Living on the edge

Author James Diamond explores the history of a quirky local tradition

Beating the Bounds 1951

Schoolchildren ‘beat the bounds’ outside the Ferry Boat Inn, June 1951 (credit Vestry House Museum/Waltham Forest Council)

When my girlfriend first moved to Walthamstow, quite a few years ago now, she was living on the edge.

Not in the sense that anything calamitous happened to her, she loved the area, but she had happened to move into a terraced house on Boundary Road, which was originally given its name because it was built more or less on one of Walthamstow’s old borders.

Boundary Road was built in the 1870s along what had been a ‘boundary’ with the neighbouring parish of Leyton. The long, straight road was built a decade or so after these Essex parishes had for the first time been surveyed systematically by the modern mapmakers and cartographers of the Ordnance Survey. Until then, perhaps the most detailed map of Walthamstow was by John Coe, the vestry clerk. Today it’s on display at Vestry House Museum in Walthamstow Village.

The emergence of the Ordnance Survey maps happened more or less as the old way of marking the boundaries of Walthamstow and other parishes died out. For many generations, there was a ceremony carried out called ‘beating the bounds’. It was a folk custom, common in rural areas, in which locals and parish officials walked around the boundaries of the parish to remind them of where the borders lay. The boundaries of where Walthamstow met a neighbouring parish such as Tottenham or Leyton were often highlighted by crosses painted on stonewalls and trees, or were marked by a brook or hedgerow. In some places, wooden stakes were hammered into the ground.

The only problem had been that as the parishes had developed, trees were chopped down, hedges uprooted, and sometimes the wooden stakes were moved. In some locations, a farm building was built across the parish boundary. In time, no-one knew where some parishes began and the others ended. Walthamstow always had the historical boundary of the River Lea to mark it off from Tottenham, except that this borderland area was mainly meadowland even into the 19th Century, and Walthamstow even had small patches of ground on either side of the river. So, there could be confusion between the communities about their respective boundaries.

As they perambulated around, the processions of locals, churchwardens and vestry officials would stop at each marker and, to a fanfare of drums, bell-ringing and a coach horn, they would ‘beat’ the ground with the willow wands they carried. Walthamstow’s last official beating of the bounds is recorded as taking place in 1867. By then, it had become largely ceremonial, with plenty of stops along the way at inns such as the Ferry Boat to refuel with bread, cheese and beer.

There had once been a serious purpose. The borders mattered in the days when each parish and its vestry was more or less a self-governing unit, in rural Essex, responsible for everything from maintaining the roads to relief of the poor. But like many folk traditions, the custom underwent a revival in the 20th Century. One of the rebirths of the tradition was for Walthamstow’s celebration of the Festival of Britain in 1951, when a party of schoolchildren and members of Walthamstow Antiquarian Society toured around the old boundaries of what was then a municipal borough and administratively a part of Essex.

In the mid-1960s, just as the municipal borough of Walthamstow was merged with Chingford and Leyton to form today’s London borough of Waltham Forest, there was another revival of beating the bounds. Again, in the 1990s, at a time of heightened environmental awareness, there was another revival, focusing on protecting the old marshlands where Leyton and Walthamstow meet.

As a Walthamstow resident, I’ve always been fascinated to read about these old rituals, and how they have been revived and reinterpreted by the generations. It was one of the reasons I started to write my own history of the area and its people – A People’s History of Walthamstow – tracing the history of the area as far back as the written and archaeological records would go. I found that Walthamstow, which is regarded by some as a quintessentially modern suburb of north-east London, has a history anchored in many old ways.

A People’s History of Walthamstow is published by The History Press and is available to buy at Waterstones in The Mall, Walthamstow and online: