Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London Up to Date, by George Augustus Sala, 1895 - The Lord Mayor's Show 

[-back to menu for this book-]

[-311-]

THE LORD MAYOR'S SHOW

THE Lord Mayor's Show is, to those who have any business to transact between Westminster and Tower Hill on the 9th of November, an unmitigated nuisance; and when I am in London on that day, I am scrupulous in keeping the festival precisely as I keep the four Bank Holidays with which the Metropolis is annually afflicted; that is to say, I take care not to stir out of doors between daybreak and nightfall But the procession undeniably affords delight to many scores of thousands of sightseers; and 1 would not willingly rob anybody of even the smallest pleasure. I should be very sorry to see the Lord Mayor's Show abolished. It is the only pageant which, in London at least, we have retained to remind us of medieval times. Occasionally shabby, and rarely without some element of the grotesque in it, nevertheless it is sufficiently handsome, stately, and picturesque to amuse the vast crowd in the streets and interest the ladies and children at the windows; and if only for these reasons the function should be piously preserved for the recreation of the population of the biggest, and, on the whole, the dullest, capital in the world.
    [-312-] Again, glibly as some people talk about the necessity for Municipal Reform, and bluntly as Lord Rosebery may dilate on the admirable work which is being done west of the Griffin - which is in reality a Dragon - by the London County Council, I hold most strongly that not one whit of comeliness, stateliness, and splendour should be taken from the Lord Mayor's Show, inasmuch as it always has been and always will be, I hope, an annual assertion of the principle of the monarchy of the middle classes and an outward and visible symbol of the power and influence of the oldest, the most dignified, and the most hospitable municipal corporation in the world.
    Yet does it strike me that the 9th of November is precisely not the day when the Conscript Fathers of the City should proceed in triumphal procession from Guildhall to the New Law Courts, and return to the palace of Gog and Magog to entertain Her Majesty's Ministers, the Judges, the Corps Diplomatique, and a goodly company of citizens, male and female, at a grand and sumptuous banquet.
    The earliest civic show on record is said to have taken place in 1236, when Henry III. and Eleanor of Provence passed through the City to Westminster; and when Edward I. came back from Palestine, the citizens, in a frenzy of loyalty, threw handfuls of gold and silver out of the windows among the crowd. A comfortable sight to have seen! Would I had been there! It was on the return of the same monarch from his Scotch campaign that what would appear to have been the [-313-] first Lord Mayor's Show was visible. Each Guild had its display. The Fishmongers had gilt salmon and sturgeon, drawn by eight horses, and six-and-forty knights riding sea-horses, followed by the effigy of St. Magnus, it being St. Magnus's Day. Was that the 9th of November? I trow not.
    For very many generations the day after the feast of St. Simon and St. Jude, that is to say, the 29th of October, was that on which the Lord Mayor and Sheriffs went by water to Westminster, attended by the barges of all the Companies, and on their return landed at Paul's Wharf, where they took horse, and, with much pomp, passed through "the great street of the City, called Cheapside." The road was kept clear by beadles and men apparelled as "divells," together with wild, stout varlets, whose clubs discharged squibs and crackers. In Queen Elizabeth's time, the Lord Mayor was clothed on Show Day in a long scarlet gown, with a black velvet hood, and a rich collar of gold about his neck. Then came the Aldermen, and last, the two Sheriffs, who enjoyed then, even as they do now, the proud privilege of paying for half of the Guildhall banquet.
