Tag Archives: The Worshipful Company of Watermen & Lightermen

On Beating the Bounds….51/100

Picture the scene…..you are walking between meetings in the City, take away coffee attached to one hand. Mobile to the other. If very clever, a sneaky fag in there somewhere as well. Suddenly, out of the corner of your eye you see it. A gaggle of school aged children in smart uniform, with a Vicar, and some other people in fur-lined robes, just there on the P1010973pavement. They seem to be singing. A hymn perhaps….and then you notice the sticks. The long sticks. In the hands of the school children. Who begin smacking these sticks on the ground in an enthusiastic manner. Have the post-work sessions in the pub finally rattled the brain, is this some sort of anger-management seminar, or maybe a new reality television nightmare??? Actually, the average City worker would think none of these things, would only nonchalantly move out of the way without breaking step, used as they are to crazy shenanigans in the City. Tourists, on the other hand, go wild. Cameras and phones whirring away. I would love to know how they try to explain it to the folks back home.


And here I am. In the mix. Because I do love a City ceremony, and this is one of the best. The Beating of the Bounds. Ascension Day. With All Hallows by the Tower. And St. Dunstan’s College. The Worshipful Company of the Waterman and Lightermen, as well (yes, them again, of the Knollys Rose Ceremony, post #48, a busy season!) A ceremony dating back to Anglo-466215_651787474847977_903993130_oSaxon times, now just for traditional purposes, but in times of old to make sure, MAKE SURE everyone knew exactly where the boundaries of the parish of St. Dunstan’s in the East were…in case anyone got any ideas about pinching a few feet. We are a protective species, especially when it comes to land. Death by hedgerow dispute remains a reality. We like our borders and our boundaries (cue Brexit furor).

The boundaries are roughly that of the parish of St. Dunstan in the East, a beautiful 13th century church that survived the Great Fire of 1666, though Christopher Wren rebuilt the tower in the late 17th century.  Today, only the tower remains as the rest of the church was destroyed in WWII; the former footprint of the nave is now a lovely, almost secret public garden. Following its destruction, the parish was amalgamated into that of All Hallows by the Tower, which is why the privilege of leading this ceremony now rests 472335_651788098181248_292800350_owith them.  The school of St. Dunstan’s dates back to the 15th century and when, by mid-19th century, the City had ceased to become a residential area, it was moved to Catford, SE London, where it remains. What an honour to be selected as one of the students taking part; proud parents are always an element of the procession. And what a great day off school for the kids, instead of double maths some public stick smacking. Nice.

The beating starts at the Tower and then moves to the river, because the south boundary is mid-Thames. In days of old, parish worthies would take a boat out and dangle a small boy upside down by the ankles over the water and let him give the river a good thrashing. I have seen pictures. Quite remarkable really. Sadly, health and safety no longer allow this kind of priceless photo op and instead the students (boys and  girls) ride out an a vessel and tap the water, with their very long sticks,  from a standing position. The procession continues on land, stopping at several points, including the tower of St Dunstan’s in the 462451_651787644847960_1777160827_oEast, Planation House and Seething Lane before returning to All Hallows. A thoroughly satisfying afternoon. History, odd behavior, some old buildings, a little walk and men in costume. Instagrammers dream. What isn’t to love?  And next year there will be a battle. With the Beefeater’s at the Tower of London….watch this space.






On the Knollys Rose….48/100

_20160601_114459Somethings never change. Take this true tale of Constance Knollys. When her husband went away on business she bought the adjacent lot and, without bothering with pesky planning permission, built a walkway on the land. Seems a reasonable thing to do to me. No big deal, everybody does it, don’t they? Well, it turned out to be rather a big deal after all. The Knollys’ got into trouble with the City of London Corporation and were punished. Now, now, before you begin huffing and puffing about the nanny state and the EU, I must tell you that this all happened in 1381. 1381!!! And why am I bothering with this story at all? No, not to prove that we have always loved a good regulation (right as that might be) but because the punishment was so charming we still celebrate it today. The annual Knollys Rose Ceremony. A proper passion of mine.

A little history first. Robert Knollys made a fortune looting and pillaging Brittany, France as an English warrior. When he retired, he bought a fancy house in what is now Seething DSC_0032Lane, the same place, centuries on, that the famous diarist Samuel Pepys lived. Knollys’ wife, Constance, was known as formidable. My kind of woman. And she wanted what she wanted. A footbridge to take her from her house to her garden. That doesn’t seem much to ask. Oh, but she didn’t ask. And that got her in trouble. There is no record of how her husband reacted, but given that he was such a rich and successful citizen, the punishment was never going to be onerous. It was a fine of one red rose, cut from her garden, to be presented to the Lord Mayor, once a year on the feast of St. John the Baptist. Once a year. Every year. Forever. Seriously, forever. And for 600 years the ceremony remained. A rose was cut and presented. But then, as things often do, the tradition fell away. Until Tubby Clayton, the charismatic and ever-organizing Vicar of All Hallows by the Tower revived the ceremony between the world wars. Today, the Worshipful Company of Watermen and Lightermen, the guild that moves people and goods along the river, orchestrate the event; I don’t know why. But who doesn’t love a rower in full period dress. IMG_20160601_122112

Until recently the rose was taken from the garden on Seething Lane. But since the building works at the former Port Authority, soon to be a Four Seasons Hotel, have closed/removed the garden, it all takes place in the garden at All Hallows, a fitting choice. As June can be a funny time for roses in England, a presentable rose is placed in the rose bush ahead of the ceremony, ready for the choosing. This year, thanks to some crazy weather, roses arrived early. But the set was staged nonetheless.


After some lovely coffee and chat in the church, we all shuffled into the garden, hoping the rain would hold off (it did.) The Master of the Watermen & Lightermen, surrounded by suitably attired company members, read a brief history of the ceremony and then, with great seriousness, “plucked” the rose from the bush and laid it on a pillow. To be carried solemnly to Mansion House and presented to the Lord Mayor. Who received it with pleasure.

“Why, why, why,” I hear you all shouting. “Because,” I will reply with authority. Because, how wonderful it is to remember something fun that happened 635 years ago. The world is a hard place. Take your roses when you can. With a pillow and dishy oarsmen, even better.