“He died in a wheelbarrow, for gin-related reasons”: the strange tale of London’s Mayors of Garratt

The railway line which now cuts Wandsworth Common in two. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Everything you actually like about London is doomed. Your local? Sorry, it’s luxury flats now. That arthouse cinema you like? Someone built flats over it and then filed a noise complaint. That Thames you like? Joanna Lumley’s trying to build a massive ugly bridge for posh people to have private parties on.

Dispiritingly often, property development seems to come at the expense of any of the things about London that might actually make anyone want to live there in the first place. Do we just have lump it, because capitalism?

No, we can stop it. We just need the right person for the job.

Specifically, we need to appoint someone to be the fictional mayor of a place that doesn’t really exist any more, on the basis of how much crap they talk and how funny looking they are.

We need a new Mayor of Garratt.

An impressive amount of green space has survived the vast expansion of London over the last few centuries – paradoxically, often both because the handful of rich people who owned most of it wanted a bit of greenery to look at, and in spite of the fact that they were very willing to flog bits of it off when they were a bit short.

Image: Google Maps.

Wandsworth Common is an example of the latter case. The “common” bit of the name refers to the right of commoners to, for example, graze pigs on it – but it was actually owned by the local lords of the manor (for a long period the Earls Spencer, Princess Di’s lot). Over the centuries, lots of the common was enclosed and sold off: the slightly wonkily-shaped bits that are left are quite a small part of the original common.

But – at least according to some accounts – there might not have been anything left at all, if not for the Mayor of Garratt. Garratt was a tiny hamlet near the common, long since subsumed into Wandsworthian suburbia. And, sometime in the 1740s, a few locals decided to start electing a “mayor” to lead protests against the enclosure of common land. These elections were timed to coincide with British general elections, and for a few decades became a bizarrely popular part of London life.

At some point the Garratt elections became something of a send-up of British political life – the 18th century equivalent of Channel 4 doing “funny” election coverage – and Wandworth’s publicans were happy to foot the bill for the increasingly elaborate festivities, in return for a massive surge in trade. Depending on who you believe, anywhere between tens and hundreds of thousands of people headed to Wandsworth Common to watch a fairly bizarre set of proceedings unfold.

The mayoral candidates would give themselves false names like Lord Twankum, Sir Thomas Nameless and Squire Blowmedown, be paraded around in elaborate custom-made chariots, and make rambling speeches promising everything from price cuts on booze (of which they tended to be prodigious imbibers) to the appointment of female bishops. At the height of the event’s popularity, the speeches were pointed mockery of real politicians, having been penned by the likes of radical John Wilkes and the satirist Samuel Foote. (The ironically-named Foote, who gained a license for a theatre in compensation for losing a leg, wrote and staged a play based on the elections.) The winning candidate, generally the one with the most “peculiarities”, would then be anointed with a six-foot-long wooden sword of office.

Who actually were these mayors? One long-running and fairly representative holder of the office was Sir Jeffrey Dunstan, a four-foot-tall man with a bulbous head known for carrying a sack of old wigs, and his corresponding cry of “Old Wigs!” Ostensibly collecting wigs represented some sort of profession, but it may just have been a way to hide the pint pots he had a habit of (and convictions for) stealing from pubs. He died in a wheelbarrow, for gin-related reasons.

Sir Henry Dimsdale, the last mayor of Garratt. Image: Wellcome Images.

As the century turned, the mood swung against the Mayor of Garratt: after the French Revolution, the great and good started to get a bit wary about large crowds of people performing their own ostensibly political acts. The decision of the final mayor, “Sir Harry Dimsdale” – an “idiot” Soho muffin seller of “deformed” appearance – to proclaim himself the Emperor Anti-Napoleon probably didn’t help much. An attempted revival in 1826 came to nothing, despite one of the candidates being someone described as “a friend to the ladies who attend Wandsworth Fair”.


Did the mayoralty actually have anything to do with saving Wandsworth Common from land enclosures? While some accounts suggest as much, other sources cite the true origin as some blokes “spending a merry day” at a local pub called the Leather Bottle (which is still there). In other words, it just seemed like a bit of a laugh after several pints of brown beer. And there isn’t a lot of evidence of any protesting about enclosure coinciding with the period.

But it is true to say that the period following the disappearance of the mayors saw the common substantially diminished. There were over 50 enclosures, in which anything up to 96 acres was lost. A railway line and several roads were run through the middle of it, explaining the slightly odd shape of the land that remains.

Circa 1870, Earl Spencer was finally convinced to hand over the shabby remains, by then mostly worked out gravel pits, to a Common Defense Committee. By this point, London was finally waking up to the fact that if you’re going to build loads of houses it might be a good thing to leave some grass and trees and so on for the people who live in them to look at.

So. If we really want to stop property developers from ruining our city, maybe it’s time to gather together, have a few drinks in a park, and pick a new Mayor of Garratt. Let them rise again, take up the wooden sword of office, ride out on a TfL Hire Bike and fight – not just for Wandsworth Common, but for all of us.

Ed Jefferson works for the internet and tweets as @edjeff.

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Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.

Trade-offs

In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?


Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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