    There was apparently no speech-making at the Tudor Municipal feasts, for immediately after dinner the whole company adjourned to evening prayers at St. Paul's Cathedral - a most wholesome practice. In the evening, however, there were more revels, and there were even discourses; only the oratory proceeded from hired performers arrayed in fantastic garb, supposed to [-314-] impersonate the Moral Virtues. They were unanimous in assuring the Chief Magistrate that he was only a little lower than the angels; and, I have no doubt, heartily enjoyed their subsequent supper. It is most irritating after you have been toiling through the old books about the Lord Mayor's Show to find so very few notices of the exact day when the pageant and the banquet took place; in fact, it is not until you get to the altogether trustworthy pages of Pepys that you begin to see land in this respect.
    It was on the 29th of October in the Restoration year, 1663, being Lord Mayor's Day, and Sir Anthony Bateman being Lord Mayor, that Mr. Pepys hied him citywards. The tailor had just sent him home his new velvet cloak-that is lined with velvet; the outside was cloth - but the frugal Samuel refrained from wearing the glorified garment, "because of the crowd." So, plainly attired, he went to Guildhall, where he met "Lieutenant - Colonel Baron, a City Commander "- possibly of the Finsbury Archers or the Lumber Troop - who took him into the hall and showed him the tables set for the banquet. Under every salt-cellar there was a bill of fare and the waiters were marshalled in military array at the end of each table.
    The diarist noted it as "very strange" that only for the Mayor and the Lords of the Privy Council were there any napkins or any knives, to say nothing of forks, provided. Fancy having to bring your knife and fork with you when you went to dine at Guildhall!
    [-315-] This somewhat barbarous practice appears to have prevailed for at least a hundred years afterwards; for, looking carefully at a contemporary engraving of a banquet at Guildhall, in 1761, when Lord Mayor Sir Samuel Fludyer had the honour to entertain George III. and Queen Charlotte, I cannot discern on the well-laid tables anything in the shape of a knife or a fork. Oddly enough, the artist has drawn the guests, from Royalty downwards, duly seated at the magnificently spread board, but none of them appear to be eating, and there is not so much as a glass or a decanter to be seen on the tables. Possibly, the company were waiting for the signal to rise for grace to be said, and then producing their knives and forks from their pockets, they must have fallen to with the keenest of appetites. That eventually something to drink was served out I surmise from the figure in the distance of a waiter with a very large wig, who is holding a wine glass on a platter.
    Fortunately, the bill of fare of this exceptionally handsome banquet has come down to us; and it is truly interesting to learn from the menu that the first service comprised venison, turtle soup, and fish of every sort, among which figured mullets, turbots, and tench. Who eats tench now? The second service was composed of teal, quails, ortolans, ruffs, reeves, notts, pea-chicks, snipe, partridges, and pheasants. For the third service, there were vegetables and made dishes, green peas, green morellas, green truffles, ducks' tongues, and "fat livers." After all, gastronomy does [-316-] not seem to have made any very great progress since the first year of the reign of good King George III. Indeed, in many instances, it is to be feared that the art has degenerated. For all the wonderful acceleration of locomotion due to railroads and steam navigation which we enjoy at present, English epicures can very rarely nowadays regale on such delicacies as green truffles; and while, as you have seen, Sir Samuel Fludyer's guests impaired their digestions with foie gras, just as a Lucullus of 1892 might do, they likewise titillated their palates with ducks' tongues - a dainty which I apprehend is a stranger to the modern cuisine.
   
