Putting the Horse before the Cart

What does a – well, this – regulator do on his day off? Apart from writing blog posts of course, which come to think of it I haven’t done much of lately.

Earlier in the summer I spent an agreeable day off on what you might call a busman’s holiday. Or, rather, a carman’s holiday. Let me explain.

London’s Guildhall Yard – the setting

The cart marking ceremony is the largest annual civic event in the City of London, barring only the Lord Mayor’s Show. It is on the eve of its 500th birthday and continues the tradition begun in 1517 – long enough ago for King Henry VIII still to be married to his first wife. Liverymen of the Carters’ Company paid five shillings (25p) a year for the right to ply for trade within the City. Now the Worshipful Company of Carmen, they were originally the Fraternity of St Katherine the Virgin and Martyr of Carters. St Kate herself would be proud to see the tradition so richly honoured: she will have been floating around somewhere, looking down and smiling benignly.

For their five shillings the Liverymen got a simple ceremony for a registration number to be branded onto a wooden plate mounted on the outside of their carts. This entitled them to use the vehicle to deliver goods and services until the ceremony came round again a year later. It was the first form of vehicle registration and therefore an early and respectable example of – wait for it – regulation.

My schoolfriend Mike, who has spent his career in and around the railways, doubtless spent more than five shillings on treating me and two others to the Worshipful Company’s splendid hospitality, so later we drank his health vigorously and, being English, ribbing him mercilessly. The ceremony itself is in the open air and free to all, and consists of a parade of beautifully looked after historic vehicles, including a couple of very new ones that should (for their eco-friendliness if nothing else) find a place in history.

The vehicles come round slowly in turn, each pausing in front of the tent which is amply stocked with important-looking people, some of them in Tudor-looking robes. There, amid much bowing, nodding and doffing of caps, the Master or one of his party is handed a branding iron which is then applied ceremonially to the wooden plate fixed to the vehicle.

The Master does the deed

Much applause, clouds of smoke, more cap doffing, excellent photo opportunities, and the driver moves off to general applause as the next one heaves into view.

It’s all very splendid and shot through with honour for the vehicles themselves, their proud owners and drivers, the history they represent, the memories they evoke and civic pride in the glorious City itself. And celebration of the noble traditions of this and all the livery companies which not only promote continuity by keeping these symbolic traditions alive but are also there to secure proper standards of professionalism among their members.

(If I were a professional regulator I would go off here into a riff on my view that education and training in trades and professions is best achieved within a ‘guild’ of this kind – individuals learning their craft, their traditions, their standards and their ethics from well-policed role models. If I say such a view is mediaeval, I mean that as a compliment, and hold it with pride. But I won’t bother you with all that today.)

A bit like the Trooping of the Colour, the slow walking pace of the ceremony is followed by a faster drive-through of all the same vehicles again – more cheering, doffing, photos …

The worthies – being worthy

… and we all move off into the Guildhall for a packed bunfight with drinks followed by a fine lunch with the Loyal Toast, decently short speeches and much merriment around and about. Company at the table was very agreeable* and we ended in high spirits, dispersing to get lost in the streets around Bank station which, Londoner though I am, always appear to have been moved since the last time I was there.

What a good day out. The rain held off till we were safely indoors and the Guildhall Yard looked a picture. I walked away with a souvenir programme, a satisfied grin on my face, a store of memories and a camera full of photos that I was looking forward to sharing with my old uncle whom I was seeing the following day. He was stirred, of course.

*Those of you who know me well know that this is among my highest terms of praise.


2 thoughts on “Putting the Horse before the Cart

    1. I discovered it only because my schoolfriend invited me. I too had never heard of it before. But it’s a splendid event and the outdoor part of it is absolutely free. Worth getting there a little ahead of time but there are plenty of seats. Details would be on the Livery Company’s website, or just google London cart marking ceremony. It seems to be in July each year.


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