A slightly damp Sunday saw some 600 Freemen (and ladies) exercise their ancient right to take sheep across London Bridge. It’s both an ancient right of doubtful origins and a modern tradition of very clear heritage.
In the days before refrigeration, animals were usually taken to market to be slaughtered on the spot, and when London Bridge was the only way into the City from Southwark, cattle would often be taken over the bridge.
London Bridge is owned by a charitable trust fund managed by the City of London, and used to charge a toll to cross it — but that toll was waived for Freemen of the City. Although the origins of the idea that only Freemen could take sheep across the bridge is unclear, the favourite theory is that as Freemen didn’t pay to use the bridge, they could sell their sheep at a lower price than anyone who had paid to bring them to market.
Over time, the practical reality that only Freemen would bother to use the bridge turned into the de facto principle that only Freemen were allowed to use London Bridge to bring animals to market.
It’s not clear when the last cattle were taken over London Bridge, but the legend never died out, and occasionally people have exercised their “ancient right”.
Not always correctly though, as in 1999, a protest marcher, Jef Smith took sheep over Tower Bridge, thus upholding that other ancient tradition of mixing up Tower Bridge and London Bridge.
In 2009 sheep were taken over by the Lord Mayor to mark the bridge’s 800th anniversary. Then in 2011 and 2012, the Red Cross took stuffed sheep on wheels across, but in 2013, the Worshipful Company of Woolmen held the first large scale sheep drive across the bridge, raising money for wool charities, and it’s been going on ever since.
So the ancient tradition is restored and on Sunday, a flock of 30 North of England mule sheep were brought to London Bridge and over the day, groups of them were herded up and down the bridge.
The bridge was divided into North and South sides, and small groups took turns to herd the sheep up and down the bridge. Now fenced off, the bridge was at once very familiar, and yet feeling very strange, as we’re let through the fence to wait for our turn.
A flock of sheep bleating madly came down from other end of the bridge to have a rest, while another batch was released from their impromptu pen, and then as a group we herded the sheep forwards, while more experienced farmers kept them running off into the distance.
It was less herding than following a flock of sheep, but totally surreal, with friends and families on the other side taking photos, while a group of people casually walk along a bridge dodging the sheep droppings.
A few minutes later, and job done, thank you very much, here’s a certificate, let the photographer take some snaps, there’s the exit.
It’s a very City of London thing – soldier cadets helping out, a Lord Mayor in gold and finery, a celebrity to excite the newspapers, lots of office people back in town on a Sunday to herd sheep, livery people in furs looking posh, but underneath, that one’s a baker, there’s a stonemason, here’s a leatherworker.
An ancient right of dubious origins was upheld, and what a ridiculously fun way to do it.
The day also raised some £50,000 for the wool charities, so with that sort of performance, in a century or so, it will be a very genuine ancient tradition to take sheep over London Bridge once a year.
In fact, they’ve already confirmed that it’ll be back next year – so put Sunday 27th September 2020 in your diaries.