On Thursday May 25 a group of schoolchildren from St Dunstan’s College in Catford will march around the streets of London brandishing green willow wands. At regular intervals they will stop, a priest will say a few words and they will thwack the pavement with their sticks, shouting, ‘Beat! Beat! Beat!’ At one point they will get into a boat on the Thames, lean over the side and thrash the river water. All are welcome to join the procession at 4pm at the church of All Hallows by the Tower.
When did this begin?
Ascension Day, the thirty-ninth after Easter, is traditionally a ‘gang day’, a day for walking and for Beating the Bounds. Clergymen and schoolchildren traditionally process the edges of a parish and beat the boundary markers with sticks to assert the parish’s control. In more brutal times the children themselves were sometimes beaten as an aide memoire. Many churches in London still Beat the Bounds on Ascension Day.
Every third year, the ceremony at All Hallows includes a ‘battle’ with the Governor and Yeomen Warders of the Tower of London: a ritual dispute over the position of the boundary marker between the Tower and the church. It commemorates a riot that broke out on the same spot in 1698. The battle recommences this year on May 25 at around 6.45pm: there’ll be a face-off between rival gangs of children with sticks, yeoman warders with halberds and a priest. Nowadays, the two sides merely exchange expressions of peace, and doff their hats to each other.
Henry Eliot & Matt Lloyd-Rose, co-authors of ‘Curiocity: In Pursuit of London’
Illustration Steven Appleby
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