The Perils of Buggins’ Turn

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Buggins’ turn: The practice of assigning appointments to persons in rotation rather than on merit 

The Corporation of the City of London has for centuries had a rigid political career path leading inexorably towards the office of Lord Mayor. As a result, future Mayors can be predicted some time in advance with a degree of confidence. The power of this tradition also means that when a lower-quality candidate manages to get on the mayoral conveyor belt, it can be almost impossible to get them off again.


Charles Whetham was born in Bridport, Dorset in 1812. As a young man, he became a partner in the family firm of S. Whetham & Sons, flax and hemp manufacturers, and moved to London to live and work at their offices on Gracechurch Street in the heart of the City. He entered politics. A Conservative, he was elected as an Independent – as City tradition dictates – in 1843 to the Court of Common Council, the lower chamber of the Corporation, for the ward of Bridge-Within. After a long wait, he was elected to the Court of Aldermen, the upper chamber, in 1871, and in 1873 secured his place on the conveyor belt by serving as Aldermanic Sheriff. At this point he was knighted, for services connected to the visit of the Tsar of Russia to the City. There were nine mayoral candidates ahead of him. Sir Charles had to bide his time, but elevation to the top job was almost inevitable.

Priory Mills, Bridport, the 1830s steam-powered mill built for S. Whetham & Sons.

There were early warning signs that a Whetham mayoralty could lead to discord. A year after his election as a Councilman, he publicly whinged to newspapers that he was required to wear plain court dress and not the magnificent mazarine blue gown of office to the opening of the new Royal Exchange. Five years later, he was accused of bribery to gain election to the board of the National Provident, a life assurance office, by paying travelling expenses of pro-Whetham members living outside London. He stood against candidates favoured by the directors, and inflammatory letters from both sides appeared in the press. There was uproar at the AGM, with accusations and counter-accusations flying. Despite this, Whetham was easily elected, no doubt making for uncomfortable board meetings. He went on to collect several more directorships.

Gracechurch Street in the late 19th century. S. Whetham & Sons were in the block on the left.

Another ominous warning sign came in 1875, when Alderman Whetham failed to get elected as MP for Bridport. He was defeated by French-born Anglo-Greek Liberal Pandeli Ralli, who he condemned for being ‘a foreigner and a member of the Greek church’. The problem for Whetham was that although a significant employer in the town, he had made himself deeply unpopular. There was also serious division in the Conservative camp, but Whetham refused to stand aside in favour of a more popular candidate. After casting slanderous aspersions on Ralli and his supporters, Whetham got a paltry 23% of the vote in a two-horse race. Humiliated, he made wild accusations of bribery and intimidation against the Liberals without offering any evidence.

Nevertheless, what Bridport had declined to do, the City did ‘by accident of seniority’: Sir Charles Whetham was elected Lord Mayor in 1878.

The trouble started at his election. The Lord Mayor and Sheriffs are elected by senior members of the City livery companies, with their choice then confirmed by a vote of Aldermen. These gatherings are known as Common Hall, and that to elect the Lord Mayor takes place at the end of September. The successful candidate takes office in early November, followed almost immediately by the Lord Mayor’s Show and Banquet.

Common Hall votes should be formalities, but on this occasion the aldermanic vote was not unanimous. Sir Robert Carden, a previous Lord Mayor and fellow Conservative, no stranger to accusations of election bribery himself, had stated that Whetham should never be Lord Mayor of London. The two men loathed each other, and although Whetham had his allies, many Aldermen took the side of Carden. It didn’t take a genius to realise there were turbulent times ahead.

The 15th century Great Hall of Guildhall, seat of City Government and scene of mayoral elections and transfers of power.

Arch-enemy: Sir Robert Carden, pictured in 1857. If looks could kill …

From this point on, Whetham seemed to go out of his way to antagonise colleagues. For example, tradition demanded the Lord Mayor-elect be presented to the Lord Chancellor, who confirms the Sovereign’s approval; this was always followed by a ceremonial dinner. To the outrage of Councilmen, Whetham scrapped the dinner. To be fair, the issue may have been money, as some events in the Lord Mayor’s calendar are paid for by the man himself out of personal funds, and he receives no salary. Whetham was one of the poorer men to hold office; flax and hemp couldn’t put him on a par with City bankers, no matter how many directorships he acquired.

