The Penwith Papers

Pushing Boundaries: Beating the Bounds of the Borough of Penzance

Parishes in previous centuries were jealous of their boundaries, for good financial – and perhaps also territorial and tribal - reasons. At regular intervals, parties of parishioners would check the boundary stones to ensure that they were where they should be.

The 1687 Penzance boundary stone at ChyandourOn Rogation Days or Gang Days, which were the three days before Ascension Day (which would always fall on a Thursday), the fields with the growing crops were blessed. At the same time the boundary stones would be ceremonially visited. But the beating of bounds for the Borough of Penzance was a slightly different affair. It was a civic and not an ecclesiastical occasion, and vegetation would not have received blessing. Nevertheless, the celebration of boundary stones was a feature common to both types of ceremony, and there were – and in most cases still are –boundary stones for the original (1614) and extended (1934) boroughs.

The bound-beating visits took a form that might raise eyebrows today. In order to ensure that the rising generation knew exactly where the stones were, a young boy would be bumped against them - or even beaten with the hazel rods more commonly used to strike at the stones. Boundaries could be a contentious issue between parishes; disputes could result in violence, and on these “gang days” gang warfare might ensue – despite the restraining presence of the clergy.

It was in 1614 that James I had granted a Charter to Penzance giving it the rights of a borough with a Mayor, Corporation, aldermen and councillors. The town was in the parish of Madron, but now its civic administration was separated from that of the parish, although Madron still retained its ecclesiastical rights within the town with a chapel of ease on the site of the present St. Mary's Church in Chapel Street. The boundaries of the borough did not follow roads and streams, but were fixed as a circle radiating half a mile from the Greenmarket, at the bottom of Causeway Head. An ancient cross stood there, and this marked the centre of the circle. The cross itself now stands by the entrance to Penlee House.

It is not known how the boundaries were marked in 1614, but in 1687 four boundary stones were ordered. Two of these can still be seen, bearing the letter ‘P’ and the date 1687. These are at Chyandour, just by the Royale Court, and at Chapel St. Clare, at the entrance to the Cricket Ground and opposite the Fire Station. The first of these was designated in 2012 with a Grade II listing, by reason of “Intactness: it is a good example of a C17 borough boundary stone; Historic Interest: it illustrates the establishment of local government in this part of Cornwall; Group Value: it has strong group value with the other surviving boundary stone”. A third stone was at Alverton, opposite Ivy Lane, but this was replaced in 1865. A fourth, at Wherrytown, was lost: perhaps someone should have been keeping an eye on the pile-driving operations during the great supermarket construction of 2017.

Blight at the Boundaries: 1854

In a painting now in the care of Penlee House Museum, Penzance, the teenage John Blight captured the Beating of the Bounds (as the painting is titled) of 1854 – although the painting was previously dated to 1853, when no such ceremony took place. Blight shows the ceremony taking place at the stone at Alverton, which might have been one of the original stones of 1687 as the press reported simply that “the bound stone was visited.” A large number of people and a profusion of red banners appear in Blight's painting. The press report maintains that the ceremony was being re-instituted after a gap of twenty years, but offers no information about the custom before 1834. The Mayor, Samuel Higgs, is seen in the painting addressing the crowd.

Beating the Borough Bounds, J.T. Blight, 1854 (courtesy of Penlee House Gallery and Museum) Beating the Borough Bounds, J.T. Blight, 1854 (courtesy of Penlee House Gallery and Museum)

The 1854 ceremony was disassociated from its religious origins. It did not take place on any of the Rogation Days, as these would have been in the Spring, but on Monday 1st October. The Cornish Telegraph reflected current concerns when it represented the origin of the custom as one which “according to some antique verses, originated in a Popish observance”. Four years previously, the Catholic hierarchy had been restored in England – giving rise to such disquiet in some quarters that an effigy of the new Cardinal Wiseman had been burnt in effigy. In 1854, Charles Kingsley’s anti-Catholic novel Hypatia was newly published, and It is probably for this reason that “the presence of the Church was dispensed with” at Penzance on this occasion. At the dinner held afterwards the incumbent of St. Mary's sent his apology for his absence, claiming a previous engagement. Whether that was for the dinner or the day's events is not clear.

