If you turn up on the last Sunday in September it is not just cars you have to dodge as you cross London bridge, no it will be sheep, liverymen, an odd celebrity and photographers! Yes for this is the annual London sheep drive – drive as in the sense to drive them across, as I mean a sheep drove, er no not with a car, you go behind them…oh well hopefully you will realise what I mean!
Pulling the wool over one’s eyes?
The event is organised by the Woolmen of the city, who claim that in medieval times, when sheep farmers drove their sheep across the bridge into the City of London to sell them at market, the Freemen of the City were excused the bridge toll that had to be paid by the others, as they were local traders and were recognised as such. It is not clear when this sheep were last driven across but the appearance of the motor car would have made such a journey a bit perilous and unnecessary as well!
At some point in one of those conversations down the pub; this time presumably in the bar of the livery company of Woolmen, someone came up with the idea of re-instating the drove; as some sort of ancient right cum tradition, which of course there is little evidence it was despite what Bill Clark, Past Master of the Worshipful Company of Woolmen, said: “Driving sheep over London Bridge by Freemen of the City is a tradition rooted in more than 800 years of the history of the Woolmen.
This notwithstanding, in 2013 wanting to uphold the tradition of Freemen’s rights, the Worshipful Company of Woolmen arranged:
“the first official Sheep Drive for Freemen of the City and their guests to ‘drive’ sheep across the bridge. The event has been so successful that it has continued ever since and with places selling out every year we are planning for over 700 pre-booked supporters for 2021.”
Being a bit sheepish!
However, this was not the first time in recent years. As in 2009 a group dressed as farmers had crossed the bridge – albeit in far less publicity as the recent establishment. Over the short number of years the company has attracted a colourful and impressive roster of celebrity drivers ranging from Alan Titchmarsh to Barbara Windsor; .
“Re-energising this old tradition provides a fun day out for Londoners but it is also a reminder of the City of London’s important trading history. Wool may have been replaced by stocks and shares but London is still the world’s centre of commerce.”
In 2016 it was reported that:
“Thirty sheep are provided for the event by a Bedfordshire farmer, with just ten at a time driven across the bridge by successive groups of Freemen.”
The event offers a colourful spectacle as the liverymen and the mayor officials and even Bo Peep stand by to drive in small groups with a sponsor the sheep across the bridge and back again..a real classic British custom colourful but largely if completely pointless! I do wonder what they sheep think of it! The assembled crowds loved it of course.