Mock mayors in Cornwall

Parish feasts in the 1700s were often accompanied by the choosing of mock mayors. These were parodies of real mayor-choosing events, an inversion of the real thing accompanied by copious drinking. The custom was not restricted to those boroughs that had real mayors but took place even in rural parishes without mayors.

For example, at Polperro:

’generally some half-witted or drunken fellow, tricked out in tinsel finery, elected his staff of constables, and these armed with staves, accompanied his chariot (some fish-jowster’s cart, dressed with green boughs) through the town, stopping at each inn, where he made a speech full of promises of full work, better wages and a liberal allowance of beer during his term of office. He then demanded a quart of the landlord’s ale, which was gauged with mock ceremony’.

Like many of these events it ended with the mock mayor, by now too drunk to know the difference, being thrown into the sea. If the sea wasn’t available a handy river or rubbish tip served as an alternative. At Penryn the wittiest journeyman tailor was chosen as mayor; at Budock it was the one who ‘could drink the most beer and tell the tallest yarn’.

(Post)-modern revival of mock mayor ceremony at Penryn

In the 1820s St Austell was not yet a borough and had no real mayor, but it still had its mock mayor. Samuel Drew described it in his History of Cornwall of 1824:

‘it is the custom among the rabble to seize him who appears to be most intoxicated, and to carry or draw him through the streets in the character of a mock mayor. In the afternoon either he or another is carried on a chair decorated with shrubs or laurels, to the public houses, at each of which he gives some ridiculous orders, surrounded by a mob, and the beat of drums.’

By the 1820s Methodists such as Drew were bewailing the drunkenness and disorder that accompanied mock mayor ceremonies, and parish feasts more generally, which Drew felt had ‘degenerated into public revels’.

Condemnation from evangelical reformers was joined by growing disapproval from the respectable middle classes. Wealthier inhabitants and the local gentry, who in the 1700s had often acted as patrons of these customs, began to withdraw their support. In consequence, events such as mock mayors were left to the ‘conduct and management of the illiterate and vulgar’, as Drew described them.

Pressure to put a stop to mock mayor ceremonies, with their inversion of the normal order and their subversive undertones, was felt first in the larger towns where the authorities, increasingly conscious of their own dignity, looked askance at the tradition of mock mayors. At Liskeard in 1856 John Allen recounted the mock mayor ceremony in the town:

‘a couple of rough, reckless fellows, one clad as a female and armed with a ladle, and the other with a broom, designated John and Joan, led the procession and belaboured those within their reach, exhibiting disgusting grimaces and gesticulations. These scenes always ended with cases of gross intemperance’.

Allen made it clear that this custom had disappeared by the 1850s, ‘a faint attempt’ to revive it ‘on a recent occasion’ failing.

The last survival in a Cornish town was perhaps Penzance where a mock mayor ceremony was recorded around 1890. It lingered longest in the mining villages around Camborne and Redruth, places like Lanner, Chacewater and Four Lanes, where it was occasionally noted in the press in the Edwardian years down to 1914.

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