Much of what happened in 1854 followed an established pattern, which would in turn be repeated at subsequent beatings. The Guildhall – where the civic party met at 11.00 am – was then part of the Market House, as the Public Buildings (popularly known now as St. John's Hall) would not be built until 1867. At noon the procession proceeded, accompanied by music and banners, to the Market Cross a short distance away at the bottom of Causewayhead. The party included the Mayor, aldermen and councillors; there is no mention of a chaplain or any clergy. The Mace Bearers wore their ancient robes - “civic paraphernalia”. The Town Crier gave notice at the Cross of the coming event. The Mayor stood on the Cross and proclaimed the importance of where he was standing as the centre of the Borough. Pennies were “liberally distributed” to the populace. It is not stated on this occasion that the pennies were minted in the year of the ceremony, but on subsequent occasions new pennies were distributed.

Penzance Market Cross being removed from the Market Hall to be re-erected in Morrab Gardens (courtesy of Morrab Library Photo Archive)From the Market Cross the procession moved on towards the west, stopping en route for a meal at the Mayor's residence , which happened to be close by. Having lunched, the civic party moved on to the Alverton stone - and the ceremony captured in Blight's painting. Young boys were there and they may have been struck on their backs as “an incentive to memory.”

At this time – long before the building of the Polwithen Estate - the route to Chapel St. Clare lay across country and involved a strenuous route “over fields, through highways and byeways, surmounting hedges” until the dignitaries reached the northern boundary stone where the second beating took place. This was followed by a similar ceremony at Chyandour. Close at hand was the residence of R.F. Bolitho and further refreshments were deemed to be in order, with a cold collation (or buffet) prepared for the party before they took to the sea in order to mark the most southerly point of the circle radiating from the Market Cross, which lay between the Battery Rocks and Wherrytown.

The string of pilot boats going out to the boundary were “gaily decorated”, and hundreds watched from the shore. It was very much a festive occasion and some unofficial entertainment was provided by three “adventurous but expert swimmers” on the boat marking the exact boundary spot, and who “on approach of the show leapt into the sea, dolphin like to accompany it”. These leaped into the sea and followed the boats, and “created much amusement”, giving a wonderful display as they dived for coins: a variant on the customary coin distribution.

Returning to land, the party disembarked at the “Preventive” (Coastguard) Station, Wherrytown, at four o'clock. By this time, hundreds of people had gathered to watch as a boundary stone now lost – perhaps the 1687 original – was marked. Such exertions merited further refreshments, so after the civic party crossed the Mennaye Fields they were hospitably received by T.Darke Esq at his residence, “The Orchard” (now the YMCA’s “International House”). They had been out and about for five hours, and it was time for tea.

But the celebrations were not quite over. The evening brought yet another opportunity to gratify appetite and slake thirst, in the shape of a dinner at 6.30 pm in the Union Hotel, attended by many distinguished guests from Penzance and its neighbourhood. There were numerous speeches, (including news of the Allied victory in what would be later acknowledged as the first battle of the Crimean War, the Battle of Alma, over a week earlier on the 20th September). “Today they had been renewing the bounds” said Colonel Scobell of the county magistrates, “and, if not previously acquainted with it, now well knew what Penzance was”. The importance of the West Cornwall Railway was acknowledged. And it was reported that Mr Carne, making his apologies for not being able to attend, had suggested a toast that “having met to-day to renew the bounds of Penzance, may the prosperity of Penzance know no bounds.”

No doubt the civic party thought they’d earned their dinner that evening. But their task – hedges, byeways and maritime element notwithstanding - had been simple compared to the equivalent ceremony that would be held after the expansion of the Borough boundary in 1934. That story, and more from the 20th century, will be told in Pushing Boundaries: Beating the Bounds of the Borough of Penzance - Part 2.


Cornish Telegraph 4th October1854 page 2

Historic England listing of the Chyandour boundary stone accessed 16 7 2017

Anti-Catholicism in the United Kingdom, Wikipedia;

Battle of the Alma, Wikipedia accessed 16 7 2017

Citation for Market Cross Photograph:
Removal of Market Cross from Market House,” Morrab Library Photographic Archive, accessed July 22, 2017,


The Penwith Papers:

Penwith Local History Group
The Penwith Papers:

Growing Up in West Cornwall. A Publication by the Penwith Local History Group

"Growing Up in West Cornwall"

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Sally Corbet

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