How Croydon Minster revived an ancient tradition: beating the bounds

By - Tuesday 25th October, 2016

Stephen Willmer on the revival of a surprising ritual to mark the borders of Croydon

A chorister is bounced. No choristers were harmed during the making of this photo.
Photo author’s own.

Beating the bounds is a very old tradition. And like most old traditions, it had a very practical purpose. In the days before maps and mass literacy, this ceremony ensured that the people living in a particular place knew the limits of their land on the ground (their bounds) and could pass on this knowledge from one generation to the next.

Beating was a way to reinforce the bounds in the minds of the participants. The precise form varied. Sometimes local children walloped away at boundary posts with sticks. Sometimes the children themselves were beaten at the boundary posts. Sometimes, apparently, the vicar was bounced. Whatever form it took, it was meant to be memorable. It was also an important public event, marked by processions, eating and drinking. In 1635 over £300 in today’s money was spent on beer for the ‘perambulation’ to the Vicar’s Oak in Upper Norwood, where the parishes of Croydon, Lambeth, Camberwell and Battersea met; in 1704 over 100 pounds of cheese were consumed.

The bounds were taken seriously by local communities and landowners. Disputes over land ownership could be and were judged on the basis of where the procession had walked and the bounds had been beaten. For instance, part of the modern Croydon/Penge boundary was laid down by a Tudor court on the basis of the route chosen by the then Vicar of Croydon for his procession. His choice of an easier route on the day rather than processing over difficult ground was held by the court to have been recognition that the land being argued over was not in fact part of the Parish of Croydon. It may or may not be coincidence that in 1552 Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, who held the lordship of Croydon, had a detailed guide book prepared of the route to be taken.

In 1928 a boy was bounced at Croydon’s boundary by the borough engineer

In more modern times, beating the bounds has often been conducted as a civic or community event. A fairly cursory search online throws up references to Croydon Council arranging beatings of the bounds in 1864, 1876, 1894, 1908 and 1928 (although I couldn’t find a copy of a picture apparently in the Croydon Advertiser from May 1928 of a boy being bounced on a boundary stone by the borough engineer). More recently, the North Wood Morris Men danced the bounds of Croydon in the early 80s, and the Friends of South Norwood Country Park beat part of the bounds in May 1995.

But beating the bounds was also a religious event led by the vicar of the parish, usually on Rogation Sunday in May, to bless those living in the parish and their growing crops. As noted above, this continued in Croydon into at least the 1700s. And a number of parishes have revived the tradition in recent years, including locally in Westerham and Caterham. So as part of its mission to reach out and celebrate God’s unconditional love for the world with all people of the parish and with the wider community in Croydon, Croydon Minster thought it timely to revive this tradition within the boundaries of its modern parish. On Sunday 9th October, after the parish communion service, three groups set out from the minster for the parish boundaries in different directions, each equipped with a chorister for careful bouncing on a padded cushion, with parents’ permission, and sticks and staffs for beating the ground.

Beating on Purley Way.
Photo author’s own.

At various points around the parish and its bounds, each group then stopped to pray aloud, carefully bounce the chorister, and strike the ground while proclaiming: ‘God bless this parish’. Given that not many crops are grown in central Croydon these days, the prayers accordingly focused rather more on blessing the people and places. Locations ranged from outside the Whitgift Almshouses in central Croydon to the rather bleaker ground of the superstores on the Purley Way. Passers by seemed generally both interested and welcoming, and it certainly generated a number of conversations.

Fortunately the modern parish is much smaller than it was 200 years ago, so we did not have to press as fair afield as our predecessors would have done, to Norwood, Shirley, Addiscombe and Purley. Instead, all three parties converged on the Dog and Bull in Surrey Street to conclude with the refreshments that tradition clearly required.

And if you want to hear what the choristers sound like when not being bounced upside down, everyone is welcome at the Sunday and weekday services when they sing. Details can be found on the minster website.

Stephen Willmer

Stephen Willmer

Stephen has lived within 200 yards of the Brighton Road in South Croydon all his adult life. Like many Croydon residents he delights in the daily commute up to London during the week, where he works as a Whitehall-based civil servant. In real life he tries to make time for the family, reads less history and science fiction than he would like, sings in the central-London based choir 'The Saint Martin Singers', goes to church at Croydon Minster, and very occasionally still gets out his bells to dance with Croydon's North Wood Morris Men.

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