Working relationships rapidly broke down. On the day of the Lord Mayor’s Show, the traditional breakfast hosted by the outgoing Lord Mayor for Whetham at his official residence, Mansion House, was boycotted by all but two of the other Aldermen.

Whetham’s alienating decisions kept coming: Within two weeks of his taking office, he scrapped the traditional seating plan of the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, to the detriment of both the City’s ceremonial officers and the press – groups he should have tried to keep on-side; he also ejected from Mansion House the popular Hospital Sunday charity, despite being its patron, on the curious grounds that he couldn’t favour one charity over others. City folk were furious; by the end of November the Daily Chronicle was complaining that he lacked both common courtesy and common sense. By mid-December his behaviour was being described as inexplicable and his year in office one year too many. At Christmas, a widely syndicated press article warned that if a reforming Prime Minister got into office, Whetham’s ridiculous behaviour could leave the City’s independence threatened. At a City dinner Carden was required to reply to a toast to the Lord Mayor; he rose, said ‘when I can say nothing good I say nothing’ and sat down again.

The following May, nominations for the election of the City’s two Sheriffs, which Sir Charles had to make by the 13th, degenerated into farce. Sheriffs assist the Lord Mayor; those next to be elected would primarily be aiding Whetham’s successor. An ill-tempered Common Council meeting on 9th May saw Councilman Lowman-Taylor ask after the nominations; Whetham claimed he couldn’t make them because he hadn’t been informed whether the men he had in mind would agree to serve. Alderman Sir Francis Truscott, next on the conveyor belt, claimed he had supplied the names of two willing men. The Lord Mayor denied this and suggested that perhaps he should nominate Lowman-Taylor, a comment treated as a rather feeble joke. It wasn’t: Days later, to general astonishment, Whetham did exactly that. But Lowman-Taylor and the two others Whetham nominated – one of whom was seriously ill – had explicitly told the Lord Mayor they were not willing to serve as Sheriffs. Carden and other Aldermen tore into the Mayor’s decision: He refused to nominate two men who were willing, then nominated three men who weren’t. Lowman-Taylor reluctantly accepted the nomination to avoid a £200 fine, but pleaded with the liverymen not to elect him. In the event, the shrieval Common Hall on midsummer’s eve saw the rapid nomination and seconding of the two men willing to serve. These nominees gave speeches attacking Whetham and were promptly elected.

In June, his mayoralty turned into a French farce: Whetham hosted a luncheon for visiting French actors of the Comédie-Française at the Mansion House, despite not speaking French and there being no theatres in the square mile. The group was certainly an august one and included Sarah Bernhardt, with luminaries of British theatre also invited. Whetham gave a effusive speech in English but mangled the French names, while M. Perrin, the French Administrateur Général, unable to speak English, responded in French. There was a catalogue of language-based misunderstandings; the French party hadn’t realised a Mansion House ‘luncheon’ was more like a banquet and most had indigestion by the time they found the exit. The French press had a field-day, with one Paris newspaper claiming Whetham couldn’t speak French because only very stupid people are ever elected Lord Mayor.

Whetham could have gone some way to neutralising criticism by putting in a convincing performance as chief magistrate of the City, a role that comes with the mayoralty. Unfortunately, he made a dog’s petit dejeuner of that as well. In the January 1879 case of the adulterated flour, he brusquely dismissed a potentially lethal threat to public health brought before him by the City’s Medical Officer, Dr. Saunders. The problem with the flour was that most of it wasn’t flour: A hundred sacks intended for human consumption via the baker’s oven was so adulterated that it contained a staggering 79% plaster-of-paris. Saunders requested that the ‘flour’ be seized and destroyed before it entered the food chain. Whetham claimed he couldn’t act, as the importers hadn’t been charged with fraud, because there was no proof they had offered it for sale as flour – this despite noting that the flour had been sold, ironically to a French baker who, Whetham commented, ‘cannot know his business’. Neither did Whetham: Punch magazine pointed out that he was wrong in law:

The Lord Mayor, instead of condemning the villainous mixture, condemned the doctor, telling him he should have prosecuted the man who sold the flour. The usual course of common-place Magistrates acting under the power of the Nuisance Removal Act applicable in such matters, is to direct seizure of the offending article, and so keep it out of the market. The Lord Mayor prefers to wait till it gets there.

