Monday, November 12, 2007

Beating the Bounds

Lately I have been thinking about boundaries. This train of thought was brought upon by a few too many midnight ponderings about the nature of relationships between people, and what makes them work or not work (see my post from October), but I've been thinking of the concrete, too--literal, physical boundaries. Much of this has been influenced by many, many bowls of an intricate little pipe mixture that I've been smoking, Embarcadero. That, and a fellow in Florida whom I've never met but have corresponded with.

This acquaintance of mine is working on a book about the political boundaries of London during the Late Victorian Period. That's an interesting point in London's history as it marks the metropolis' transition in 1889 from being a sort of Frankenstein monster that was composed of parts of several different counties into its own single identity, the County of London. This was a topic that Robert, John, and I had touched upon when we were writing our articles about coroners, the importance being that before 1889, the local financial authorities for county coroners were county magistrates, and since London sprawled over parts of several counties like Middlesex, Surrey, and Kent, that sometimes meant several different financial procedures for coroners who worked in metropolitan London. That was because county magistrates had imposed a specific scale of allowable fees that coroners had to abide by. For example, if you were a juror summoned for duty in the County of Surrey, you'd receive something like a shilling a day for your attendance; the coroner would pay you out of his pocket, and then later the magistrates would reimburse the coroner at the quarter sessions. A shilling a day--it wasn't very much, and you'd lose income by serving, but at least that shilling represented a grudging acknowledgment that your service was of some value. But just over the river Thames in the County of Middlesex, you'd get nothing at all (the Middlesex magistrates seem to have been extra tight-fisted).

Then along comes the Local Government Act 1888 that establishes county councils across the country that took over the administration of county coroners from the magistrates. For the rest of England, the creation of county councils was no big deal, as those other counties had been in existence for many centuries. Not so for London, made up of parts of other counties; it was the one area that was most in need of a centalized "head" to operate its Frankenstein-like body. So what the Local Government Act did for London was to create a new county, the County of London, carved out of parts of Middlesex, Surrey, Kent, Essex, and so staring in early 1889, the London County Council became the new financial authorities for the Metropolitan coroners. One of the first things the LCC did was try to standardize the financial administration of inquests, one area of which affected the payment of jurors. Unfortunately for jurors in Surrey, instead of paying all jurors the same amount, the LCC decided to level the playing field by not paying jurors at all, which led to an interesting little situation--jurors in Surrey protested the loss of their fees by refusing to return verdicts at inquests. This led to a few spectacular confrontations between jurors and coroners (who sympathized with jurors but could only enforce the scale of fees imposed upon them by the LCC).

Anyway. As I've said, this friend of mine is writing a book about the organization of London during this period, and knowing that I had researched Victorian coroners, he asked me to look into when the coronership for The Tower of London was absorbed into the County of London. To complicate things, I should say that in addition to being a behemoth composed of several counties, old London also contained a few "franchise" coronerships, little ancient, independent areas that had the ability to police themselves, and had secured, or bought, the right to appoint their own coroners (as opposed to the counties, where the coroner was popularly elected by freeholders until 1889, when the county councils, themselves popularly elected, began appointing them in enclosed little elections). For example, that little square mile of territory known as The City of London had its own police force and coroner. The Queen's Household had its own coroner. And so did the Tower of London, with the Constable of the Tower being the fellow who appointed the coroner. This was a power that the Constable exercised until the Coroners' Amendment Act of 1926 abolished the franchise, although it didn't take effect until the next vacancy, which didn't occur until 1939.

Now, as far as I can tell, the Tower coroner didn't hold a lot of inquests. It seems to have been more of a ceremonial position, with the coroner taking part in processions, reading the Letters Patent that created new Constables, and oddly, the marking of the boundaries of the Tower precincts.

One night, I was looking over an old article from The Times of London, and I saw what I thought was a reference to the coroner "beating the hounds". Good God, I thought. What's the coroner doing beating dogs? Well, I zipped an email to my research partners in England, John and Robert, and asked them to explain this strange, outrageous, and barbaric practice. "I'm here to speak out against this beating the hounds in England", I wrote them. After reading my rant, Robert quite patiently informed me that I'd misread the print (which in my defense, I have to say was very faint), and that what it actually said was "beating the bounds". I felt just like Emily Latilla, Gilda Radner's character that appeared in many of the old Saturday Night Live skits.

Feeling thoroughly ashamed of myself, I asked Robert: what does it mean to beat the bounds?

Literally, he explained, it's the practice of walking boundary lines, locating weathered old boundary markers, and beating them with these long, thin sticks. It's an ancient practice that predates the creation of handy ordnance maps. Back before there were these detailed maps, local officials would march along the boundaries of where they lived to ensure that 1) the boundary markers hadn't been interfered with and 2) to impress where the boundaries were upon the next generation. In the old days, to help the children remember, they'd have this ceremony of "beating" the boundary stones with these long, switch-like sticks, and then give one of the little ones an extra whack on the head, or if the boundary was near a river, perhaps they'd toss one of them in. So I've read. And then after, everyone would go have something nice to eat. It's sort of a communal way of saying "That is theirs, this is ours, and don't you forget it."

And, within the confines of the Tower and its liberties, the Tower coroner participated in this ancient ceremony that appears to have occurred every three years. The sketch reproduced below is from from and the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, London, accompanied by a brief account I pulled out of The Times:

The trieanial ceremony of perambulating the boundaries of the royalty and liberties of the Tower of London took place on Holy Thursday. After the service appointed for the day had been performed by the officiating clergyman in the ancient chapel of St. Peter-ad-Vincula, the procession for "beating the bounds" was formed in the quadrangle of the Tower, around the new Wellington statue, and including the principal garrison and parochial officers, among whom we noticed Colonel Cathcart, the deputy high constable of the Tower; Mayor Aldrige, commander of the Royal Engineers; the high-baliff, the chaplain, the coroner, the vestry-clerk (Mr. Althans), the master-gunner, the keeper of the crown jewels (Mr. Swifte), the whole being preceded by a corps of the Queen's Yeoman Warders with their halberts, in full costume, who made a most imposing appearance. The procession moved on, and at every boundary station the broad arrow was painted, symbolic of the Royal privileges. In one instance it was necessary to engage a wherry to reach the "bounds," the mark being on the margin of the Thames. In another case the boundary was situated with the oven of a baker, but the right to open the oven and "beat the bounds" was asserted and recognized. The ceremony being concluded, the leet jury and the other civil and military functionaries partook of a cold collation in the magistrates' room of the Royalty, Sessions-house, in Wellclose-square.(The Times of London, May 18 1849).

I love that someone had built a bakery over one of the boundary markers.

Today in England, they're still beating the bounds, although to an outsider like me, who has never been, it seems to be more of a holiday, outdoorsy thing to do. Perhaps it's a celebration of the community (I assume they're not beating the kids anymore, or hurling them into rivers).
Now, over at, one user has put up some lovely photographs that were taken at a similar event in Oxford in 2006. I encourage you to click on the photo below (reproduced with permission). That will take you over to Flickr where you can view some other terrific images from his portfolio (user name is torbreck):

Beating the Bounds
Originally uploaded by torbreck (c)Peter Power

After reading about this custom and seeing the sketch and photographs above, I was inspired to include something about beating the bounds in the short story I've been working on, "Her Place at the Table" (which, like this entry, ain't so short anymore). This is a rough draft of a rough draft and a bit of a mess, but since in the end I'm likely to cut this anyway, I figure there's no harm in posting an excerpt.

Although the Francis Rainwater Trust administered and conserved most of Lake Wesumbe and the surrounding Rainwater Woods, Simon and John Rainwater were still in possession of some five hundred acres of private property adjoining the Trust’s preserve. While still in junior high school, John had carefully studied the boundary as a social studies project, and then over the course of a week, had compelled George and their best friend Tom Coffin to haul small but cumbersome boulders from Lake Wesumbe to mark various points in the woods that she designated. Both boys had vociferously complained. George had even appealed to their father Simon to save him from this labor, but because by then John had taken over most of the cooking duties, and already excelled at them, and because Simon enjoyed a hearty meal before his evening pipe, he had done nothing. Besides, John was Simon's favorite child (if the most troublesome).

Now, a quarter of a century after that junior high school project, John still visited the old markers on an annual basis to ensure that the Trust didn’t remove the boundary stones. John and the Trust's director, Brian Hawthorne, existed in a perpetual universe of battle. On one side, the Trust’s sole purpose was to return the woods to their pristine condition, which to Brian Hawthorne meant eradicating anything that hadn’t been there in the seventeenth century—including Rainwater House, if the Trust ever managed to get its hands on Simon’s five hundred acres. Buying Simon out and gaining complete control of the lake and woods was the Trust’s publicly stated goal. That merely perturbed Simon; John, ever the hothead, was outraged.

"Do you suppose that if we lived in a treehouse like Tarzan and Jane, those druids would like it just fine?" she said. "No. They're trying to punish us for founding the town! They're trying to eradicate us! Mark me, it's going to be a private little Kristallnacht for us. You wait and see."

"Oh, John." Simon said. "They're just trying to keep things nice."

"Huh," John grunted, hunching her shoulders like a wet cat.

But John was partially right about Brian Hawthorne, if not the Trust as a body (even John couldn't successfully deny that the Trust did good work, not that she didn't try). Hawthorne and John had a solid dislike for one another. The basis for it was chemical, hate at first sight.

Late one night--and no one else knew this--Brian Hawthorne had a dream of deer grazing among the charred, smoking ruins of Rainwater House, and buzzards pecking out the liver from John's corpse. The image gave him a throbbing erection that jolted him out of a dead sleep. One hell of a fund-raiser, he’d had to waste the boner on his unattractive but wealthy mistress, who was stirred awake by the force of his erection probing her ribs. She was a major donor to the Trust, and Hawthorne didn't want her thinking he’d been dreaming of another woman, which was sort of what he had been doing.

When he'd heard that George Rainwater died--and nobody else knew this either--Brian Hawthorne's first reaction had been to smile and think One down, two to go. John would have murdered Hawthorne for this if she'd known. No one picked on George Rainwater except John Rainwater.

On the other side of the war, John was a one-woman army intent on demonstrating to Hawthorne's Trust that the Rainwaters were still a force to be reckoned with. One of John’s more famous tactics was to beat the boundaries on Chief Wesumbe Day. That was the anniversary of Chief Wesumbe’s signing the deed to the area over to Francis Rainwater in 1676, sealing the deal with his famous tortoise mark. Wesumbe and Rainwater were supposed to have been friends, and although the deed was strictly a business deal, with Francis paying two large Indian blankets, two gallons of rum, two pounds of powder, four pounds of musket balls, and twenty strings of beads for the real estate, folklore maintained it was also an apology by Wesumbe to Francis for some renegade members who had burnt down his trading post, an ideal way to avoid a debt they owed the trader. The deed represented Francis’ founding of Bideford, Maine.

Every year on that day, July 17, park rangers and officials of the Trust (including Brian Hawthorne dressed in a ridiculous outfit that John uncharitably thought made him look just like Elmer Fudd) ushered some forty hiking enthusiasts and town officials from Bideford through some of the wood’s more historical sites, notably the clearing where Francis Rainwater’s burnt-up trading post had once stood. Not so coincidentally, that place was very near a thickening of trees where John had ordered George and Tom Coffin to place one of her boundary markers. Three hundred yards away, precisely—John had measured the distance on her hands and knees with a tape measure for her junior high school project.

To remind the Trust and the local of denizens of Bideford on Chief Wesumbe Day what land was the Trust’s, and what wasn’t, and more importantly, that Rainwaters still inhabited Rainwater Woods, beginning in 1984 when she was seventeen, John crouched in wait for the tourists to arrive, armed with a long sassy switch. When Brian Hawthorne was in the middle of recounting how Francis Rainwater got burned out, John would suddenly pop up and enthusiastically beat her boundary stone, shouting lame slogans she’d made up like “Rainwater House Won’t Burn” or “Bust the Trust”. John was alone in her defiance; she had no children of her own following behind her, and Simon was too shy and soft-spoken for such demonstrations. When George had been alive, he thought they were stupid. George’s refusal was probably a smart move on his part, as John would have cheerfully followed English custom by giving her younger brother a few energetic whacks with her switch.

As it stood, the only time John ever switched anybody while beating the bounds was on Chief Wesumbe Day 1987, the year she turned twenty. The poor recipient was a ranger, new to his job and Bideford, and admirably protective of the solemnity of the holiday, but fooled by John’s diminutive stature, and also arrogantly ignorant of the wild personality that dwelled within it. When to everyone’s surprise, he actually rushed John’s position and tried to yank the switch from her hand, John seized a tactical advantage, exploiting his short pants by striping his bare legs for him. She raised some vivid welts and made him dance; it actually led to John’s arrest for assault and controversially split Bideford in two for awhile: Trust supporters and friends of the Rainwaters. For two months after, The Bideford Times was little more than a vehicle for editorials and letters to the editor about the affair, both for and against John.

Meanwhile, the prospect of having her day in court thrilled John to no end. She daydreamed of dramatic courtroom scenes from out of Inherit the Wind and even idealistically penned what she thought was a stirring address she intended to give in court that began with “Friends, Bidefordians, Countrymen, lend me your ears”, but all that ultimately happened was that John was quietly fined thirty dollars—she was after all a Rainwater, the founding family of Bideford, and a popular figure in her own right, and to be honest, her dark good looks and small frame only generated sympathy from most of the male population. Still, John, the thorny malcontent, refused to give an inch and pay even that small amount, pointing out that the ranger had invaded her side of the boundary. She was quite prepared to languish in jail like Thoreau to force her point home. Though John was actually out on bail and never spent so much as a full day in confinement, her defiance was still an act that might have pleased her ancestor and Thoreau scholar, the sour Professor Cotton. Instead, it was Simon who played Emerson in the matter and coughed up the thirty dollars on her behalf, a kindness that John eventually learned about, and never quite forgave him for. She claimed that he had robbed her, an accusation that puzzled gentle Simon to no end.

While the immediate controversy gradually died away, the next year’s Chief Wesumbe Day (1988) was the most well-attended in recorded history, up from the usual forty attendees to some estimated one thousand residents of Bideford crowding the site of Francis’ trading post, having picnics and climbing the trees. Brian Hawthorne flattered himself that they were all there to hear his speech, though in fact the truth was what people really came for was to see John Rainwater try to ruin the occasion by beating the bounds, especially that year, when they hoped to see her torment another ranger. The rangers, however, were a year and a few bruises wiser. No one interfered with John’s beating of the bounds or her chanting of her made-up slogans, so there was no switching (John was as disappointed as the spectators, having prepared an especially wicked switch that made an impressive whishing sound as it cut the air). After that year, Chief Wesumbe Day was never so controversial or so well-attended.

1989 saw only fifteen stragglers troop into the woods, but then again there was a wicked thunderstorm that year. No one could hear anything for the roaring racket it made, the rain blew sideways, and the wind hurled Brian Hawthorne’s umbrella up through the trees and all the way to Oz. His Elmer Fudd outfit didn’t save him from a severe head cold that took him a month to recover from. John sensibly wore a yellow slicker, hat, and galoshes, looking like a demented Captain Gorton without the fishsticks. Forgetting that she could have just popped a few vitamins, she gulped down about two gallons of orange juice in as many hours before she went out that day, nearly overdosing on Vitamin C (it worked though, and she avoided a cold, but all those oranges gave her skin a slight Oompa-Loompa sheen that took a full week to wear off). The storm drowned out her shouted slogans like everything else, but she still managed a good show for everyone when one of her swipes at her boundary stone coincided with an unusually loud crack of thunder. Everyone went oooh, as if it was a sign that God was on John’s side. That was the last remarkable thing that happened on Chief Wesumbe Day.

Further watering down the Chief Wesumbe Days of later years was John’s growing habit of towing behind her an old Red Rider wagon containing a snorty old bulldog named Mr. Pokes. John had owned him from puppyhood and for seventeen years was ardently attached to him. In the twilight of his life, Mr. Pokes was too ancient and arthritic to walk far by himself, and in any case, he was near blind from cataracts, and only ever wandered in circles on those occasions he was able to walk at all. Simon suspected that he must be deaf too, as he hardly ever responded any more to the fond but goofy little ditties that John made up about him. Mr. Pokes also had doggie Alzheimer’s, and had recently begun to growl and snap at people he had once been friendly towards, even Simon and Tom Coffin, but never John herself, his great protector, whom his milky eyes continued to regard with drooling adoration. To get the dog to go to the bathroom, John had to haul Mr. Pokes out of the wagon, and squeeze his sides to get him to go, otherwise he’d forget to relieve himself, a condition that constantly left him in great danger of his bladder and bowels bursting, putting a sudden, undignified end to his long, venerable career. John described this act as “juicing Mr. Pokes”. It required tremendous vigilance on her part, since the only sign that Mr. Pokes had to go was a very slight, dreamy look in his eyes that his cataracts further obscured.

Inevitably on the more recent Chief Wesumbe Days of the early 21st century, she’d have to call increasingly longer and longer halts in the middle of her beating the bounds routine, sometime in mid-slogan, and juice Mr. Pokes in full sight of everyone like some crazed bagpiper until he urinated or defecated. Although that necessity horrified and disgusted what onlookers remained, while fascinating them at the same time, the pauses took away from some of John’s notorious ferocity, not to mention her speaking and switching rhythm, which over the years she had cultivated to a fine art. It also reinforced Brian Hawthorne’s conviction that John was completely insane (false) and impossible to negotiate with (true), making it imperative to his mind that the Trust persuade Simon Rainwater to sell his land before he died and John inherited it.

Well, it needs some work, but I see that it's time to load my trusty Castello billiard with some Embarcadero. I will give the thing some thought, and beat its bounds.

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