“Beating the Bounds” is an ancient but still practised annual custom, dating back to Medieval times, during which parishes re-affirm their boundaries, at Rogationtide, by processing round them and stopping and beating each boundary mark with wands.
The City church of All Hallows-by-the-Tower beats its bounds today, on Ascension Day. The “Beating Party” is made up of students from St Dunstan’s School in Catford, returning to their roots in the parish of St Dunstan-in-the-East to take part in the proceedings.
The party, accompanied by the Clergy from All Hallows, and the Masters of the Livery Companies associated with the church, first boards a boat to beat the southern boundary mark, in the middle of the Thames! It then returns to dry land, and processes round the remainder of the boundary of the parish, beating the remaining boundary marks – at Custom House, St Dunstan-in-the-East, Plantation House and Knolly’s House – as it goes, before returning to the church for a service of Festal Evensong in the presence of the Lord Mayor and Sheriffs.
Every third year, the party also takes part in a “Boundary Dispute Ceremony” with the Resident Governor and Yeoman Warders of HM Tower of London, in commemoration of an occasion in 1698 when an actual fight broke out between the people of the parish and those of the Tower over a long-standing boundary dispute. As one historical account put it:
“On this occasion the warders used their halberds to some purpose, and several parishioners were seriously injured”.