Signs and Wonders 15: Walking the line

Evening Post, 15 Dec 2005

WHERE: This one by Castle Lodge, Hounds Gate; others further down Castle Street and across canal

WHAT: These little cast-iron posts mark the boundary of the Parish of Standard Hill, just as they say. But they also mark the end of an ancient tax loophole, and a series of miserable spring mornings 136 years ago.

For information on the tax loophole, I’m indebted again to Geoffrey Oldfield, who explains that Standard Hill was considered “extra-parochial”. As former royal land, it was off the map of church parishes, and hence off the hook for county rates and the upkeep of the poor.

A series of law changes over the course of the 19th Century gradually closed the loophole; and in 1868, Standard Hill became part of the system for poor rates.

This is where the miserable spring Mondays come in. The local Poor Law overseers marked the change by “perambulation”: ceremonially walking the boundary of the parish.

There’s no sign that they did the full, semi-pagan version, which involves beating the boundary-line with birch twigs. But a reprint of their proceedings makes it clear they walked the line thoroughly: the retinue includes “laddermen”. And assistant overseer Thomas Godfrey says “the time-honoured custom of inverting some of the juveniles present” would be followed. (They were apparently held upside down at points where several parishes met.)

The group first gathered at Castle Lodge at 10am on the last Monday in April. But “April was determined on vindicating a claim to her old character of ‘smiles and tears together’, only that the smiles were exceedingly rare”.

They tried again on May 4. But “the goddess of the season was watering her flowers with more profusion than could be endured, even with the aid of waterproofs and umbrellas”.

On May 10, after a speech by Godfrey tracing the history of perambulation back to Roman times, they managed to set off.

The record has Godfrey telling overseer Samuel Parr that one of his duties would be “to decide where the permanent boundary marks are to be set down and where they are to be”.

Parr replies: “I should recommend cast-iron. I think it is the least expense.”

It’s hard to know now whether he was right. But it has certainly lasted well.