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Bunting, wine and music – a history of the British Coronation street party

Ahead of the Coronation of His Majesty King Charles III, Dr George Gross explores the centuries-long tradition of how the UK celebrates the Coronation of a new Monarch.

The UK loves a street party. We have become accustomed to seeing the Union Jack waved along the Mall in recent years – such scenes of celebration have become familiar parts of our national way of commemorating great events, such as Coronations and Jubilees. The parties often mean music, bunting, picnics, accompanied by plenty of wine and beer, fireworks and bonfires, captured in photographs with friends and neighbours. But the UK’s obsession with street parties is not a recent phenomenon.


A street party in Ladywood, Birmingham. Possibly the 1937 coronation of King George VI

The image shows a postage stamp with an image of Anne Boleyn
Anne Boleyn, the Queen Consort of England (1533–1536)

It might be thought that such a tradition emerged with Queen Victoria’s Jubilee celebrations and then from the Coronation of Edward VII in 1902 onwards – yet street parties have a much older history going back to the medieval and early modern eras. Going back to the Tudors, records from the British Library about Anne Boleyn’s 1533 Coronation saw a veritable overflowing of wine for the populace in the City of London, ‘at the great conduit in Cheap, a fountain ran continuously, at one end white wine, the other claret, all the afternoon’.



Coronation Procession of Charles II Through London (from John Ogilby's "The Entertainment of...Charles II," London, 1662)

These metropolitan festivities were accompanied by nationwide celebrations beyond the Westminster bubble. Provincial celebrations were widespread, and the country at large remembered Coronation occasions regardless of distance from the capital. In Nottingham, Common Council minutes evidence coronation preparations for Charles I, ‘bells shalbe ronge att everie churche, and bonfires made in the streets’ in 1625. For Charles II’s coronation in 1661 – records show ’10 shillings.’ being spent on ‘payments for ringers ... and flags for coronation day’ in Titchfield, Nottinghamshire, and a hefty £9 was spent in Thornbury, Gloucestershire for ‘ale att the coronation of King George I’ in 1714, with similar celebrations as far afield as Ireland, to Leith, Edinburgh, Cambridge and Weymouth.

Early newspaper reports provide yet more evidence for this street party tradition. The London Gazette (founded in 1665 and we should note – effectively a Crown paper) recorded that in Nottingham for James II’s 1685 Coronation the day was observed with a military march, and a mayoral parade. As the quote from the newspaper says,

‘about all the crosses there was planted vessels of ale that the common sort might drink the king and queens healths, which they did heartily. There were … tables furnished for all commers. The day was spent in musick and feasting, and the night in ringing of bells, bonfires, and fireworks, the town not sparing for any charge or pains to express their loyalty and satisfaction to be governed by so glorious a monarch.'– The London Gazette
The image shows Queen Anne of Great Britain, holding an orb and a sceptre. By John Closterman, after John Faber (c. 1730)
Queen Anne. By John Closterman, after John Faber (c. 1730)

Although celebrations occurred throughout the Kingdom, even on these national occasions wealth and status determined the extent of participation. Receipts found in Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive in Stratford-upon-Avon demonstrate people spending £1 12s. 6d. on ‘beer and tobacco’ for Queen Anne’s coronation in 1702 – an incredibly significant figure at that time, amounting to about 40 days of wages for an average labourer. This was an example of the early modern ‘street party’; in Stratford-upon-Avon rich and poor both celebrated alike, an insight into the social profile of the time.

Picture shows Barbara Windsor arriving for the Olivier Awards 2012 at the Royal Opera House
British TV star Barbara Windsor

The history of street parties show that formal and informal parties have always coexisted and have a central place in those celebrating these royal events – evidenced by TV star Barbara Windsor being appointed ‘street party ambassador’ during the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012.

This year, people across the United Kingdom are invited to ‘share food and fun together’ during Coronation Big Lunches, scheduled to take place on 6-8 May.

In this story

George Gross

George Gross

Visiting Research Fellow

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