayday and into modern times, May is month for celebrating growth, life, renewal and for partying. In pagan and Christian cultures where the goodwill of a god or gods was held to be vital for crops to grow, for fertility and abundance, May also saw rituals to honour the deity/ies inquestion and earn their favour. Mingling fun and frolics with the serious business of blessing the seeds that would grow into the food that sustained the community.
Beating the bounds often took place in May, at Rogation Week in 2021, 9th-13th May). Rogation began as a Christian service in the mid-fifth century, and was possibly influenced by a pagan Roman procession known as Robigalia, (at which a dog was sacrificed to propitiate Robigus, the deity of agricultural disease). The Rogation days gradually evolved into days of fasting and prayer between the fifth Sunday after Easter Sunday (‘Rogation Sunday’) and Ascension Day the following Thursday. The ‘Gang Days’ were the Days of Rogation, leading up to Ascension Day. Priests would bless crops and ask God to intercede (latin rogation). The alternative name for rogation days, still used in some places, of Gang or Gange Days, comes from the Anglo-Saxon gangen meaning to ‘go’ or ‘walk’, indicating the procession itself was an early adopted part of the ritual.
By the middle ages, the ritual had generally become fixed as a yearly march, celebrated with bread, cheese, cakes and ale, around the border of the community. In earlier times particular stones or boulders, trees, hedges, streams probably formed the majority of markers; later, buildings, fences, walls would have been added. Adolescent boys would be beaten at the landmarks, with thongs made of willow or birch, or even thrown into ponds and bushes, or sometimes held upside down and bumped against rocks or the ground (possibly the origin of ‘getting the bumps on your birthday?) The violence or benevolence of drumming knowledge into boys heads varied wildly – in some places they were given coins, in others their fingers were pricked. The girls and women would wear and carry garlands of flowers and foliage.
The priest would say prayers for good weather, asking for God’s blessing for the crops etc, at the boundary markers (often these then acquired names linked to the ritual, like Gospel Oak or Amen Corner?) Over time the bounds march evolved into dances in some places (contributing to the murky evolution of morris dancing and ‘Obby ‘Oss- type figures being carried. In other communities Rogation ceremonies seem to have been transcended into general festive merriment, as with the ‘youling’ or ‘apple howling’ custom.
As society became more complex, administrative boundaries and authorities evolved, and lordships and internal borders became more prevalent, ways to resolve local border disputes became more important. In Anglo-Saxon times it’s thought ceremonies such as Beating the Bounds acted like a kind of local charter. Over the centuries and into Norman times, as feudalism was imposed on the population, these rituals could also have been vital for imposing the sense of whose land you belonged to, as well as marking the obligations and vertical ties from serf, to landlord. These were times when the poor folk working the land were barred from leaving and moving elsewhere without permission; was Beating the Bounds also an annual march around the manor you were supposed to stick to? Literally beating your horizons into you?
Postcode War-like Disputes with neighbouring parishes may have been not uncommon – especially if two crowds met on a boundary and there were unresolved border issues…
In theory, the ritual demanded absolute adherence to the exact boundary.
Exact treading of the boundary in a legal sense was very likely replaced gradually by a strict insistence on following every twist, carried out either in that nerdy-stickler for propriety ethos familiar to anyone familiar with some local government practices, or else with a sense of festive fun, like a rural version of parkour or hedgehopping.
“This necessity or determination to perambulate along the old track often occasioned curious incidents. If a canal had been cut through the boundary of a parish, it was deemed necessary that some of the parishioners should pass through the water. Where a river formed part of the boundary line, the procession either passed along it in boats, or some of the party stripped and swam along it, or boys were thrown into it at customary places. If a house had been erected on the boundary line, the procession claimed the right to pass through it.”
This could lead to slightly ridiculous scenes, if this account is to be believed:
“A more ludicrous scene occurred in London about the beginning of the present [19th] century. As the procession of churchwardens, parish officers, &c, followed by a concourse of cads, were perambulating the parish of St George’s, Hanover-Square, they came to the part of a street where a nobleman’s coach was standing just across the boundary line. The carriage was empty, waiting for the owner, who was in the opposite house. The principal churchwarden, therefore, himself a nobleman, desired the coachman to drive out of their way. “I won’t!” said the sturdy coachman; “my lord told me to wait here, and here I’ll wait, till his lordship tells me to move!” The churchwarden coolly opened the carriage door, entered it, passed out through the opposite door, and was followed by the whole procession, cads, sweeps, and scavengers.”
