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Walthamstow: Beating the bounds

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Most people, even if they’ve never visited, know that Walthamstow is somewhere in the suburbs sprawling across north-east London, and most Londoners know that it’s a last stop on the Victoria Line of the Tube. They’ve all probably heard of the area’s famous associations: William Morris, a former greyhound racing track, and Europe’s longest outdoor street market.

But perhaps many of today’s residents would struggle to say exactly where Walthamstow starts and the neighbouring areas begin. These days it doesn’t matter too much, but there was a time when knowing the boundaries of the area was all-important for the locals. And, understanding how Walthamstow’s boundaries have been recorded over the years tells us a lot about its history.

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, churchwardens and parish officials perambulated around the boundaries of the parish to remind them of where the borders lay. Popular memory and the knowledge in people’s heads mattered in those days when maps were scarce and administrative records were less systematic.  

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. Often the perambulation took place during Rogation Week and there was a procession of locals who beat drums as they stopped at each marker. The walkers were often fuelled by bread and cheese, and beer. Another tradition was to carry willow wands and to use them to ‘beat’ the bounds. The ceremony was carried out every few years or so.

The only problem was that as the parish 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 one parish began and the other ended in some places. Walthamstow always had the historical boundary of the River Lea to mark it off from Tottenham except that his borderland area was mainly meadowland even into the nineteenth century, and Walthamstow even had small patches of ground on either side of the river. So, there could be confusion between the two communities about exactly where their respective parish boundaries lay.

These borders mattered in the days when each parish and its vestry was more or less a self-governing unit responsible for everything from maintaining the roads to caring for the poor. It’s thought that the Walthamstow’s vestry last organized a complete beating of the bounds in the 1860s. Even then Walthamstow was still a parish in Essex with largely a landscape of open countryside and a rural heart. But even by then it’s likely that the ceremony was mainly a ritual rather than having any administrative purpose.  Some people by then regarded the ceremony as a little anachronistic. In the mid-Victorian period, the railways were approaching and within a few years a direct line was built from London to Walthamstow. Beating the bounds probably seemed to belong in the past to some people.

But like many folk traditions, the custom underwent a revival in the twentieth century. One of the revivals was for Walthamstow’s celebration of the Festival of Britain in 1951 when a party of schoolchildren and members of the local history society toured around the old boundaries of what was then a municipal borough and administratively 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 of bounds. In those post-war years, it was done in a humorous spirit and partly as a history lesson. 

So, these days it’s still interesting to find out more about the old boundaries of a village, parish or town. There probably won’t be any crosses marked on old trees to guide you, not at least in most areas of London, but it’s still a little local knowledge worth having.

 By James Diamond

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