Another Bizarre London Ceremony


I wrote about the ceremony of the Knollys Rose – the granting of a single red rose in return for the loss of a garden centuries ago – in a recent Bryant & May novel (I can’t remember which one) only because I stumbled upon the site while walking through the city one day. Now I’ve found another odd ritual that is apparently still carried out, although I’m sure it has been covered on more London-specific sites. For some peculiar reason, once a year the City of London still pays rent to the Crown via the Chief Clerk to the Queen’s Remembrancer.

But instead of paying hard cash, the deal was transmuted to an offering of two gifts. The first is a pair of cutters, one sharp knife and one blunt axe, which must be used on a hazel branch. The branch must be bent by the blunt axe and sawn through by the sharp knife.

The second gift consists of six horseshoes and 61 nails. The Quit Rents ceremony happens every October in the Royal Courts of Justice. In theory, if the knife fails to cut the hazel branch the City then has to pay an actual rent. Unlike the Knollys Rose, the meaning of this one appears to be lost – unless anyone here knows more.

23 comments on “Another Bizarre London Ceremony”

  1. Peter Dixon says:

    Are you suggesting that somewhere round the back of Buck House there’s a room full of several thousand horseshoes? Sounds like something out of Gormenghast.

  2. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Apparently the same horseshoes have been used since 1361, and are loaned back to the City of London after they have been given in payment.

    Now I’ve got that verse about horseshoes stuck in my head –

    “For the want of a nail the shoe was lost;
    For the want of a shoe the horse was lost;
    For the want of a horse the battle was lost;
    For the failure of battle the kingdom was lost;—
    And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”

  3. Wild Edric says:

    It’s the basis of an enjoyable book by Mike Shevdon – Sixty-one Nails. A bit Neverwhere-ish, a bit Ben Aaronovitch-ish. Part of a series.

  4. snowy says:

    I remember this, it’s a quit-rent. A payment in lieu of some other service. Originally the tools were a ‘blunt billhook’ and a ‘sharp axe’, but it has been changed in the last couple of decades.


    The cutting of hazel wands is something to do with a piece of land in Shropshire. And the Horse-y bits refer to an old forge in The Strand, apparently.

  5. Ian Luck says:

    I have always loved these arcane rituals – and that the instructions for them and numbers of items connected with them are always rather convoluted and odd, and precise; “Her Majesty must be given 265 straight steel nails, 40 bent brass ones, 11 coach bolts with a Whitworth thread, and 1153 steel wood screws with damaged threads, and 72 of those must have stripped out heads. Each item to be individually wrapped in wax paper made in Friern Barnet before 1923, and presented to Her Majesty in a 1952 ‘Spafax’ tin with a tight fitting lid. To open this, Her Majesty must use a screwdriver from H.M.S. ‘Iron Duke’, that has ‘NOT TO BE REMOVED FROM ZANZIBAR’ inscribed on the handle. Her Majesty will then place the items on a 1937 map of the Lofoten Islands, and every piece is to be counted, and dropped into an enamel mug with a picture of Noddy Holder from Slade on it. Once every item is counted, the pitches of all London’s burger vans are safe for another year.”

  6. Roger says:

    Given the number of horses used by the Royal Family and its Household, I’d have thought they’d use all they are given and suggested increasing the rent, rather than returning them to the very wealthy City of London for re-use.
    Nigel Dennis’s Cards of Identity (is Dennis a forgotten novelist and this a forgotten book?) has one of the greatest bizarre ceremonies in the Wardens of the Badgeries. It would be worth introducing it to “reality”, if that’s the right term for where we are.

  7. Jo W says:

    To Ian Luck
    Thank you very much for that description of one of the other old ceremonies of London. The tears and laughing were an excellent wake up this morning, clearing the tubes and making the eyes sparkle. Do you have knowledge of any more of these gems that you could share?

  8. Gary Hart says:

    Ian. Wonderful. This I would watch, and it should be televised. Thank you for my morning guffaws.

  9. admin says:

    Ian, now that you’ve told everyone about the Zanzibar Handle, you must report to the Queen’s Office for the Reparation of Quoits for a beating with the Spanish Thistle.

  10. Peter Tromans says:

    “Wood screws with damaged threads and stripped out heads.”
    Apart from the excellent poetry, these are widely available from modern DIY/lifestyle outlets.

