The boundaries of the present City of Westminster were set in 1965 when the boroughs of Paddington and St Marylebone were incorporated into the City.
A safe bet that you’re within the City’s precincts is if you have one of Westminster’s distinctive street nameplates in view. Designed in 1967 by Sir Misha Black, these harmonious metal signs have become a design classic. Their popularity spawned a large trade in replica signs sold as souvenirs – which prompted the City Council to buy the copyright in 2007 from Sir Misha’s estate. Their reproduction is now permitted only under license from the Council.The signs, with some small revisions and special editions (e.g. for those celebrating Theatreland and Chinatown), have almost entirely replaced the former street nameplates of the three old boroughs. A few of these do exist still and there is the odd street sign that predates the creation of the London Metropolitan Boroughs in 1901.
Even older symbols of name and place are parish boundary markers. A surprising number survive in Westminster, some weathered and illegible, others preserving inscriptions of number, date, or parish name. A cache endures undisturbed (and largely unnoticed) in the Royal Parks. Boundaries of the parishes of St Margaret Westminster, St George Hanover Square, Paddington and Kensington all traversed some part of Kensington Gardens or Hyde Park; the parishes of St Marylebone and St Pancras met in Regent’s Park.The boundary markers took various forms: stone and iron posts and pillars; flagstones; stone and metal tablets; and painted and lettered marks. Survivors are a fraction of those that once existed. In 1856 there were 137 describing the united parishes of St Margaret and St John the Evangelist, Westminster; in 1882, St George Hanover Square counted 142; and there were 87 in the parish of Paddington in 1904.
Boundary markers were important because they described the geographical extent of parochial assets and responsibilities. The main asset was the taxes paid by parishioners; the responsibilities the ecclesiastical and civic services parishioners relied upon. The parish vestries were therefore keen to mark and maintain the boundaries and guard against encroachment.
The signs and stones defined the route for the ceremony of the beating of the bounds, walking a circuit of the parish limits. The origins of the ritual are ancient and were originally a means of asking for God’s protection and blessing. Before the 1860s there were few accurate local maps that detailed parish boundaries, hence the practical need for the beating of the bounds.
Documented in the parish records held at Westminster’s Archives Centre are inventories of boundary markers, descriptions of the perambulations, and financial accounts relating to attendant festivities. The processions generally took place every 5-10 years, at Rogantide before Ascension Day. They were well attended.
There is evidence of young parishioners, commonly charity school boys, suffering certain indignities with the aim of soundly fixing in their memory the location of a boundary marker. The trials might include unannounced clouts around the head, being held upside down and shaken by the ankles, or even whipping. The accounts for the perambulation of St Marylebone in 1760 records:
“To sundry boys whipped at the Perambulation, 4s 10d”.
“For Dinner for the Charity Children: £3. 3s 0d”
The accounts for the same parish in 1828 list the costs for some of the merriment accompanying the perambulation:
“Wine 39 dozen (468) bottles: £121 1s 0d”
“Ale and porter”: £72 12s 6d”
The total expense associated with the day amounted to £453 0s 10d. There were critics of this particular largesse and the parish vestry was reported to a committee of the House of Commons. The next St Marylebone perambulation in 1836 appears to have been more abstemious: the total cost fell to £45 19s 9d.
As buildings and utilities were commonly constructed without respect for parish boundaries, markers were often to be found in unusual or inaccessible places. A St George Hanover Square description of its bounds in 1882 records: “then along the line of covered sewer behind Chester Cottages to an iron Tablet fixed on the face of North side of wall of Metropolitan District Railway station (Sloane Square Station), over the crown of the sewer near the engine house, at the point where the sewer crosses the railway”. A map of the same year shows the boundary between St George Hanover Square and St James Piccadilly cutting through Buckingham Palace.
When in the later nineteenth century Ordnance Survey maps plotted boundary stones, the practical value of beating the bounds fell and the practice declined. Today the ceremony continues to be observed in some parishes, commonly as a means of charitable fund-raising.
Do keep an eye out for these stubborn relics: they may conjure up the shadows of festive, marching beadles, bell-ringers, charity school children, and parish officers in their pomp.