Punch, 25th January 1879

Saunders, forced to prosecute, launched a case against the two German importers. This failed, the jury deciding they were also victims of fraud. The original perpetrator was never caught. Fortunately, more by luck than Whetham’s judgement, it seems that no loaves made of the noxious mixture were ever consumed.

Worse was to come in the final week of his mayoralty, with the case of the photographic anthropological studies. An uncomfortable subject in a post-colonial world, their merits were thought dubious by some even at the time; the relative undress of some colonial peoples in traditional clothing was shocking to straight-laced Victorian society including the Lord Mayor. As a result, they were the cause of legal fireworks on Guy Fawkes Day, 5th November in the Justice Room at Mansion House. Whetham was going out with a bang.

→ Mansion House, official home of the Lord Mayor and scene of the confrontation between Whetham and Alderman Nottage.

The case itself was straightforward. Mr. Phillpott, City bookseller, was prosecuted for wilfully exposing for sale photographs of semi-nude Zulus. The problems began when, at a preliminary hearing, Whetham made derogatory remarks about Mr. Phillpott and the London Stereoscopic Company, the manufacturer, for seeking to profit from such images. One of the managing partners of the company happened to be Alderman George Nottage, ally of Sir Robert Carden, and he was not present when the comments were made. At a second hearing, Whetham was again presiding and this time Nottage was in attendance. The case was dismissed, but costs were not awarded to Mr. Phillpott. The company’s lawyer asked to speak but Whetham refused. At this, all hell broke loose. Alderman Nottage insisted on his right, as a magistrate, to speak. Whetham ordered him be silent. Nottage wouldn’t be silenced. Whetham ordered the police to remove him. The public in court loudly made clear their support for Nottage. The Lord Mayor walked out. Nottage began explaining what the Lord Mayor had previously said. Whetham returned and demanded that the Chief Clerk remove Nottage. Nottage accused the Lord Mayor of ‘maligning a man behind his back’ and went on, in open court for all to hear:

You decline to hear me; and yet you are supposed to be dispensing justice from that seat. I impeach you, in the name of the citizens of London, with having brought discredit on your office, and with having violated the duty which belongs to that ancient chair

Quoted in various newspapers, 6th November 1879.

Whetham finally managed to adjourn the court, but these words were repeated in newspapers in London and throughout the land.

Later reports suggested that the police had been unhappy with having to prosecute in the first place. Nottage threatened to sue Whetham for slander and defamation of character, but for reasons unknown this didn’t reach court.

→ A glum Sir Charles Whetham wearing the ceremonial robes of office, in a photograph definitely not commissioned from the London Stereoscopic Company

Arch-enemy: George Nottage, in the same ceremonial robes.

A month earlier, there had been the election of Whetham’s successor. Presiding over Common Hall, Lord Mayor Whetham had to listen to a vote of thanks directed at him greeted with dissent and several votes against. He appeared to receive the snub with good grace, but then had the poor taste, as one newspaper noted, to ‘indulge in offensive remarks about his successor’, the popular Truscott.

His last meeting of the Court of Aldermen as Lord Mayor was the day before his Zulu-related tantrum in the Justice Room, and after the completion of essential business most Aldermen, aware of his previous remarks, simply walked out. Whetham tried to continue but was told by the town clerk that there was ‘no court’ as there was no longer a quorum.

