One of the great State Coaches of the United Kingdom, the Lord Mayor of London’s State Coach is an elaborate confection of carved and gilded wood. Built in 1757 and still in regular use, the coach has been depicted in engravings, photographs, and even glass.
In 1805, American chemist and educator Benjamin Silliman described the coach as “one of the most splendid baubles that ever amused the great children of this world or set the crowd agape. It is an ancient machine, in a style of ponderous and clumsy magnificence. Its exterior is almost completely covered with gilding, and its panels [sic] are adorned with fine paintings. On its top, gilded images are blowing trumpets, and its angles are supported by images that have not their prototype in earth, sea or air. The horses were sumptuously caparisoned; plumes nodded on their heads, and party coloured ribbons were interwoven among their locks. The coachmen, footmen, and postilions looked as though they had been dipped in liquid gold, and sprinkled with fragments of diamonds.”1
Twenty-five years later, the itinerant glassworker Scott listed a “most accurate” glass model of the Lord Mayor’s Coach with six horses and attendants on the handbill for his show in Brighton, England.2 It must have been a tricky sculpture to replicate accurately, given the detail of the original.
Lord Mayor’s Show
The coach is perhaps most recognized as a regular feature of the annual Lord Mayor’s Show. This procession dates back to the 16th century, celebrating each newly-appointed Lord Mayor of London. At first, the Lord Mayor rode through the London streets on horseback or traveled on the River Thames in a barge, but that changed in 1710, when new mayor Gilbert Heathcote fell off his horse and broke his leg (supposedly the fault of a drunken flower girl). In the years that followed, the appointees used hired carriages, until Sir Charles Asgill commissioned the current coach in anticipation of his turn as Lord Mayor. Asgill ordered the coach from Joseph Berry of Leather Lane, Holborn for £860; architect and sculptor Sir Robert Taylor designed it.3
Description of the coach
The coach’s intricate elements “emphasise the importance of London’s port and of the City’s trade.” The Museum of London describes them as such: “The coachman’s seat is supported by tritons, mythical sea creatures, and his footrest is formed from a scallop shell. The coach is supported at each corner by child angels, or cherubs, representing the four known continents: Asia, Africa, America and Europe. The City’s coat of arms, including fire-breathing dragons decorate the back of the coach. Three of the main coach panels show the City’s guardian spirit, or Genius. In the back panel she receives goods from around the world, including elephant tusks, an Arabian horse and a lion. The front panel depicts a female figure representing Hope who points at the dome of St Paul’s cathedral. The smaller side panels represent moral qualities or virtues: Truth, Temperance, Justice and Fortitude.”4
Today, the coach is housed in the Museum of London for most of the year and brought out for the Lord Mayor’s Show each November.
The event is still known for its pomp and pageantry. In 2013, a parade of 6,000 people, 20 bands, more than 200 horses, and 150 parade floats made its way through the streets of London to celebrate the second woman to ever hold the post of Lord Mayor, Fiona Woolf. 5
The Lord Mayor’s Show has had its share of grumblers. Thirty-one years before the coach made its debut in the procession, César de Saussure, a Swiss traveler, wrote, “The populace is particularly insolent and rowdy, turning into lawless freedom the great liberty it enjoys. At these times it is almost dangerous for an honest man and more particularly for a foreigner, if at all well dressed, to walk in the streets, for he runs the great risk of being insulted by the vulgar populace, which is the most cursed brood in existence.” 6
Samuel Pepys, the noted diarist, wrote about the day of the parade in October 1660: “29th. I up early, it being my Lord Mayor’s day, (Sir Richd. Browne), and neglecting my office I went to the Wardrobe, where I met my Lady Sandwich and all the children; and after drinking of some strange and incomparable good clarett of Mr. Rumball’s he and Mr. Townsend did take us, and set the young Lords at one Mr. Nevill’s, a draper in Paul’s churchyard; and my Lady and my Lady Pickering and I to one Mr. Isaacson’s, a linendraper at the Key in Cheapside; where there was a company of fine ladies, and we were very civilly treated, and had a very good place to see the pageants, which were many, and I believe good, for such kind of things, but in themselves but poor and absurd.
“After the ladies were placed I took Mr. Townsend and Isaacson to the next door, a tavern, and did spend 5s. upon them. The show being done, we got as far as Paul’s with much ado, where I left my Lady in the coach, and went on foot with my Lady Pickering to her lodging, which was a poor one in Blackfryars, where she never invited me to go in at all, which methought was very strange for her to do. So home, where I was told how my Lady Davis is now come to our next lodgings, and has locked up the leads door from me, which puts me into so great a disquiet that I went to bed, and could not sleep till morning at it.”7
Clumsy or magnificent, astounding or absurd, the Lord Mayor’s Coach and the Lord Mayor’s Show are certainly a sight to see.
- “Lord Mayor’s Coach,” Museum of London, accessed 24 December 2019.
- Scott’s Splendid Glass Working Exhibition in Miniature. United Kingdom: 1830. Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, CMGL 138463.
- “The State Coach,” Lord Mayor’s Show, accessed 24 December 2019.
- “Lord Mayor’s Coach.”
- Maev Kennedy, “Lord mayor of London’s fairytale state coach is prepared for its annual outing,” The Guardian, 27 October 2013.
- “Lord Mayor’s Coach.”
- “Art and Literature,” Lord Mayor’s Show, accessed 24 December 2019.