Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Lord Mayor's Show

by Mike Rendell

Tuesday 9th November, 1779 - My four-times-great grandfather Richard Hall noted "Saw the Lord Mayor's show by water. Wet in morn'g. Was fine at the time of the show, afternoon fair, not cold."

Perhaps I should start by explaining to anyone unfamiliar with London politics, but we have two lord mayors in town. First we have the office of Lord Mayor, dating back to 1189. He is elected each year by the Aldermen of the City, representatives of the old Livery Companies (successors to the Medieval Guilds which controlled apprenticeships in the Middle Ages). Then there is the Mayor of London, head of the Greater London Authority, a mayoralty which was only created in 2000 and is an altogether more political animal. Indeed there have only been two such mayors, and one would assume from this that to be the mayor you need to be either to the left of Hugo Chavez (as in Red Ken) or somewhat to the right of Genghis Khan (as in Bonkers Boris). Anything in between has proved to be unelectable. Contrast this with the Lord Mayor, who is often a quiet unassuming man who is recognized by his peers for the hard work he has put in to promoting his profession and his city; he chairs a lot of the meeting, opens schools, makes an inordinate number of speeches, but has little or no real power. And once a year he has his day int he spotlight - the Lord Mayor's Show. (The mayor of Greater London has no such pageantry or noble tradition - he is just a politician/showman jumping on bandwagons, and generally falling off again soon afterwards, in the name of running our great capital city).

Our story is with the Lord Mayor and 12th November 2011 is significant because it is the day of his Show - the day he travels from the City of London to Westminster, to present himself to the Lord Chief Justice. The background is fascinating.

London had a mayor way back in the reign of King John, although there wasn't a 'Lord Mayor' until the fifteenth century. The first mayors were appointed by in recognition of the support given by the good burghers of the City, the monarch granted them the privilege of electing their mayor - but on one condition: once a year the mayor had to present himself at Westminster to pledge allegiance to the Crown. And so it was that the new mayor, with his retinue of supporters from the various Livery Companies, made his way upriver from the City to Westminster. And for nearly 800 years each mayor has done the same.

Nowadays the Lord Mayor is met by the Lord Chief Justice at the Royal Courts of Justice rather than by the monarch in person, but for centuries it has been a pageant, with much finery on display, with tableaux and floats (indeed the name 'float' originated from the elaborate displays which were brought up-river on decorated barges). All the main Livery Companies are represented, and the last Show included some you may not have heard of - the Worshipful Company of Lorimers (makers of spurs, bridles, stirrups and metalwork for the harness of a horse) the Woolmen (around since 1180) and the Glovers (makers of gloves since well before 1349). Then there is the Worshipful Company of Fletchers (they make arrows, and suppor archery at all levels) and the Brodereres (celebrating their 450th anniversary as the ancient guild of embroiderers). Different livery companies are featured each year, and last year particular attention was due to the Worshipful Company of Paviors (makers of roads) since their leader, Michael Bear, was elected Lord Mayor in a Silent Ceremony at London's Guildhall in the autumn. By profession he is a civil engineer, and his year in office provided him with a platform to act as an ambassador for all UK-based financial and professional services. The appointment entails something like 700 speeches in the year addresssing some ten thousand people a month and travelling overseas for roughly three months out of twelve. Try doing that and maintaining your waistline!

Some time in the fifteenth century the Lord Mayor, then a draper called Joh Norman, decided to make at least part of the journey by boat, and the livery companies vied with each other for grand barges to accompany the procession. It became the 'done thing' to view proceedings from the water - hence Richard's reference to it in his diary. It would have been a grand spectacle, with music, singing and great displays. Then, as now, there would have been fireworks. No wonder Canaletto, who visited London on several occasions, painted no fewer than five views of the pageant. Seen from the water, here are two showing the activity on the River Thames on the day of the Show:

Just twenty or so years before Richard's diary entry a decision was made to use a formal carriage to enable the Lord Mayor to make the part of the journey which was not water-borne in style. An earlier mayor had fallen from his horse and broken a leg when being barracked by a woman variously described as a flower seller and a fishwife. Maybe she was both, but it was a serious case of lèse-majesté and a coach was accordingly hired each year to carry the Lord Mayor, led by four horses. Hogarth records the scene in his 1754 engraving entitled 'Industry and Idleness' Plate 12; The Industrious 'Prentice Lord-Mayor of London.

In time it was felt that a more flamboyant, purpose-built, carriage was called for. It was commissioned from Joseph Berry of Holborn, and cost £1065 in 1757. Each of the aldermen had to cough up some sixty pounds (nearly £5000 in today's money). It is a wonderful sight with its gilded and elaborately decorated equipage. The side panels were decorated by the Italian painter Cipriani, and the vehicle is drawn by six horses. When it is not in use it is displayed in the Museum of London.