  11. Jan says:

    It’s odd that hazel is specified here. Interesting thing about hazel is that hazel trees/bushes grow in watercourses, of nearly all the trees in the UK hazel will thrive where water flows freely beneath. if you look at hazel trees spaced across a few hundred yards of common land you can guess that you are tracing the course of an underground stream or series of springs. Maybe that’s why the cutting of hazel which is pliable, twisty and difficult to slice into is specified in this tradition. If a blade can cut through hazel most other native woods will be no prob..and the way the other items mentioned are to be used ring true as well.

    I can’t remember if hazel predates willow in the creation of withey beds. There are lots of withey beds round my way where willow is coppiced regularly to create material for use in basket weaving,thatching,firewood etc in fact in past decades whole village economies revolved around withey beds.

  12. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    ‘hazel will thrive where water flows freely beneath.‘

    Aren’t hazel rods traditionally used for water divining? Perhaps that is the reason.

  13. Martin Tolley says:

    Ian, you’re way toooooo good at this.
    Jan, Cornelia – this sort of stuff is just amazing. New things to think about on a country trek. I might even drop this into a conversation and pretend I knew it all by myself. Thanks guys.

  14. Ian Luck says:

    My mind is full of this sort of stuff, and, to quote the late, very great George Carlin: “That’s what kept me out of the good schools.” I have looked into the Spanish Thistle ceremony, and I’ve found out that I have to bring along a cannon trunnion from a cannon from the Battle of Trafalgar warship H.M.S. Bellerophon. If I can’t find one, then the beating is commuted to 27 and a half minutes of tutting and withering stares from some blokes from the worshipful brotherhood of Toshers, Hobbledehoys, and Guttersnipes. Not looking forward to that at all.

  15. Ian Luck says:

    The ‘Zanzibar Handle’ – I love the euphony of that, and wish I’d thought of it. Two other places were considered: ‘Heligoland’, and ‘Danzig’. Both would have sounded good, but I’ve always liked the word ‘Zanzibar’. And Freddie Mercury came from there, which puts the place even higher in my opinion.

  16. Jan says:

    Yes tis I completely forgot to mention hazel and its role in water divining sorry Cordelia.

  17. Peter Dixon says:

    Oh dear, I’ll apologise before I start.

    I remember the story about an escaped madman who attacked a group of women in a laundrette and ran away. The local newspaper headline read:’NUT SCREWS WASHERS, BOLTS’.

  18. Ian Luck says:

    My favourite one like that was for a small town in Essex, where my father’s family lived (definitely past tense now), and where Essex County Council had shut their local library, which riled the locals, leading to floods of complaints to the local paper, which caused this headline:
    If I had been able to, I would have bought it’s creator a large drink.

  19. eggsy says:

    HM Government swapped (with Imperial Germay) Heligoland for Zanzibar, in 1890. Some of the locals weren’t happy, which led to the 38-minute Anglo-Zanzibar War, 27th October1896. The “locals” in this case being colonial Arabs. Actual indigenous population didn’t get a look in until the revolution of 1964.

  20. Helen Martin says:

    The Americans were pushing settlement in the Pacific Northwest (their terminology) and the British were pushing back. The pushing met on a small island in the gulf of Georgia when a pig belonging to a British settler crossed the property line and invaded the grounds of an American settler. The American claimed the pig, the British objected, words and other things were thrown until war was declared (I don’t think either London or Washington knew). The argument was pursued until the American Civil War broke out (choose your favourite name for this war). It was settled for good when the various boundary disputes were resolved with the 49th parallel decision and the various little jogs that were necessary. Although the AB line is still in dispute officially. Then there was the War of Jenkin’s Ear….

  21. Helen Martin says:

    Would The Zanzibar Handle make a good pub name? (I’m reading posts backwards.)

  22. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – It would. It even works in it’s ‘Bloke Nonversation’ form:
    “Feel like going down the ‘Handle’ for a swift half?”
    “Lovely. Half-sevenish?”
    And that’s what ‘Bloke Nonversation’ is all about.

  23. Helen Martin says:

    Perfect, Ian. I’ve heard nonversations like that – have even taken part in them.
    I wonder if that swapping with Germany accounted for the verse in that old song:

    “He upped with his horns
    To the bottom of the boat
    And he sent the Huns to Heligoland
    Did Paddy McGinty’s goat.”

    One of my father’s favourites, which accounts for me having songs a half generation older than I should have.

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