The English Mayor of Riga: George Armitstead
Riga has always been a city shaped by international influences, but the curious historical fact of its English Mayor is still an unlikely anecdote. As a part of the Russian Empire—and home to Latvians, Germans, Russians, Jews, Poles and Lithuanians—Belle Époque Riga was not to be led by representatives of any of these groups, but rather an Oxford-educated Englishman.
Who was George Armitstead?
If you take a walk from the National Opera House through Bastejkalns Park, you will find, on the left bank of the Pilsētas kanāls, a statue of a man and wife, and their dog. Probably the most striking thing about the statue is this latter creature, a well-coiffed Chow-Chow, its head gold from the stroking of fooled (or foolish) passers-by. But what is of interest to us is the man: George Armitstead to his countrymen, but Džordžs Armitsteds or Джордж Армитстед to many of his constituents.
Armitstead did not fall into the office of mayor in a Baltic city by mere chance: in fact, he was born in Riga in 1847, but to an British merchant family. Riga was then the capital of the Governate of Livonia within the Russian Empire, and had been an important trading centre for centuries. The Armitstead family had been in town from the beginning of the 19th century, and had intermarried with local Baltic Germans.
The future English Mayor was therefore also a native Rigan, and he attended the Riga Polytechnical Institute before pursuing further study in Zürich and Oxford. He went on the manage four businesses in Riga: a brickworks, a paper production plant, a railway and a bone meal factory. In this way, he established himself in the city’s social and business circles. Finally, in 1901, he became mayor, an office he would hold for the next eleven years until his death in 1912.
An English Mayor in Office
A civil engineer by training, Armitstead was able to contribute significantly to the city’s infrastructure. Under his aegis, the public facilities of the city were improved rapidly, with a new pumping station on Lake Baltezers and water towers that provided running water to the suburbs. The electrification of the city also proceeded apace, along with tramway development.
But Armitstead’s influence was also cultural. He inherited a city that had been dominated socially by the Baltic Germans and which had recently undergone Russification by order of St Petersburg, but the majority of whose population was Latvian-speaking. He is credited with introducing the formal political engagement of Latvians by asking them to cooperate with his council, as well as with the opening of Latvian schools.
Armitstead’s tenure saw the completion public building projects that last to this day: the national museum, the national theatre and the zoo among others. Jugendstil designs flourished in the modernising city. Agrita Tipāne, director of the Riga Art Nouveau Centre, has gone as far to call him “the person who created Riga as we see it now”.
English Mayor and English Queen
When the late Queen Elizabeth II visited Riga in 2006, she formally unveiled the statue now present in Bastejkalns Park. The occasion was Armitstead’s 160th birthday. By doing so, she reaffirmed a relationship between England and Riga that has a centuries-long history.
Make sure you have a look at the statue next time you pass by the Opera! Or else, you can admire Armitstead’s legacy throughout the city—every Jugendstil façade bears his mark.
Luke is a history and languages student interning at Liden & Denz, Riga.
Photo credits to the author.