Sunday, 9 December 2012

Best job in the City

As our new Lord Mayor, Roger Gifford, was “shown” to the people, my mind turned to the 684 previous holders of this office. They have trotted, floated and rolled their way through 800 years of history which have encompassed civil war, devastating plagues, great fires and the Blitz.

Our early Mayors rode about on horseback. The swords they wore were sometimes more than a fashion statement: Mayor William Walworth used his to slay the rebel Watt Tyler, and was knighted in the field. In his case, “Smithfield”.

Some Mayors distinguished themselves in less violent ways. The most famous, Dick Whittington, held the office on four occasions; when he died childless, he left everything to charity. Charles Duncombe, who was frequently thrashed for arriving late for work as a young apprentice, vowed that if he ever became Lord Mayor he would present a timepiece to the church he passed daily. St Magnus Martyr still displays the clock he donated in 1709. Brass Crosby was thrown into the Tower for championing free speech in 1770. He was reprieved when 50,000 Londoners besieged the fortress.

Others are remembered less fondly. The hapless Sir Thomas Bludworth went back to bed after commenting that “a woman could piss out” the flames rising in Pudding Lane on 3 September 1666.  

Some Lord Mayors have broken new ground. The very first Mayor was Henry FitzAilwyn in 1189. We had to wait 794 years for our first Lady Mayor, Mary Donaldson, in 1983. After the tragic death of Henry V in 1422, Mayor William Walderne was asked not to ride through the streets but instead to go by barge to Westminster, making his “showing” the first by river. In 1855 the City had its first Jewish Mayor in David Salomons.

The Mayor’s office is associated with ceremonial splendour and mouth-watering banquets, but things don’t always go to plan. Spare a thought for Sebastian Harvey in 1618. James I selected this Lord Mayor’s day to execute Sir Walter Raleigh in the hope that the pageant would draw the crowds away from the Tower. As any events promoter would have predicted, poor Harvey rode through empty streets while the crowds thronged to Tower Hill. In 1944 the dinner John Newton-Smith gave to the Turners Company in Mansion House was subject to wartime regulations.  The 5/- budget meal ran to mock turtle soup, roast chicken and trifle – no doubt made more  palatable by ’34 Macon & an ’08 Crofts port! Or would you rather have been one of the guests at Thomas Strong’s banquet in 1910? The meal would have been lavish, but you would have toasted the Mayor with tea. Thomas Strong was teetotal.

It’s a great honour to become Lord Mayor but a surprising number have gone out of their way avoid the appointment, and have even preferred to pay a fine rather than take it up. The mayor doesn’t draw a salary and  expenses are heavy. Some holders of the office have even ended up in debtor’s prison.

Many colourful Lord Mayors have left their mark but two who stand out for me. First, John Wells who made play with his name at his pageant in 1431. Three wells in Cheapside flowed with wine; shading the wells were trees hung with almonds, dates, oranges and lemons. Secondly, Brook Watson, London’s only one legged Mayor.  The missing limb was eaten by a shark when the young Watson was swimming in Havana Harbour. Opponents scorned Watson’s intellect, yet he rose to become Governor of the Bank of England. We might still argue whether the holder of that post needs to be nimble or brainy.

Answers to the Lord Mayor’s Blog “Do you know?”

1.     b,  2. a,  3. c,  4. a,  5. b,  6. b, 7. c, 8. b,  9. a, 10. b

 How good is your knowledge of our Lord Mayors? Try the Lord Mayor quiz on














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