The Lord mayor’s state carriage, 1791

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2009), Volume 17

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In eighteenth-century Ireland wealth and success were embodied in the carriage, and, unlike present-day totems of conspicuous consumption, these could be unique to the owner in style and pageantry. Like today’s private jets and helicopters, in the eighteenth century carriages were associated with successful traders and commercial figures. In Dublin in particular, corporation occasions offered such people an ideal opportunity to display their wealth and taste through their carriages, as these events usually involved a procession of officials from the Tholsel to the relevant venue.
In October 1791 the Freeman’s Journal described in detail the coaches of corporation members at swearing-in day. Lord Mayor Henry Gore Sankey had a ‘beautiful’ carriage, white ‘with broad borders of flowers, richly painted’, ‘drawn by six capital black horses’ with ‘rich and elegant harness’. Also included were detailed descriptions of the sheriffs’ carriages; these traders were mindful that their conveyances would be scrutinised by the city’s populace during such ceremonies. In order to encourage local manufactures, the Freeman’s Journal cited the makers. The lord mayor’s carriage had been produced by John Whitton (Summerhill) and Sheriff Gault’s by Eleanor Whitton (Dominick Street), while Sheriff Norton’s was a product of Jane and Charles Harrick (Marlborough Street).
It was with this in mind that the corporation justified so large an expense as the lord mayor’s new state coach later the same year. A coach for the lord mayor had been commissioned since 1763 (six years after London commissioned and built a state coach for its lord mayor). As the commission was never carried out, the lord mayor was allowed up to £60 per annum for ‘supporting the state coach’, which was to cover the cost of hiring horses and a coach for civic occasions. In July 1789 a second proposal was put to the corporation and accepted that, at the cost of £600, a state coach be commissioned for the use of the lord mayor. The eventual cost far overran the original budget, and Faulkner’s Dublin Journal reported a doubling by the end of the year to £1,200. In fact, the coach eventually cost the city £2,690 13s 5d, a huge sum considering that the corporation was in debt throughout this period and issuing bonds to generate revenue.
The coach created quite a stir and proved to be a coup, not just for the corporation and its members, the commercial élite of the city, who were always keen to show off, but for Irish trade and manufacture generally. Fashionable trends in eighteenth-century Dublin were dictated by what was consumed, worn and on offer in Paris and London. The persistence of ‘buy Irish’ campaigns throughout this period indicate that Irish consumers almost always preferred the foreign to the home-produced. The occasion for the coach’s first appearance was the annual celebration of the birth and landing of William of Orange, when traditionally a procession of civic and national figures made their way in state to Dublin Castle. In October 1791 the Dublin Journal reported with much pleasure that the carriage built ‘to enable the chief magistrate to appear with splendour proportionate to his rank and authority’ was almost ready for its appearance in November. This coincided with the planned unveiling of the lord chancellor’s coach, which had been imported from London at a cost of £7,000. The expenditure of such a large sum outside the country was considered a great insult to Dublin’s manufacturers, and the city’s press whipped up an air of anticipatory hostility.
Meanwhile, the Dublin Journal rallied behind the cause of the lord mayor’s coach and expressed no objection to the cost to the city. The lord mayor’s rank, it was suggested, necessitated a lavish state coach. On 5 November readers of the Dublin Journal were told that the coach was supported by the population of Dublin, who ‘patriotically exulted at the exhibition of so capital, so spirited and so honourable a display of the excellence of Irish manufacture’. The Hibernian Magazine boasted of the brilliance and ‘genius’ of the Irish design. ‘The superior excellence of Irish workmanship, when contrasted with the most boasted productions of English art and genius imported into this country was never more conspicuous than the comparison impartially made between the lord chancellor’s and the lord mayor’s superb carriages, though the latter did not cost half the sum.’ Magee’s Weekly Packet reported on 12 November: ‘To convey a just idea of its elegance by words would be impossible—the city berlin [state coach] and the chancellor’s coach from their situation in the train came immediately into competition; the former certainly lost nothing by this circumstance; the latter, if nothing else, gained an uninterrupted hiss’.
The state coach gave the corporation an opportunity to support local craftsmen and display the superiority of Irish workmanship, as well as providing an appropriate occasion for the city to rally round Irish trade, to showcase the skill of its craftsmen and the value of its products. Its unveiling by Lord Mayor Henry Gore Sankey no doubt added to his personal prestige. Irish craftsmanship appears to have won the day, at least in the minds of Dubliners, with the lord mayor’s coach being upheld as far superior to the lord chancellor’s English-built coach.
Carriages were increasingly becoming an everyday sight in Dublin, so the corporation officers had to make every effort to enable their carriages to stand out at these ceremonies. This was how they justified such a huge expenditure on the lord mayor’s state coach. They also wished to demonstrate that the lord mayor was of equal rank to the gentry. To do this the corporation members decided to depart from the trend set by the gentry, who were purchasing their carriages in London.
Not only did the decision save money, as London carriages were more expensive, but it also supported the Irish carriage industry. In this case the corporation had the victory in both the short and the long term. The carriage unveiled in 1791 is still the current state carriage, while the lord chancellor’s coach, painted black for use during a procession to mark Queen Victoria’s death in 1901 but since restored, has ended its days in a coach-house in Newbridge House, Donabate, Co. Dublin. HI

Lisa-Marie Griffith holds a PhD in history from Trinity College, Dublin, where she currently teaches.

Further reading:
G. O’Brien and F. O’Kane (eds), Georgian Dublin (Dublin, 2008).

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