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At The Boar’s Head Parade

December 3, 2023
by the gentle author

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One cold day many years ago, photographer Colin O’Brien & I were greeted by the Beadle of The Worshipful Company of Butchers, when we arrived at their Hall in St Bartholomew’s Close, Smithfield, to join a small crowd eagerly awaiting the annual appearance of the celebrated Boar’s Head in the first week of Advent, marking the beginning on the Christmas season in London.

This arcane tradition which has its origin in 1343 when the Lord Mayor, John Hamond, granted the Butchers of the City of London use of a piece of land by the Fleet River, where they could slaughter and clean their beasts, for the token yearly payment of a Boar’s Head at Christmas.

To pass the time in the drizzle, the Beadle showed us his magnificent staff of office dating from 1716, upon which may be discerned a Boar’s Head. “Years ago, they had a robbery and this was the only thing that wasn’t stolen,” he confided to me helpfully, ” – it had a cover and the thieves mistook it for a mop.”

Before another word was spoken, a posse of members of the Butcher’s Company emerged triumphant from the Hall in blue robes and velvet hats, with a livid red Boar’s Head carried aloft at shoulder height, to the delighted applause of those waiting in the street. Behind us, drummers of the Royal Logistics Corps in red uniforms gathered and  City of London Police motorcyclists in fluorescent garb lined up to receive instructions from the Master of the Company.

Everyone assembled to pose for official photographs with the perky red ears of the Boar sticking up above the crowd, providing the opportunity for a closer examination of this gloss-painted paper mache creation, sitting upon a base of Covent Garden grass and surrounded by plastic fruit. As recently as 1968, a real Boar’s Head was paraded but these days Health & Safety concerns about hygiene require the use of this colourful replica for ceremonial purposes.

The drummers set a brisk pace and before we knew it, the parade was off down Little Britain, preceded by the police motorcyclists halting the traffic. For a couple of minutes, the City stopped – astonished passengers leaned out of buses and taxis, and office workers reached for their phones to capture the moment. It made a fine spectacle advancing down Cheapside, past St Mary Le Bow, with the sound of drums echoing and reverberating off the tall buildings.

The rhythmic clamour accompanying the procession of men in their dark robes, with the Boar’s Head bobbing above, evoked the ancient drama of the City of London and, as they paraded through the gathering dusk towards the Mansion House looming in the east on that occluded December afternoon, I could not resist the feeling that they were marching through time as well as space.

Neil Hunt, Beadle of The Worshipful Company of Butchers



The Beadle’s staff dates from 1716


Leaving St Bartholomew’s Close

Advancing through Little Britain

Entering Cheapside

Passing St Mary Le Bow


In Cheapside

Approaching the Mansion House

The Boar’s Head arrives at the Mansion House

Photographs copyright © Estate of Colin O’Brien

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2 Responses leave one →
  1. Catherine Petersen permalink
    December 3, 2023

    Beautifully evocative writing as ever, thank you for this wonderful glimpse of ancient City of London life

  2. December 3, 2023

    Thank you for this vivid post on a gloomy fog-covered morning in the Hudson River Valley.
    I reflected that this post has all the hallmarks of Spitalfields Life — (dare I try to list them?…….)
    *Fascinating historic information and insights
    *Glorious men wearing their specialized regalia
    *Granular details, explaining the need for a (harumph) paper mache boars head
    *Great descriptive photos
    *An enduring appreciation for traditions and rituals
    *A heart-on-the-sleeve love of people, places, and occasions
    *Emotion and celebration
    *And much more

    As I read this, I imagined trudging through the streets lost in thought, and suddenly hearing the hubbub of the men, the approaching footsteps, the rat-a-tat-tat, the “huzzah” cheers from the sidelines, and the colorful boar icon carried aloft.

    “Adhere to your own act, and congratulate yourself if you have done something strange and extravagant, and broken the monotony of a decorous age.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

    Onward and upward!

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