If you were traveling across England in the mid-1700s, and you happened to come upon the village of Yarmouth on a certain summer day, you were in for a strange sight—a man, covered in robes and seaweed, being carried around town in a boat.
For centuries, as most of Yarmouth made do with a traditional government, the town’s fishermen elected their own “Seaside Mayor,” who settled angling disputes and encouraged good cheer. Once a year, he was paraded around in a boat, having costumed himself “as much like Neptune as circumstances would permit.”
In past centuries, much of Britain was rife with “mock mayors”—satirical officials whose main duty was thumbing their noses at the powerful, and encouraging the populace to do the same. In recent years, the custom has slowly but surely trickled back into public life, as new generations of men and women take up the goofy mantle.
“There’s a whole ancient tradition,” says Alan Myatt, who has been in charge of the City of Gloucester’s mock mayorship for 33 years. (Myatt, a real history buff, is also the city’s Town Crier, as well as the official marshall.) ”We’ve resurrected it.”
Mock mayors’ titles can be counterintuitive, as they’re often named after nearby villages—Gloucester’s is the “Mock Mayor of Barton.” But in the U.K., all mayorship is relatively confusing. Recent legislation opened up the way for directly-elected mayors, with more power and responsibility, and a few towns and cities, including London, have gone that route. Others vest power in their local council managers, and make do with Lord Mayors—appointed rather than elected, tasked mostly with administrative duties.
Mock mayors have very few actual duties, political or administrative. Instead, they let a town air out its id—its frustrations, its lunacies, its long-lasting quirks. In the city of Penryn, the Mock Mayor of Mylor was attended by torch-bearers, a band, and sergeants armed with “monstrous cabbages.” His supporters, the “nutters,” returned from hazelnut harvesting and ran through town, kindling bonfires and setting off fireworks.
Launceston had a “Mayor of the Pig Market,” who was plied with beer, covered in flour, and paraded around town with a frying pan tied to his hair. In Exeter, the sole duty of the “Mayor of the Bullring” was keeping animals off the streets, and he was allowed to order people to carry their horses out of town on market day.
But if real mayors often boast serious titles and silly duties, mock mayors are their fitting opposite—their silliness was born from serious situations. In most towns, the tradition came out of a particular moment of disenfranchisement. In Newcastle-under-Lyme, the first Mock Mayor was elected in 1850 by local members of Parliament, who had just lost the power to choose the real mayor. The people of Weston took up the tradition in the 1830s, after they were denied access to local medicinal springs.
In Gloucester, the mock mayorship dates back even further, to the 1650s. During the English Civil War, the city sided with Parliament over King Charles II, and successfully prevented the monarch from claiming its land. When he returned to power a few years later, Charles II punished the people of Gloucester for their politics by narrowing the city’s borders so that much of the populace was stranded outside. “The area was stripped of its civic representation,” says Myatt.
A few years later, at the annual town fair, “one of the sheep farmers put his sheep in the wrong pen when he was drunk,” says Myatt. This was just the excuse the other revelers needed for a little political humor. “They said, ‘You’re worse than the Mayor of Gloucester,’” says Myatt. “Next thing you know, they made him mock mayor for the day, parading him around outside the city gates, making fun of the real mayor. It was a big windup.”
In many places, the tradition sputtered out after a few centuries. Yarmouth’s Seaside Mayors hung up their slimy crowns in the mid-19th century, when the local herring harvest moved offshore. In 1827, the Mayor of the Pig Market lost out to a new form of amusement—cricket. By the time the New York Times wrote about the trend, in 1892, it was already seen as a dying art: after describing some of the “strange assortment of functionaries,” the puzzled reporter wrote that “most of the old Cornwall mayors… have vanished.”
In Gloucester, mock mayors kept their seat until the 1920s, when they were ousted for a fittingly ridiculous reason: “There are various accounts of the two brothers who organized it having a fight, because one forgot to put the mutton in the pot for Sunday dinner,” says Myatt.
Over the last few decades, though, mock mayors have slowly crept back into the national consciousness, one town at a time. Golowan, Abingdon, and Polperrol have all reinstituted theirs within the past quarter century. This year, the tradition is returning to Penryn, and promises musicians, cabbages, and nutters, just like old times.
Gloucester, a bit ahead of the trend, resuscitated theirs in 1983. Their first modern mock mayor wore a gold medal decorated with a chamber pot, and was required to drink a full yard of ale, in a long beaker-shaped glass, upon his inauguration. But things have changed somewhat from the days of goofy protest. “No longer do you have to be an idiot or a fool,” says Myatt. “We usually choose somebody who does a lot of good work in the community.” (This year’s mock mayor, whose name will be revealed in August, has served as a real mayor in the past.)
Each mock mayor serves a one-year term, which they mostly spend “kissing babies and cutting ribbons,” says Myatt. On Gloucester Day, he or she leads a parade, surrounded by supporters, shouting the traditional chant of “up yours!” and dressed in the real mayor’s torn-up old gown.
In some ways, the modern celebration belies its radical roots. “The hoi polloi, the county sheriff, leading politicians—they all want to be there on the day,” says Myatt. “All the cultures, the community groups, the clubs, the churches, the veterans’ associations—everybody comes out of the woodwork.”
This inclusivity might account for its rising popularity—but Myatt offers another, simpler explanation. “We’re all very eccentric here in England,” he says. “We’ll take any excuse to dress up, parade round the town, get drunk, and have lots of fun.”