This Saturday’s Lord Mayor’s show will be a huge event on the streets of London, with large numbers of floats and people marching, but it wasn’t like that in 2020*, and it never used to be like that either.

It was always very grand and impressive — but it didn’t take place on the streets. It took place on the river.

This famous, if somewhat idealised, painting by Canaletto shows the sort of thing that took place.

In fact, for most of its life, the Lord Mayor’s show was a river event — not a street one, and that was because for the simple reason that for most of London’s history, getting from east to west was far easier by river than by horses over unkempt roads.

The Lord Mayor’s show hasn’t just moved location, it also moved dates. It used to be fixed to take place on the Feast of St Simon and St Jude, which used to be 29th October, but when the calendars changed moved to the 9th November.

It remained a fixed date until 1959, when the disruption, more often than not in the middle of the working week was just too much, and the law was changed to allow it to take place on the second Saturday in November.

It needed a law to be changed as the parade while fun to watch, is also the formal swearing of the oath of office for the Lord Mayor, and is a legal requirement for each newly elected Mayor.

But back to the river.

It was only in 1856/7 that the Lord Mayor’s show switched sides permanently turning its back on the river and becoming a street event, although in recent years the river has started to reclaim some of the pomp it lost so long ago.

Back then the Lord Mayor’s show brought out all the watermen barges and the ferries to put on a bit of a spectacle for the annual election of a new Lord Mayor.

What really stood out though were the State Barges, the Lord Mayor’s own barge, and the many that were owned by the Livery Companies — those early trade associations cum trade regulators that often held monopolies on their trade within the City. Those monopolies made some of them quite rich, but even the most modest of Livery companies were expected to turn up with a barge — even if many were slyly hired for just the day and quickly decorated.

It was the larger Livery companies though that had the largest barges, and often used them for regular excursions.

The Pageant

Although there are earlier records of pageants in the City, such as in 1236 for the arrival of King Henry III and Eleanor of Provence, and in early days the pageants seemed to be infrequent and on land.

The earliest record of a river pageant for the election of a new Lord Mayor though dates back to 1422. At the time it was recorded that “William Walderne was chosen as Mayor of St Edmund’s Day, when it was ordered that the Aldermen and Craft should go to Westminster with him to take his charge, in barges without minstrels“.

While this is the earliest written record to have survived, the tone of the order suggests it was a regular command even then, and not the first time it had taken place.

Another record in the Groccers’ Company for 1435 reads “Paid be the handys of John Godyn for mynstralls and ther Hodys, amendyng of banneres, and hire of barges with Thomas Catworth and Robert Clopton, chosen Shyerevis, goyng be Water to Westmynster.

It’s suggested that the pageants were infrequent affairs, possibly as many Lord Mayors served more than one year at the time, until 1453, when Sir John Norman started the annual tradition of the floatilla, if not an annual tradition of burning the barge, as he is reputed to have done.

“he made the barge he sat in burn on the water” – Alderman Fabian

Over the years, there are many records in the archives of the Livery Companies mainly reporting on the cost of putting on a barge to accompany the Lord Mayor to his oath swearing in Westminster Hall.

The barge had to be hired (or later maintained if owned), a bargemaster was needed, minstrels often hired, people to row the barge, to decorate it, etc – the cost wasn’t modest. Nonetheless, the Livery companies persisted no just for personal prestige, but it was seen as a slight to the Lord Mayor not to attend his oath of office. At a time when the Lord Mayor’s powers were far greater than today that could be an expensive mistake to make.

The parade started on land, at Mansion House, then they progressed to the Thames, usually via the City Ward that the Lord Mayor came from — so the route often changed — to the Thames.

The Lord Mayor traditionally travelled on horseback to the river, but in 1711, the new Lord Mayor, Sir Gilbert Heathcoate fell off his horse and broke his leg. Since then, they travel by State Coach.

Much as today, there was an order to the procession on its way to Westminster — the Lord Mayor would go first, as you’d expect, and as all Lord Mayors were members of a Livery Company, the barge of that company would come next. Then the standard order of procession of the Livery Companies, as is still followed to this day in ceremonial events.

On the way back, all was reversed, with the Lord Mayor coming last.

One of the several claimed origins for the phrase “at sixes and sevens” is suggested to be a dispute between the Merchant Taylors and the Skinners companies as to which barge would go first in the pageant, and in 1484 it was decided that they would alternate each year — except when their Master was also Lord Mayor, and they had to exchange a loving cup during the pageant as a peace offering.

There were plenty of other disputes about the order they would progress down the Thames. For example, in 1738, the Sheriffs came from the Stationers and the Goldsmiths, and the Court of Alderman had to rule which would go first.