Predictably, he arrived late for the transfer of power to Truscott; this is another archaic ritual in Guildhall known as the silent ceremony. A year previously, at his own ceremony he had received congratulations only from ‘such of the Aldermen as were present’, as the Pall Mall Gazette diplomatically reported. This time he was greeted with far-from-silent hoots and jeers as he took his seat. The cheers as Sir Francis became first citizen of the City were prompted as much by relief that Whetham had gone as admiration for his successor. The Lord Mayor’s Show the following Monday was an opportunity for the wider London population to direct their own chorus of disapproval at the now ex-Lord Mayor, including derogatory references to the two court cases. Attempts were made to throw bags of flour but these were thwarted by police. Someone did succeed in throwing a stone through the window of his carriage, hitting Whetham squarely in the face. In a rare outbreak of pro-Whetham press coverage, the Sporting Times expressed admiration for his composure in the face of such hostility.

At the first meeting of the Court of Common Council under Truscott’s leadership, tradition was followed in giving another vote of thanks to the outgoing Lord Mayor, despite rumours Whetham would be snubbed. The polite and bland motion brought forward was dealt with as quickly as was seemly, but even here the usually unanimous vote produced one dissenting voice. Whetham’s last recorded snub directed at Truscott was at a City dinner in mid-December. He was required to respond to a toast to the new Lord Mayor, and just as Carden had done a year before, Whetham refused to take part. He didn’t even stand, to cries of ‘shame’ and ‘stand up!’

He was not forgiven by senior figures in the City for his behaviour while in office. In 1883, an outrageous attempt at election fraud against Whetham seems to have been attempted. At a meeting of the Court of Common Council, he was one of two nominated candidates for election as City representative on the Metropolitan Board of Works, an early forerunner of the Greater London Authority. He looked on as a show of hands – reported as being ‘very close’ by the St. James’s Gazette – was called by Lord Mayor Henry Knight for his opponent. Whetham’s seconder demanded a formal poll, and Whetham was elected by 72 votes to 48. Hardly very close, but perhaps both Knight and the St James’s Gazette reporter were having trouble with their eyesight.


Despite this win, Whetham faded from public life as he suffered increasing ill-health, and he died in September 1885 at his London home. He was still Alderman for Bridge-Within, despite rumours in late 1884 that he would resign following the election of old foe George Nottage as Lord Mayor – perhaps his frailty had prevented this one last act of petulance. He was too ill to attend the Court of Aldermen that winter, but managed to outlive the new Lord Mayor by five months. Nottage unexpectedly expired in April, the last Lord Mayor to die in office.

52 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, Sir Charles Whetham’s home in London from 1860, and where he died in 1885. The row of houses was later made famous by the Bloomsbury Group; Lytton Strachey lived at No. 51 (to the left) and gets a blue plaque. No such honour for Whetham, although to be fair few Lord Mayors get them unless their surname is Whittington. Dick has two.

In summing up his mayoralty, a journalist wrote that Sir Charles had been ‘most unlucky, having from want of temper or of tact seized every occasion of being unpopular’. I have included only a selection of those occasions here, and no doubt there are many more now lost to history. His friends used the excuse that he had the courage of his convictions – he is on record as favouring female suffrage in a party that certainly didn’t – and there can be little doubt he was a man of intelligence and business ability, but sadly he was neither pragmatic nor a team player. His intemperate nature resulted in some extraordinarily crass actions, and equally desperate responses from his opponents.

With the evolution of the mayoral role into one mainly flying the flag for the Financial Services industry, and with an interview process ensuring only suitable candidates get on, and stay on, the conveyor belt, it is unlikely we shall see Whetham’s like again.


Nearest Stations:

  • Guildhall: Bank; St. Paul’s; Moorgate
  • Mansion House: Bank; Monument; Cannon Street; Mansion House
  • 52 Gordon Square: Russell Square; Goodge Street; Euston; Euston Square; Warren Street

Selected Bibliography:

  • This post is based mainly on newspaper articles of the time from the British Newspaper Archive (subscription required)

Credits:

  • Priory Mill: © Chris Allen, used under licence (CC BY-SA 2.0)
  • 52 Gordon Square: © Google 2021
  • Guildhall Interior & Mansion House: © The author 2021
  • All other images are in the public domain

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