“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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Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.