“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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This app connects strangers in two cities across the world. But can it tackle urban loneliness?

New Delhi, in India, where many of Duet-App's users come from. Image: Ville Miettinen

“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people”. Olivia Laing, The Lonely City

Our relationship to where we live and the spaces we inhabit define who we are and how we feel. But how often do we articulate the emotional impact of this relationship, whether this be loneliness, frustration or even civic pride?

“When I moved to a new city, started living alone, wanted to drink less, stay indoors more, and when I realised that I cannot make any more best friends.”

A new social network, a simple app that connects two individuals from the UK and India, aims to counter some of these issues.  Over the course of a year connected pairs receive one question a day through the app and their responses are exchanged with each other. A simple interaction that gradually builds a series of one-on-one relationships and invites users to imagine, over time, the other person living their life.

Distant geographies are an implicit part of the experience, therefore many of the questions nudge users to explore correlations between their physical and emotional landscapes. The data shows us that many of the Duet-App users are located in populous urban cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Manchester, Leeds and London, places that can just as often discourage feelings of belonging and place-making as much as they foster them.

“I had thought I'd never be able to live here again. but here I am living again at home after almost a decade living elsewhere. Living in Mumbai is a contact sport, and I can't do without it's chaos and infectious energy.”

Mumbai, India. Image: Deepak Gupta

In general cities are getting bigger and spreading wider at the same time as our communications are increasingly being conducted online and via digital gateways.

There is a sense that much of our online personas project an idealised version of ourselves; we increasingly document and express our daily lives through a filter and we are not always comfortable with a spontaneous expression of ourselves. Duet-App seeks to foster alternative digital relationships that through their anonymity allow us to be more honest and free.

“I feel a lot of people assume that I always have a lot going on for me and everything's always happy and amazing. I wish they could appreciate... how much of my own anxiety I swim in every single day. I appear and behave “normal” on the outside, calm and composed but there are always storms going on in my head.”

In exploring the responses to the questions so far, those that often garner the most replies relate directly to how we feel about our personal position in the world around us. Often these questions act as provocations not only to share responses but to reflect and articulate our thoughts around how we feel about what we are doing in the here and now.

Manchester, another popular city for Duet-App users. Image: Julius 

“Sometimes I feel sad about it [getting old] because I saw how easy it would be to feel lonely, and the fact that the world is set up for able-bodied young people is a bit of a travesty.”

Although many social media platforms allow for distant engagement and access into the lives of others we are in the main still curating and choosing our friendship circles. Through Duet-App this is randomised (and anonymised) with the intention of bypassing the traditional mechanics of how we broker online relationships. While directly exploring the digital space as a place for intimacy.


“Where do you go for peace?

“Well the internet, really. I do some mindless browsing, peek into the fandoms, listen to a few songs. Calms me down.”

Snapshots into the lives of someone existing and playing out their lives remotely can highlight shared concerns that break down preconceptions of how life is lived by others. Prompted by the reflections of a stranger exposed to our lives, digital relationships can encourage us to address the physical space we inhabit and the effects that the cities we live out our lives in have on our own well being. 

Catherine Baxendale is director of Invisible Flock.

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