Tuesday 9th November 1779 – 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.”
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 but 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, with a few breaks for the odd war or civil insurrection.
Nowadays the Lord Mayor is met by the Lord Chief 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 form the elaborate displays which were brought up-river on decorated barges).
Some time in the fifteenth century the Lord Mayor , then a draper called John 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. No wonder Canaletto, on one of his visits to the City, painted a couple of views of the pageant, viewed from the Thames.
London Westminster Bridge From The North On Lord Mayors Day
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 journey in style. An earlier mayor had fallen from his horse 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 ordered to be made. It cost over a thousand pounds to be built in 1757 – and each of the aldermen had to cough up some sixty pounds (nearly £5000 in today’s money). It is a wonderful sight, with its side panels decorated by the Italian painter Cipriani.
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.
Historically the show was held on 29 October each year but when the calendar changed in 1752 it moved on by the ‘missing’ 11 days to 9th November. Since 1959 it has been moved to the second Saturday in November, and hence this year will be on 12 November.
*My thanks to Tracey Hill for pointing out that the monarch did not personally receive the Lord Mayor – this was done on his behalf by the Barons of the Exchequer.