Here’s an example of a procession: an in-depth description of the Beating the Bounds on the parish of Mitcham in 1879
Later, Beating the Bounds not only reinforced a community’s sense of its own extent and made sure this sense was transmitted to younger members – it was also used to police offences against the border by neighbouring parishes, and sometimes encroachment against common land by its own residents or landowners whose land lay in the parish. Fences, obstructions and buildings agreed to be offending against collective use or access could be noted and the offender dealt with, and were sometimes thrown down or demolished as part of the ceremony. Beating the Bounds could act as a community asserting their common rights, or generally letting people (lords of the manor? Other enclosers?) that their memories were long and they would defend their rights. For instance, a parade in Rogation Week around the old borders of one parish ended in 1751 with an incursion into Richmond Park, which had been built a century before by king Charles I by buying, acquiring and enclosing land from several parishes – an act that had caused decades of anger and friction, as people not only lost access to common land for subsistence, collecting firewood, grazing livestock etc, but were also denied access along traditional footpaths. Although this discontent had simmered, the 1751 incident may have brought things back into focus, as the following years saw a legal struggle against the loss of access to the parkland that would end with rights of way being restored across it.
Regulation of common rights, encroachments and enclosures was often negotiated at parish level, and parish officials were sometimes the authority chosen to head up anti-enclosure protests. Knowledge of who owned what in the parish and where boundaries lay was also sometimes crucial in legal disputes about commons and their usage.
The ritual inspired other ceremonies which came to represent slightly different interests, but kept something of the spirit of community memory and assertion of rights. For instance, the archery companies of London evolved a custom of marching around the traditional archery practice grounds north of the City (Moorfields and Finsbury Fields) and demolishing constructions or buildings that they claimed encroached on their traditional right to use the Fields. Because archers were crucial to English military might in medieval times, the companies generally had a lot of power and influence. Interestingly the march and occasional disorder associated with it are not really recorded until the 16th century, when archery would beginning to lose its importance – maybe the need for the march and conflict only arose as the bow was starting to lose its prestige? This march lasted a lot longer than the military presence of archers in the army – into the late 18th century.
Enclosure of land across the country obviously had a huge impact on the Bounds. Old borders and boundaries were lost, landmarks removed, ploughed under; and the social structure that the old ritual formed a crucial part of was broken down.
Although Beating the Bounds has fallen into disuse, like many folk customs, it has been revived in some places. Sometimes for its own sake; sometimes to continue the struggle against the ongoing theft of open land.
The New Lammas Lands Defence Committee revived ‘Beating the bounds’ around Leyton Lammas Lands in the 1990s to commemorate the 1892 riotous defence of the lands against enclosure, and to protest newer enclosures…
In 2018 Brighton residents Beat the Bounds of Whitehawk Hill Nature Reserve to defend against development.
The Open Spaces Society encourages communities to ‘beat the bounds’ of your local common or village green.
A good idea, as this can help maintain a sense of community ownership and access, when so many open spaces are faced with enclosure, development, being built over…
All over London, while big parks and woods are generally protected from being built on, smaller pieces of open space, for instance on council estates, is being considered for development – often by local authorities desperate to address the massive housing crisis we are facing in the capital.
We need more social housing, there’s no doubt – in a city where private rents have gone through the roof and buying a home is beyond the reach of millions. But cramming more homes into already densely populated areas, taking away small areas of open space on estates where many people have no gardens, is not the answer.
The destruction in 2018 of the Tidemill Community Garden in Deptford showed how councils are willing to bulldoze self-built community projects in their quest for more housing.
But there’s been recent success: Southwark Council have been forced to retreat on their proposal to build on a small open space at Brenchley Gardens estate after the community campaigned against the idea.
Many more such proposals are constantly being imposed and resisted across London. We need to be ‘Beating the Bounds’ more – asserting our common ownership of open space, refusal to let it be enclosed and built over. Part of this may also be coming up with solutions to the housing crisis…
It’s not just about space…
Read an article linking modern struggles to evolve a ‘commons’ of open source seeds in defiance of the capitalist enclosure of seed copyrights and genetically modified seed by agriculture and biotech corporations.