Some boundary stones in Smithills

In 1251 King Henry III rewarded the Earl William de Ferrers of Derby for his loyal support, which included participating in unpopular campaigns in France and Wales, with a gift of land that included Bolton-le-Moors. William Ferrers is described much as the Sheriff of Nottingham is in the Robin Hood stories and he was granted leave by the king, after the campaigns in France to wear the livery of Chartley Castle which is a white cross on a red background. He began suffering from gout in his teens, was twice married, and named two of his many daughters, Agnes, after his mother, the daughter of the Earl of Chester. Another of his daughters was named Agatha.

Lord de Ferrers was carried everywhere in a sedan chair and it was the injuries from a fall out of the litter, as it was crossing a bridge, that killed him, just three years after becoming Lord of the Manor, aged sixty one. The title and estate passed to his fifteen year old son, Robert, who became the sixth Earl of Derby. He forfeited the land and, it is said, ‘almost the title’ after the Second Barons’ War which was ended at the Battle of Evesham, in 1265, with the rout of Simon de Montford’s rebel army by the forces led by Prince Edward ‘Longshanks’. That charter from Henry III which sanctioned both the weekly market and the annual three day St Margaret’s Festival is the foundation of modern day civic Bolton and another charter, issued by the Earl two years later, defined Bolton as a township. Oddly the William de Ferrers Comprehensive School is in Chelmsford, Essex but the place where he was buried, Merevere Abbey, is now missing presumed lost.

Boulders have been used as boundary markers for thousands of years. They were only really displaced by the Enclosure Acts walls of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The rocks are well marked on the Ordnance Survey, particularly the earlier large scale editions – usually as ‘B.S.’, sometimes as ‘Boundary Stone’, but also sometimes simply as ‘Stone’. In Sussex there are hundreds of such boundary stones which usually mark the place where the parish or an ancient manorial boundary changes direction. Some are prehistoric and others are more recent from when the Tithe Commissioners committed an oral tradition of the boundaries to formal maps in the 1830’s.

Before the tithes were ‘commuted’ there was the tradition of Beating the Bounds, on the three Rogation days, when the boundaries were ceremonially paced out and both stones and boys were beaten with sticks. (This impressed on them the importance of remembering the land divisions). If a canal was encountered on the boundary then some of the party had to wade through it and if a house had been built over the boundary then the procession walked in one side and out the other. The names and initials of the Lord of the Manor or the parish were carved onto trees and on the ground and made permanent, sometimes, by being carved into the Boundary Stone. There is a written account of eight men, traditionally called ‘gangers’, beating the bounds in a parish called Balneath in 1829. They stopped to beat a stone ‘twenty rods south of the windmill’ – this was an important stone as it ‘marked the middle of Sussex’. Beating of the Bounds has fallen out of favour now, along with Well Dressing, and the Mayday celebrations.

There are several boundary stones mapped which show the northern boundary of Smithills. One of them, probably the broken-off stump of a prehistoric standing stone, is a hundred metres south of the present boundary, the ruined stone wall above Lomax Wives Farm, and shows how the border has adapted with time. Two of these rocks, just west of Counting Hill, have been incised, one with a ‘W’ and another, probably a portal stone of the tiny Counting Hill stone row, with both an ‘A’ and a cross – the cross that William de Ferrers wore as the livery of Chartley Castle. Another boulder, not far from Holden’s Plantation, bears a faded ‘W’ but is far from the present boundary. That section of the parish line, close to the boundary between Smithills, Deane and Horwich, must have altered significantly since then and, perhaps, there are more of these feudal markstones awaiting discovery.

They can only have been carved in the three years between De Ferrers being gifted Bolton and his death and it’s very unusual that such distant activities are able to be so closely dated.

Bolton’s market is still thriving though it’s more than seven hundred and fifty years old. Bolton’s patron saint, Margaret of Antioch, who survived being burnt at the stake by the strength of her faith, is now long forgotten and so is her festival, which is still celebrated by the Greek Church, on July 13th, and by the Latin Church, on July 20th. Those three stones, laboriously carved by the Earl of Derby’s men in the early 1250’s remain, half-hidden and high in the hills, to remind us of those times when there were just four hundred people living in Bolton-le-Moors.

By David Aspinall