The Lord Mayor's coach is older even than the Coronation coach and is a real masterpiece. My ancestor Richard Hall did a delightful paper cut-out of just such a 'Cinderella' coach.

In Richard's day all the apprentices would have been given the day off to follow the procession and to see the tableaux and wonder at the sheer glitter of it all. London was indeed a city of huge wealth, just as much as it was a place of grinding poverty. This was their chance to express their pride in the City. There would have been much carousing on the streets, alcohol would have been imbibed in immoderate quantities, the pickpockets would have had a field day, and the whores of London would have been totally exhausted by the end of the evening.

Historically the show was always held on 29 October each year. When the Gregorian Calendar was introduced in 1752 the effect was that we 'lost' 11 days and the Show was held eleven days later i.e. on 9 November. It stayed there until 1959 when it was moved to the second Saturday in November, which is how it came to be held on 12 November 2011.

For my ancestor Richard Hall, the Lord Mayor’s Show was a ‘must-see’ every November. But what comes across in his diaries, and I hope I have demonstrated this in the Journal of a Georgian Gentleman, is how much of everyday leisure time in the Eighteenth Century was spent seeing the sights. He would go and see the wax works, or the Tower of London, or the British Museum, or visit an art gallery or a play at Covent Garden, and faithfully set down both the event and the price of admission (and whether or not he bought macaroons!). The book shows what everyday life consisted of – free time as well as work – and it isn’t that much different from modern lives! Details of the book are at my website and I sometimes do extracts from it on my blogsite.

The Canaletto paintings were take from Canaletto: The Complete Works.


  1. Thanks to Mike Rendell, author of Journal of a Georgian Gentleman (the actual diary of his four-times-great grandfather, Richard Hall), for sharing this Tuesday 9th November, 1779 excerpt from ancestor's diary concerning his visit to the The Lord Mayor's Show, plus all the fascinating historical background to the event. What a fun and interesting read.

  2. Very well explained and I like you thumbnail sketch of the two gladiatorial challenges in the other big London 2012 event, the Mayor's election.

  3. It is possible that I put the wrong sketch in for Mike. He sent me to a page and that is the one I took. Oh well!

    I love reading about this type of pageantry and pomp. I will surely be getting Mike's book one of these days. It is a compilation he did of the various papers and diaries of his 4x great grandfather (to slightly correct Teresa, but thanks!) As he pointed out to me, he slipped into our historical fiction group without any fiction. :D

  4. Thanks Debra. To explain: I have written a novel based on my researches into everyday life in the 18th Century. I found it immensely helpful to be able to draw on the actual historical records in my possession ie the diaires etc of my ancestor. I am happy to submit extracts, explanations etc in the hope this helps others in their search for historical accuarcy!

  5. This is the best way to get historical accuracy- straight from the diaries and clippings of the common people of the day.

    So it is a novel?

  6. I love it that I make a spelling error on the word "accuracy"! Classic!

  7. Just to explain: The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman is non-fiction but I used the research to write Number One London Bridge - the story of a house seen through the eyes of four people who lived there in the 18th Century. It is a bit of a bodice ripper and I doubt if I can be bothered to get it published - I suppose an e-book would be a possibility but I feel the genre is a bit over- crowded! I wrote it for the sheer joy of not being constrained by 'the truth'! My daughters are horrified that I have written a novel about a gigolo, his gay brother and their shenanigans in Hogarth's London, but there you go!

  8. No wonder I'm confused.

    BTW, an instructor in speaking once said, without any realization that he was misspeaking, "We must pronunciate each word correctly!" Lol!

  9. I enjoyed learning about the details of the procession and the holiday atmosphere. I have read a story from the time toward the end of the Lancastrian/York feud that took place with a silk merchant who represented the guild in the process. I confess your description here helps make more sense of what I read.

    Thanks for posting!

  10. Thanks, this was fascinating. Grew up in Herts, but never heard of this. Popped into my parents house today and they were watching it (the Rainbows were just parading by!). Again, the first I'd heard of it. I wonder what happened to it during the years Oliver Cromwell was Lord Protector, and there was no monarch to pledge to?

  11. You have correctly identified the one time the Show was suspended - during the Protectorate. Partly this may have been because there was no king (although Cromwell as Protector was perfectly happy to claim for himself all 'royal' attributes and benefits) but mainly because it was...a show, and the Puritans didn't "do" shows! Just as they closed the theatres, so they would have closed the Lord Mayor's Show because of the bawdy behaviour and often pagan displays which went with it!

  12. Stunning, what you could get for just a mere 1,065 pounds. What inflation has done to us!

  13. Nice post, Mike. Great little slice of London history.

  14. Glad you liked it. Not being a Londoner myself I find the research for this sort of thing great fun - and it helps me make sense of some of the things my ancestor was writing about.


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