The Barges

The barges derived from a type of wheery, a shallow boat used to carry passengers and cargo on rivers, particularly the Thames and Cam, and kept developing and getting larger as the years passed.

In the early years, most of the barges were rented and given temporary decoration for the Livery company, usually covered in blue cloth, and their banner/pennant and livery colours used to indicate which Livery company is in each barge.

The barges of the Merchant Taylor’s Company

By the 17th century though, many of the Livery companies were rich enough to own a barge to support the increasing number of river pageants that were taking place apart from the Lord Mayor’s. There were also some practical advantages of owning a barge that could be used by the Livery company Master for special occasions.

Most of the barges owned by the Livery companies were kept in barge houses along the Thames in Lambeth and Southwark.

While in the early years, the barges were modest affairs, they progressively grew in size, until by the turn of the 19th century, barges were so large they could support an upper deck for guests to stand on while the rowers and musicians remained below.

Some of the barges, such as the one owned by the Stationers Company, were huge.

The musicians were an exceptionally important part of the barge, so much so that a silent barge was practically unheard of. Presumably to show off, but also to provide more of a spectacle to the people on the riversides watching.

The musicians were also given an impressive uniform, paid for by the Livery company of course.

There were other fairly substantial costs, not just for annual maintenance, but every few decades the barges seemed to reach a point of needing to be replaced.

The Bargemaster

Other than the cost of the barge and the pageants themselves, the greatest and the fussiest expense that the Livery companies usually faced were for the Bargemaster.

Not only were the Bargemasters usually appointed for life, but their jobs were also sometimes hereditary. They weren’t cheap either, new uniforms had to be provided annually, and unusually, an annual salary was paid.

If you’ve ever seen the Watermen and Lightermen in their red finery, you might have noticed a large badge on their arms. The Bargemaster had a bigger and better badge, of course. One record in the Merchant Taylors reports the cost of a silver badge costing £4 10s, which was about the same as the Bargemaster’s annual salary at the time.

Knollys Rose ceremony 2009

They had considerable responsibilities, especially ensuring there were enough rowers when needed for the pageants, at a time when all the other Livery companies would be competing to hire rowers as well.

In addition, when an old barge was worn out and needed replacing, it was often offered to the Bargemaster, although as it was presumably in a poor state of repair, this may have been not much more than a generous offer of firewood.

The Archbishop of Canterbury

One of the odder of this already odd spectacle was that of the Stationers’ Barge, which once everyone had arrived at Westminster, would carry on a bit further to Lambeth Palace.

One year in the early 18th century, the Master of the Stationers was closely related to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Tenison, so an invitation to lunch was extended, and became an annual tradition for the Stationers to be entertained at Lambeth Palace. As lunch usually involved strong ale for the watermen rowing the barge, the return trip must have been an interesting event.

The tradition of the Stationers accompanying the Lord Mayor to Westminster, then nipping over to Lambeth Palace for a boozy lunch persisted for many years.

The Stationer’s Company barge at Lambeth Palace (c) British Library – Illustrated London News


As a point, ever wondered why those decorated lories with displays on the back are called floats? Go back to the river, and the barges… floated. So when the parade moved to land, they kept the phrase, and to this day, the entire English speaking world owes the original of carnival floats to the Lord Mayor’s Show.

Other pageants

The pageants weren’t limited to Lord Mayors either — Royalty got a look in at times, particularly during the Tudor times. Until recent times, the last Royal pageant on the Thames was for the opening of the grand Coal Exchange building in the City in 1849, where Prince Albert attended.

The river pageants were drying up though. In 1830, just twelve barges accompanied the Lord Mayor, then just six in 1834, and by 1842, they were being pulled along by a steamer instead of rowed.

Finally, in 1856/7 the Lord Mayor’s pageant stopped going on the Thames.

That wasn’t the end of the river for other events though. Lord Nelson’ funeral involved a huge flotilla of boats from Greenwich to Westminster. There was a Lord Mayor’s river pageant in 1953 for the city’s Coronation tribute to the Queen.

The notion of using the river as part of the Lord Mayor’s show is now making a modest return. Possibly triggered by the huge popularity of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee pageant on the Thames, there have been a few barges on the Thames early in the morning as part of the Lord Mayor’s parade.

It’s a modest start, but who knows, maybe the Thames will once again become the heart of London’s ceremonies?

Other sources

Lord Mayors’ pageants: being collections towards a history of … By Frederick William Fairholt

The History of the Lord Mayor’s Show, Dominic Reid OBE, October 2011

State Barges on the Thames, Brian Allderidge

The State Barges of the Stationers’ Company, Leonard Kenyon

The Stationers’ Company’s Barge

Illustrated London News – Saturday 15 November 1845

The barges of the Merchant Taylor’s Company, Robert Sayle

*cancelled due to you know what


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