“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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