“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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What do new business rates pilots tell us about government’s appetite for devolution?

Sheffield Town Hall, 1897. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

There have been big question marks about any future devolution of business rates ever since the last general election stopped the legislation in its tracks.

Not only did it not make its way to the statute book before the pre-election cut off, it was nowhere to be seen in the Queen’s Speech, suggesting the Government had gone cold on the idea. (This scenario was complicated further recently by the introduction of a private members’ bill on business rates by Conservative MP Peter Bone, details of which remain scarce.)

However, regardless of the situation with legislation, the government’s announcement in recent days of a pilot phase of reforms suggests that business rates devolution will go ahead after all. DCLG has invited local authorities to take part in a pilot scheme which will allow volunteer authorities to retain 100 per cent of the business rates growth they generate locally. (It also notes that a further three pilots are currently in operation as they were set up under the last government.)

There are two interesting things in this announcement that give some insight on how the government would like to push the reform forward.

The first is that only authorities that come forward with their neighbours with a proposal to pool all business rates raised into one pot across a wider geography will be considered. This suggests that pooling is likely to be strongly encouraged under the new system, even more considering that the initial position was to give power to the Secretary of State to form pools unilaterally.

The second is that pooled authorities are given free rein to propose their own local arrangements. This includes determining, where applicable, a tier split (i.e. rates distribution between districts and counties), a plan for distributing additional growth across the pool, and how this will be managed between authorities.

It’s the second which is most interesting. Although current pools already have the ability to decide for some of their arrangements, it’s fair to say that the Theresa May-led government has been much less bullish on devolution than George Osborne in particular was, with policies having a much greater ‘top down’ feel to them (for example, the Industrial Strategy) rather than a move towards giving places the tools they need to support economic growth in their areas. So the decision to allow local authorities to come up with proposed arrangements feels like a change in approach from the centre.


Of course, the point of a pilot is to test different arrangements, and the outcomes of this experiment will be used to shape any future reform of the business rates system. Given the complexity of the system and the multitude of options for reform, this seems like a sensible approach to take. But it remains to be seen whether the complex reform of a national system can be led from the bottom up. In effect, making sure this local governance is driven by common growth objectives, rather than individual authorities’ interests, will be essential.

Nonetheless, the government’s reaffirmation of its commitment to business rates to devolution and its willingness to test new approaches is welcome. Given that the UK is one of the most centralised countries in the western world, moves to allow local authorities to keep at least some of the tax revenue that is generated in their area is a step forward in giving places more autonomy over how they spend their money. That interest in changing this appears to have been whetted once more is encouraging.

There are, however, a number of other issues with the current business rates system which need to be ironed out. Centre for Cities is currently working on a briefing of the business rates system, building on our previous work in this area, and we’ll be making suggestions as to how the system can be improved.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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