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August 2017 – Beating the Bounds

Located in the grass of New Square, is a metal plaque. It shows an anchor with the initials ‘S C D’ engraved around it. This sign is a boundary marker for the parish of St. Clement Danes.

Parish boundaries were historically marked by stones, and later by metal plaques. Every year it was the custom to authenticate the parish boundaries by processioning round them; a tradition known as ‘beating the bounds’. This rite acted as a public reminder of the boundaries of civil parishes.

Originally religious processions had taken place to bless the lands and to confirm ancient boundaries. Parishioners would walk round boundaries on one of the three days before Holy Thursday, or on the Feast of Ascension. It was common practice for willow wands to be carried, which were used to thrash various objects during the procession. After the passing of the Poor Law Act of 1601, which made it necessary to determine the boundaries of a civil parish, this tradition took on a new significance.

The practice of beating the bounds is alluded to in the Inn’s archives. In the Treasurer’s accounts for 1660 an expenditure of 37s is noted, ‘for bread and ale for the inhabitants of S. Andrew’s on the day of the perambulation.’ This payment is also included in subsequent Treasurer’s accounts. In 1778 a payment of £1 4s is noted ‘for bread and beer for S. Andrew’s boys on Holy Thursday last.’ In 1783 there is a payment of 15s. for a barrel of small beer for St Andrew’s boys’ and again 14s in 1792 ‘for a barrel of table beer for the boys of St. Andrew’s parish on Ascension Day.

1778 accounts

However, over time, this generosity is replaced by entries regarding developing tensions caused by the ceremony. At a Council meeting on 4 June 1821 it is reported that ‘the Beadle of the Rolls Liberty, by direction of the Overseers placed a ladder against the north end of the west wall of the Kitchen Garden, and got over the wall. A considerable amount of damage was done to the wooden railing.’

At a subsequent Council meeting on 31 May 1824 the Steward reported that on 27 May, ‘being the day of perambulation of Parish Officers’, the Church Warden and Officers along with the children of St Dunstan’s in the West ‘came into the New Square, to beat, as they alleged, the bounds of the Parish.’ Having requested the key to the kitchen garden they were warned that ‘if they entered the Kitchen Garden, an action would be brought against them for trespass.’

Extract from the Lincoln's Inn Black Books relating to parish boundaries, 31 May 1824
Entry in Serle's court book, 1824

These reports are followed by entries in the Treasurer’s accounts for 1825, for payments for ‘£2 to James Barker and Edwards, police officers, for their attendance on Holy Thursday to prevent the officers etc of the parishes of S. Clement Danes and S. Andrew’s from perambulating the bounds, or entering Lincoln’s Inn’. There is also a payment of ‘£9 5s to the badge porters and others, for assisting on that occasion.’

The accounts for 1829 show similar payments for preventing the Parish of St. Giles from perambulating the Inn. A payment of £14 is made to the Chief Porter and 40 porters and assistants who attended to provide this security. These payments reappear for several years, although each time the name of the parish differs (possibly it was the custom that only one of the four parishes concerned should beat the bounds in the Inn each year).

It is clear from the records that the Inn was no longer welcoming the tradition, and at a Council meeting held on 9 May 1831 it is noted that an application from the Churchwardens of St. Andrew’s Holborn ‘for leave to perambulate the Inn on Holy Thursday, was refused.’

These entries reflect the fact that as the estate of Lincoln’s Inn had developed and grown over the centuries, its relationship with the many surrounding parishes had become increasingly more complicated.

In the book ‘Cases of supposed exemption from Poor rates claimed on the ground of extra-parochiality’ by Edward Griffith, published in 1831 there is a map of Lincoln’s Inn, showing the parish boundaries as they were at that time. It depicts the complicated arrangement the Inn had with neighbouring parishes.

Map of Lincoln's Inn showing the parish boundary, from ‘Cases of supposed exemption from Poor rates claimed on the ground of extra-parochiality’ by Edward Griffith, 1831
Map of the parish boundaries of the Inn, 1831

In the Archives there is also a printed plan of 1814 with the same parish boundaries drawn on by hand.

Plan of Lincoln's Inn with hand drawn parish boundary, from the archives, 1814
1814 Plan of Lincoln's Inn

The older part of the estate (which included the Old Hall and Old Buildings) had originally been part of the parish of St. Dunstan, while the north part of the estate was in the parish of St. Andrew. The line separating the parishes of St. Andrew and St. Dunstan had run through the middle of the Old Hall to the Chancery Lane gatehouse. The buildings north of this line ‘and the new fair garden plot towards Holborn’ had belonged to St. Andrew’s.

The present site of New Square was purchased by the Society around 1690 and is part of what was known as Fickett’s Fields. Nearly the whole of this was situated in the parishes of St. Dunstan, St Clement Danes and St Giles. When New Square was built disputes as to the exact position of the Southern boundary were settled in the manner still indicated by tablets on the walls of No 1 and 11.

This left Nos 1-4 New Square within the parish boundary of St Dunstan’s; No 5-10 and part of No 11 within the boundary of St. Clement Danes’; the remainder of No 11 and the western side of the garden within that of St. Giles’ in the Fields, and the rest of the Inn within that of St. Andrew’s Holborn.

In 1847 there was a bill to sever the sites of the Great Hall, Library and other buildings of the Society from the Parish of St Giles’ in the Fields and annex them to the township of Lincoln’s Inn. However since the passing of the London Government Act in 1899, these changing divisions have ceased to be of real consequence.

Today there is no need to confirm the boundaries with a ceremony for administrative reasons, as parish and other administrative areas are now marked on the Ordnance Survey maps. However some parishes choose to continue the tradition, including the parish of All Hallows by the Tower.

Parish boundary markers of various ages can still be seen distributed on buildings and pavements around the streets of London. The website of the Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks depicts many of them, including this one located on the west side of New Square.