Plans are afoot to re-enact the ancient Poole ceremony of the 'Beating of the Sea Bounds'. Sunday 14th May 2017.
The first recorded mention of the Poole Harbour bounds occurs in an Inquisition dated 1341. The document to which Poole folk have ever attached most value, is a ‘certificate’ issued in the year 1364 by the mayor and barons of Winchelsea to ‘our most dear friends and allies the mayor and burgesses of the town of Poole’. Winchelsea and Rye were added to the five ancient ports in the south east of England known as the 'Cinque Ports' in the 1200's.
The Cinque Ports were a confederation of towns bound together for mutual protection, coastal defence and to further trade. The monarchy granted them rights, protection and privileges in return for ships and sailors.
The Winchelsea Certificate, a focal point of the 'Beating of the Sea Bounds', formalised the traditional boundaries around Poole. But for people who did not read and write the boundaries needed to be remembered and passed down from one generation to the next. To this end a rather (in this day and age) draconian ceremony was carried out, known as the 'Pins and Points' ceremony. As the Society of Poole Men record:
'a ceremony was held to check for encroachments or any other offences at which young people were taken round the boundaries. By smiting the hands (in the case of a boy) or being pricked on the hand with a pin (for the girls) at a notable location, they would remember the boundaries and be the “authority” able to give evidence on it and pass on the information to their children later in life'.
It was always considered a great honour to be chosen to be a part of the ceremony and children are still keen to take part.
The Beating of the Sea Bounds ceremony for many reasons has reduced in its grandeur and sense of occasion mainly because of so many health and safety regulations at sea. Some aspects such as walking the plank, boarding a boat from another boat and going ashore at exactly the points where the boundaries traditionally were staked are no longer easy or even possible.
The Society of Poole Men who have worked hard to keep this tradition alive explain the ceremony that should commence after the land boundaries around the Town have been checked:
'The “Admiralty Court” (abolished in 1836) is assembled at the Custom House and the Winchelsea Certificate is read, A boat referred to as the Admiral’s Barge, with the Mayor, Sheriff, Macebearers, Chaplain and Town Crier, in their robes, on board leaves the Quay.
At the same time a jury, including a foreman, costumed as eighteenth century sailors, set sail on a landing craft to carry out their task of checking the boundary stones and marks are intact and reporting on any infringements of the harbour jurisdiction, such as illegal fishing or flotsam and jetsam.
The Admiral’s Barge sails to the Wareham Channel. There the Mayor of Wareham challenges the Mayor of Poole. (apparently the men of Wareham were particularly troublesome about Poole’s boundary, possibly because at the time of the Winchelsea Certificate, Poole’s importance as a town and port was increasing while that of Wareham was decreasing).
The boats then proceed to Brownsea Island and the North Haven (Sandbanks) and out to sea “as farr…as a Humber barrell maie be seene and descried in the sea”. (A Humber barrel is very large – it holds 42 gallons).
On the return journey to the Town Quay pirates make a spectacular attack and board the Admiral’s Barge. After a skirmish in which one of their number is slain and his corpse displayed from the main mast to deter further attacks the remainder are overcome and taken ashore to be tried at the closing of the Admiralty Court.
The jury reports any offences it has discovered. In the past these have included felonies in the port, piracy, flotsam, bodies in the sea, the killing of any man within a ship; all those “that makyth anye frayes or draweth anye weopen to make anye frayes”; the buying and selling of stolen goods; disobedience to the “stays” of shipping to serve the King; those who took the King’s wages, press or conduct money and had not served accordingly; the dragging of oysters out of season, or taking undersized oysters or mussels, fishing on Sundays, not bringing fish to the market for sale, or using line, thread or “other lyke Engynnes” to take birds at times of the year when “other poore men” take fowl with their nets “whereby they are greatly hyndryde”. The jurymen’s job is over when they present “their defaults and plaints” and the Sheriff determines the appropriate penalty.
The Mayor’s last duty before closing the ceremonies is to throw shiny new coins from the steps of the Custom House which children are encouraged to catch or scamper to collect – again a way of impressing the importance of boundaries on young minds in an enjoyable way.
Plans are progressing to enable a few observers to come along and be on the 'Mayor's Barge' which, thanks to Matt and Fiona who are Greenslades will be the Purbeck Gem. All places now gone!