There was a fourth course at this luxurious "feed," in which were introduced "curious ornaments in pastry, jellies, and blomonges." In all, not including the dessert, there were placed on the tables four hundred and fourteen dishes, hot and cold. Roast beef is not specifically mentioned in the programme, but it was doubtless abundant, and of right old English flavour. The wines were varied and copious; and the contemporary chronicler tells us that "champagne and burgundy were to be had everywhere, and nothing was so scarce as water." The drinking of toasts seems to have commenced before the dinner was finished. The Common Crier, standing before the Royal table, called for silence, and then proclaimed aloud that their Majesties drank to the health and prosperity of the Lord Mayor, Aldermen, and Common Council of the City of London. 
    [-317-] Immediately afterwards, this same Crier, who appears to have fulfilled the functions performed in our days by Toole, Harker, and other noted civic toastmasters, gave the toast of health, long life, and prosperity to the King and Queen. Nothing is said of the passing round of the loving cup; and so soon as the banquet was over, the Royal party retired to the Council Chamber, where they took tea. The remaining guests were not suffered to stay and take t'other bottle; the Guildhall being at once occupied by a horde of carpenters. The tables were carried out, the dais recarpeted, and the whole gigantic apartment got ready for the ball, with which the festivities were to conclude. The Royalties having returned and seated themselves under the canopy, the ball was opened by the Duke of York and the Lady Mayoress. Another minuet followed, danced by the younger branches of the Royal Family with ladies of distinction, and the illustrious guests took their departure at midnight; but there was a tremendous amount of confusion in Guildhall Yard; and their Majesties had to wait fully half an hour before their coach could be brought to the door.
    They did not get back to St. James's till 2 in the morning; and, in turning under the gate of the Clock Tower, the coachman managed to run his horses into a sentry-box, the wooden roof of which smashed one of the glasses of the coach. Possibly the coachman and many other of his tribe, including the footman and the link-bearers, had been drinking the health of the young King and Queen slightly too often in the course of the [-318-] evening. It is amusing to note that the Dowager Princess of Wales, who also had to wait a wearisome time for the arrival of her equipage, lost her temper, and could not be persuaded to retire again into the Hall. If one compares this statement with a most diverting description given by Mrs. Delany of a grand city dinner at Guildhall, at which she was present when she was Mrs. Pendarves, quite a young woman, early in the reign of George I., it would appear that it was rather the custom than otherwise for unconscionable delays to occur in getting up the carriages at the end of the banquet, and that nervous ladies who shrank from encountering a noisy and usually dirty mob, or who doubted the sobriety of their own servants, not unfrequently made a night of it in Guildhall itself, and found improvised sleeping accommodation where they could.
    A dinner at Guildhall on Lord Mayor's Day at the present time differs very widely from the banquet of the past. For more than a hundred years, it is true, the caterers for the guests of the Mayor and Sheriffs' "feed" have been the historic firm of Birch; hut the modern dinner may be described as a superstructure of the most elegant and artistic cookery, resting, however, on amazingly strong pillars of cold roast beef. In the cosmogony of the Hindus, the globe is symbolised as supported by an elephant, which stands on a tortoise; but what the tortoise itself stands upon, the cosmogonists have failed to tell us. The civic world, I apprehend, might be emblematised as poised on a very fat ox which stands on a fine West Indian turtle, while the turtle itself [-319-] might repose on a pile of those civic charters which Charles II. had the impudence and the meanness to confiscate for a time, but which have been long since restored to the City, and will never, I hope, be taken away so long as London remains the capital of the British Empire and of the world.
    I have eaten, I should say, the turtle of some twenty- three Lord Mayors, although it has not always been on the 9th of November that I have enjoyed the Chief Magistrate's hospitality. So far as I can judge, the tendency of the banquet has been to become every year less heavy and more tasteful. Turtle, of course, thick and clear, holds its own, and cold roast beef is always to the fore; but the side-dishes, the game and poultry, the pastry and confectionery have lost that indigestible solidity by which at city banquets they were formerly distinguished. Much less port and sherry and milk punch, again, is drunk at up-to-date civic feasts than was formerly the case; and the champagne has grown less sweet and less strong than of yore.
    Moreover, there are at present at Guildhall at the close of a 9th of November banquet, dark and distant rumours of tobacco. Somebody, about the time when tea and coffee are being served, seems to be indulging in some remote corner in a cigar or a cigarette; and, at all events, the thin end of the wedge of nicotine so strongly denounced a year or two ago by Dr. Benjamin Ward Richardson is being furtively introduced into city manners. In many particulars, the pageant which is visible on an up-to-date 9th of November is funda-[-320-]mentally identical with the pictures of the show which we see in old engravings - notably in Hogarth's dramatic tableaux of the career of the Industrious and the Idle Apprentice.
    Gog and Magog no longer figure, it is true, in the show, their last appearance in the streets having been in 1837, in the mayoralty of Alderman Lucas, in whose pageant were exhibited two wicker-work copies of the Guildhall giants, 14 feet high; their faces being on a level with the first-floor windows of Cheapside. The men in armour, too, whose martial panoply used to be borrowed from the Horse Armoury of the Tower, and who occasionally imbibed such deep potations of strong beer as to reel in their saddles in a very unknightly manner, are rarely seen in a modern show; and gone, too, are the old allegorical groups representing all kinds of human attributes. Banners, however, of every conceivable colour, and blazoned with almost every conceivable variety of heraldic cognisances, are as plentiful in the days of Queen Victoria as they were in those of Queen Bess.
    Preceding and following the great gilded ark with the six much-bedizened steeds and the Sword-Bearer, looking craftily out of the window as though he were in search of somebody whose head he might cut off, are half a dozen military bands, a volunteer corps or two, some lads from a training ship, perhaps a contingent of a Fire Brigade, and any number of vehicles, sometimes hired from livery stables, but dubbed for the nonce "State chariots," in which ride the Masters of the City [-321-] Companies. These, with a glittering cavalry escort, form the most conspicuous features of a Lord Mayor's Show up to Date. It blocks up the arterial thoroughfares for many hours of the day, and leads to a good deal of horseplay and picking of pockets ; still, no Englishman who is proud of his country and of its ancient institutions would like to see the Show shorn of anything of its splendour; but I repeat that the 9th of November is not the period of the year when the pageant should sweep through London streets. We want a Lord Mayor's Show without a fog and with plenty of sunshine; and it would be much wiser to make midsummer the season for installing the Chief Magistrate in all his glory. 

[-nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.-]