“Beating the Bounds” is an ancient custom believed to date back to Anglo-Saxon times and is still observed in many English parishes. In pre-Reformation England it was a annual ceremonial affair attended by lords of the manor or their manorial stewards and bailiffs, well-to-do freeholders and other local dignitaries, and ordinary parishioners. In a time before maps and written title deeds a knowledge of the physical boundaries of property was very important and the custom of walking the boundaries evolved with stops to strike boundary stones to ‘mark’ the bounds.
Beating the bounds usually took place on or near “Rogation Sunday”, the fifth Sunday after Easter Sunday, when parishioners walked the boundaries of the parish in order to confirm parish boundaries and priests would pray for protection and blessings for the lands and for good crops.
After the Reformation the beating of the bounds was usually performed by the parish priest, the churchwardens and other parochial officials, and assorted parishioners. Amongst those attending was usually to be found a crowd of boys armed with green boughs, usually birch or willow, who beat the parish boundary markers with the green boughs. In some parishes it was the custom to beat the boys or bump their heads on the boundary-stones to help them to remember the parish bounds. The perceived object of taking boys along on the beating of the bounds was to ensure that their collective memory of the boundaries would endure and be passed on to future generations of parishioners so creating a folk memory of a parish’s true historical bounds.
A regular, usually annual, beating of the bounds prevented any encroachment by neighbouring parishes as sometimes boundary markers were moved or other boundary markers were obscured. Some land-owners on a parish boundary may have found it more beneficial to “move” to an adjoining parish.
Accurate knowledge of the parish boundaries was of great importance for a variety of reasons up until just before the turn of the twentieth century. The second of the Nonington Parish Magazine items below records the discovery that after a nineteen year lapse in beating the bounds two cottages, now called Dover Road Cottages, previously paying rates to the Parish of Knowlton were actually within the parish bounds of the Parish of Nonington and therefore paying their rates to the wrong parish.
The Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of the following week are known as the “Rogation Days,” days for fasting and prayer, and the Thursday is the Feast of the Ascension. Edward Hasted recorded in his chapter on Nonington in “The History and Topographical Survey of Kent”, volume IX, that “There is a fair held yearly in Church-street, on Ascension day, for pedlary, &c”. Church Street then consisted of what is now Church Street and Pinner’s Lane. The fair was most likely held on either the then vicarage site, now the new burial ground, or the parsonage ground, now the row of bungalows across Church Street from the new burial ground.
One reason was local taxation as up until the late nineteenth century parishioners paid rates, usually 2 shillings [10 pence] in the pound on the rateable value of a property or land, for the repair and upkeep of the local church and these rates were only discontinued when the modern parish councils came into existence. Those parishioners with property or land below a certain rateable value were exempt from paying the rate.
From 1598 and 1834 the care of the poor was the responsibility of the Parish Vestry, the precursor of the present day Parish Council, under successive Poor Laws, and the money needed for the maintenance of the poor of the parish raised by local poor rates. The Poor Rate was usually of a similar sum to the church rate, with similar exemptions.
The Poor Laws therefore provided another compelling reason for ensuring that everyone knew the boundaries of the parish. The inhabitants needed to know who to pay their rates to, and from whom to make a claim for assistance when needed.
The following are taken from the Nonington parish magazines of May and June of 1895