Today, I want to tell you about the Garrat Elections, which were mock elections that took place between the 1740s and the 1800s in, what was then a tiny hamlet just south of the River Thames. Garrat was situated between Wandsworth and Tooting, on the edge of Wandsworth Common. These elections were timed to run alongside the General Election and at least one of them took place on May 20th. Garret was tiny. It had no representation in Parliament. Also at this time, almost no one had the right to vote anyway. The people of Garrat were in danger of losing their access rights to the small common and they weren’t very happy about it. They got up a sort of protest committee and elected a leader. Then, they decided that their leader would be given the title ‘Mayor of Garret’. Of course, Garret was so small that they didn’t really need anything as fancy as a mayor, so it was all a bit of a joke. As there was a General Election at the time, they decided that the Mayor would serve for the length of the Parliament and, when there was another General Election, they would appoint someone else.
Notification of an election would issue from a non-existent Town Hall. The candidates were always poor tradesmen, but they gave themselves fancy names like Squire Blowmedown, who was a Wandsworth waterman, Lord Twankum, a cobbler and grave-digger, and Sir George Comefirst, I couldn’t find out his occupation. They campaigned and produced pamphlets extolling their own virtues and damning those of the opposition, just like a real election. Local innkeepers happily paid to put up flags and placards and to build a hustings, even for the candidates lavish costumes, as they did pretty well out of the event. The Garrat Elections could attract crowds of 80,000.
On the day of the election, the candidates would set out from Southwark and then parade through Wandsworth, often in boats on wheels, and sometimes in the company of the ‘Garrat Cavalry’, a motley collection of forty boys riding ponies. The smallest boy being mounted on the biggest animal and the tallest of them on the smallest. They delivered their speeches from a hustings built on Garrat Green. But first they had to swear an oath, whilst resting their right hand on the symbol of the mob, a brickbat. If you’re wondering what a brickbat is, it’s a piece of brick that is useful for throwing at something, or someone. Their brickbat was, they said “handed down to us by the grand Volgee, by order of the great Chin Kaw Chipo, first Emperor of the Moon”. Later historians were a bit coy about what this oath actually was, as they had to swear that they had ‘enjoyed a woman’ somewhere in the district, preferably in the open air. Here it is:
That you have admitted peaceably and quietly, into possession of a freehold thatched tenement, either black, brown or coral, in a hedge or ditch, against a gate or style, under furze or fen, on any common or common field or enclosure, in the high road, or in any of the lanes, in barn, stable, hovel, or any other place within the manor of Garratt; and, that you did (Bona fide) keep (ad rem) possession of that said thatched tenement (durante bene placito) without any let, hindrance, or molestation whatever; or without any ejectment or forcibly turning out of the same; and that you did then and there and in the said tenement, discharge and duty pay and amply satisfy all legal demands of the tax that was at that time due on the said premises; and lastly, did quit and leave the said premises in sound, wholesome and good tenable repair as when you took possession and did enter therein. So help you.
The first elections were between two candidates, but by 1781, there were nine. Among them was a man who called himself Sir John Gnawpost, which is my favourite. There were also Sir William Swallowtail, who was actually a basket weaver named Cook; Sir Buggy Bates, a waterman and chimney sweep and Sir Jeffrey Dunstan, who actually stood under his own name, though he certainly wasn’t a knight of the realm. Sir Jeffrey Dunstan was a purveyor of second hand wigs. He was a well-known figure who was often seen shouting his wares about the streets of London. This portrait of him is not an unkind caricature, he was four feet tall and always went about with his coat and shirt unfastened, his breeches unbuttoned at the knee and his stockings hanging down. Some of the candidates processed in style. Most notably, Sir William Swallowtail, who had woven a carriage for himself from wicker. But the streets were so crowded that they got stuck. Sir Jeffrey, who had arrived on foot, reached the hustings easily. Some candidates did not make it at all. Sir John Harper sent word that he was too drunk to attend. Sir William Swallowtail was accused of having a contract to supply baskets to Parliament and Sir Buggy Bates that he supplied soot for ‘powder to destroy vermin in biscuit.’ Sir Jeffrey was elect despite the fact it was suggested that his daughter was to marry the Prime Minister, Lord North. Jeffrey Dunstan was a popular candidate and was returned as mayor on two subsequent occasions. In 1796 he was ousted by Sir Harry Dimsdale, a muffin seller from Seven Dials.
After that, more well-off Londoners, who had previously enjoyed the spectacle started to feel rather uncomfortable about large groups of working-class people gathering together in unruly mobs. What with the French Revolution and everything. The whole thing just sort of stopped happening. But it was immortalised by Samuel Foote in his play ‘The Mayor of Garrat’. I really enjoyed learning about Samuel Foote back in January, so here is his picture again. That’s him in the frock…