Today (May 18) in London History – the biggest street party in London’s history

The biggest street celebrations in London’s history were sparked by the arrival of the telegram bearing the news of the Relief of Mafeking. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


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History time.

Today’s the day. It was the biggest London celebration ever. Bigger than the end of World War II. Bigger than the Queens’ – both Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II’s – Jubilees. Bigger than the Battle of Trafalgar celebrations.

And yet today it’s almost forgotten. Even though it wasn’t that long ago.

I knew someone who was there. She was a little girl at the time. She never forgot it. She told me about it when she was a very old lady in the 1970s.

It took place on this day, May 18th, 1900. One day wasn’t enough it ran over into the next day.

It was the ecstasy and exaltation that convulsed all of London – indeed, the entire country when the telegram came through with the joyful news of the Relief of Mafeking, the lifting of the 217-day-siege.

The very name of the besieged South African town became a verb.

To maffick was to celebrate both extravagantly and publicly.

The particulars of the siege can wait. Those London scenes – the celebrations – first.

The siege was lifted on Thursday, May 17th. The telegram arrived shortly after 9 pm the next night, Friday night.

In less than an hour the news was announced from the stage of every theatre. It wasn’t just central London. In no time the suburbs were cheering themselves hoarse at the news. 

The War Office then was in Pall Mall. From the War Office to Mansion House in the City – that’s nearly three miles – that stretch of London streets was one vast mass of roaring and flag-waving humanity. 

What got started late Friday night carried right on through into the weekend. A Friday night by itself just wasn’t enough to vent the universal, popular joy at the news.

Come Saturday every bus, cart and cab carried a flag. Some of them many flags. London was decked out with bunting. Business was at a complete standstill. As soon as the market opened the Stock Exchange gave itself up to riotous delight. Stock quotations – the sale price of any asset traded on the market – are the common currency of the stock exchange. It was said that “Mafeking” was the only quotation heard all day. The surge of humanity – street processions on Saturday – were if anything bigger and guaudier and more elaborate than the impromptu Friday night extravaganzas.

Huge crowds singing patriotic songs serenaded the Mansion House, the War office and the residence of General Baden-Powell’s mother. Yes, Baden-Powell, the founder of the scouting movement was the hero of the hour. Indeed when he created the institution he’s now famous for it took off much faster, it got a tremendous lift from its founder’s Mafeking associations. Picture a huge throng of London butchers – all in their blue smocks – sweeping down Piccadilly. Many of them with stencil portraits of Baden Powell painted on their backs. That’ll have been the 1900 equivalent of catch-a-wave, hugely profitable tee-shirt slogans.

Butchers and blue smocks aren’t your thing, howzabout about art students and white smocks.

They’ve created what might be called a float today. A float surmounted with a fine bust of the hero of Mafeking. And beneath it a massive model of the British lion. Word has it that the Kensington Art students had prepared the bust beforehand in anticipation of the happy event. But the lion was modelled on Friday night. 

Come Saturday night the brilliant scene was intensified a thousand-fold. The streets blazed with illuminations. It felt like every single Londoner – all five million of them – had taken to the streets. There wasn’t a man, woman or child of them who wasn’t fitted out with some sort of patriotic emblem – a flag, a rosette, a windmill in red white and blue. At the very least a tin trumpet used to bid defiance to Britain’s foes. A payday like no other for the concerns who manufactured those gewgaws and the street traders who hawked them. You have to wonder, have any of those pieces of cheap paraphernalia survived? Perhaps in an attic somewhere. 

It was a blur, a frenzy, a national orgasm of joy and ecstasy. I love the contemporary accounts of social and class distinctions for once counting for nothing. One contemporary newspaper account spoke of “elderly City gentlemen, usually severe of aspect, seemed to have forgotten all about their dignity and stood on the pavements tootling benignly with costers from Ratcliffe Highway.

No question about it, the greatest street party in London’s history – and it got started on this day 122 years ago. 

Maybe we’ll all maffick when a wooden stake is finally driven through the black heart of Covid. It’s pretty to think so.

As for the history. The relief of Mafeking – though it turned out to be of small military importance – was a seminal event in the second Boer War. 

But there’s no gainsaying its cultural and in terms of this country, it’s patriotic importance.

It was the second Boer War. It was an ugly affair. There’d been a long history of clashes between this country – the great colonial power – and Boer farmers. Trying to get away from the Brits the Boers had trekked inland. To the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Had seized land there. From the native Africans, whom they enslaved. Then, sure enough, gold was found in the Transvaal. It was the most important gold discovery in the history of that precious metal. Uitlanders – Outlanders – Brits poured in. The Boers granted them limited right. London, realising that there nore were Uitlanders than Boers, pushed for equal rights for them. War resulted. The fierce and fearless and fiercely independent Boers fought the mighty British empire to a standstill. The British response was a shameful scorched earth policy and concentration camp – yes, that’s where they got started. If anything, though, the Boers – deeply racist, committed to slavery – were more reprehensible. I’m a little uneasy about bandying these numbers about – this isn’t real estate – but they certainly speak to the human cost. At least 25,000 Afrikaners (Boers) died, most of them in concentration camps. Many – indeed most of them non-combatants. 22,000 British lives were lost. 12,000 Africans.

As for Mafeking, the little town was surrounded by a 5,000 strong Boer force two days after the outbreak of war. Colonel Baden Powell was the British military chief there. He reasoned that defence was the best attack. That if he and his ultimately 2,000-strong force – that many because Baden Powell recruited a cadet corp of 12-15 year-old-boys who took on tasks that freed up men join the other defenders at the sharp end. The seige lasted for 217 days. It was finally broken when Colonel Mahon and Lord Roberts’ powerful flying column – armed with field artillery – fought their way into the city. The relief column had covered 240 miles across a dry stony veld in 12 days. 

I think to Londoners – to every citizen of the mighty British empire – the idea that a rag tag force of Boer farmers could outfight regular British forces, come close to taking a British town, could lay siege to it for over seven months, the psychological strain of that – if you think you’re the master race, the world’s chosen people – it must have seemed as if everything was badly out of kilter. Things just weren’t as they should be. The relief of Mafeking seemed to right all of that, get things back to the way they should be – according to that British Empire-centric view of the world.

Ergo those scenes in London the night of May 18th 1900 and the days that followed. Those reassurances were of course misplaced – but Londoners and their compatriots weren’t to know that on Mafeking night.

Ok, a Today in London recommendation.

Nothing to do with the relief of Mafeking but everything to do with Africa. Last weekend Doyle Wham – the UK’s first and only contemporary African photography gallery – launched its permanent gallery in Shoreditch with the first solo exhibition outside of South Africa of artist and phototographer Trevor Stuurman. The show’s called Life Through the Lens. It’s on until July 2nd. It’s at 91A Rivington Street in Shoreditch. In East London. Looks good. I’ll be there. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company, indeed London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

The walking tour company built on the common-sense premise: it all comes down to the guiding. 

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of London professionally qualified guides. Several of them come trailing the big one, MVP honours  – winners of the coveted Guide of the Year Award. And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. Good luck and good Londoning. See ya tomorrow.

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