Academic journal article Journal of Social History

In Defense of Privilege: The City of London and the Challenge of Municipal Reform, 1875-1890

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

In Defense of Privilege: The City of London and the Challenge of Municipal Reform, 1875-1890

Article excerpt

In March 1986, Prime Minister Thatcher eliminated the Greater London Council, successor to the London County Council, successor to the Metropolitan Board of Works.(1) Unlike the City Fathers, the rulers of the Greater London Council, as well as the rulers of the London County Council and their predecessors of the Metropolitan Board of Works, had failed to cloak their governing body with the mystical aura of costume, ritual, symbolism, and ceremony. As The Times observed in 1881, "the City [Corporation of London] is sacred although nothing else is. The vestries may disappear without finding any one to say a word for them. The Metropolitan Board of Works ... has no prescriptive rights."(2) Hence few people protested when each board and the vestries were abolished. Without a |protective robe' with which to guard itself from future reformers, neither the London County Council nor the Greater London Council was rendered immune to the test of time, as was the City. To this day, one can witness the Lord Mayor's coach roll through the streets of London on Lord Mayor's Day.

This article will chart the evolution of one particular public ceremony, the annual Lord Mayor's Show of London, throughout the course of the nineteenth century, with emphasis on the period 1875-1890. I argue that a close study of this annual event, as well as other public relations-oriented activities staged at that time by the City Corporation of London, is fundamental to any understanding of the remarkable survival of an anachronistic body in an age of popular democracy. During the period 1875-90, the City's traditional civic elites, threatened by the emergence of electoral democracy on the national level and the rising tide of municipal socialism and democratic reformers at the local level, consciously and continually employed ceremony and ritual (as well as new, or |invented' traditions) for defensive political purposes. As a City Corporation Handbook of Ceremonials observed, public ceremonies "are not idle forms or shows put on merely for entertainment. They embody and make visible rights and privileges."(3) The authors might have added that ceremonies make such "rights and privileges" more acceptable, too. Whereas the English monarchy had opted to trade power for pomp, so to speak, the City of London chose to employ pomp in the defense of power. We shall see that this was instrumental in ensuring the survival of the City's independence to this day.

The 1875 Lord Mayor's Show was the first to witness any significant "novelties," as The Times put it, in twenty years. Moreover, the Show that year was the first professionally staged(4) and blatantly political Show to appear in almost a century, as members of the City paraded through the streets displaying banners extolling the good deeds of the City - theretofore an unnecessary thing.(5) 1875 was also a year of considerable agitation for municipal reform, with Kay-Shuttleworth and Lord Elcho's attempt to pass a bill which would have merged the City into a new central London government. Was this merely a coincidence? The next year J.F.B. Firth, future leader of the London Municipal Reform League and most outspoken of the burgeoning numbers of municipal reformers, wrote his Municipal London; or, London Government as it is and London under a Municipal Council(6) and stepped up his attack on the City. Furthermore, what was the significance of the decision not to terminate the customary introduction of the Lord Mayor to the Judges of the Court of Exchequer at Westminster when the passing of the Judicature Act earlier that year had rendered that traditional rite meaningless?(7) Why had the two concerned parties concluded "after due consideration ... that the ancient custom should be in no way interfered with"?(8) Why, despite the fact that the Act had "altered the entire state of things," had the Lord Mayor "desire[d] to retain the ancient connection of the City with Her Majesty's Judges?"(9) Throughout this essay, it will be argued that such conscious decisions to introduce novel or |invented' traditions to traditional City ceremonies or to retain obsolete, meaningless rites and rituals signify a calculated attempt to use the past to justify the present in order not to face the future. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.