Helen Hudson unravels the mysteries of the City’s Livery Companies and Guilds and the origins and history behind the formation of these venerable City institutions.
The impressive main staircase at the Goldsmiths’ Company Hall decorated for Christmas
First of all, let me get this important item out there if you are looking for quirky Christmas gifts: the City and Livery website sells a drawn and decorated jigsaw puzzle map of livery halls in the City costing £30.
That done, I’m going to go back to the basics on livery companies, selfishly, for my benefit, but hopefully there are some of you out there who are in the same situation as me and haven’t much of a clue.
Livery companies, or their earlier incarnations, have existed for so long that no-one can quite nail down their origin.
Reading through different histories, common sense has spoken and it seems quite logical that where little hamlets or parishes had tradespeople, then those tradesmen would club together on issues which affected their business.
A medieval baker with his apprentice. The Bodleian Library, Oxford. Scanned from Maggie Black’s “Den medeltida kokboken”, Swedish translation of The Medieval Cookbook ISBN 91-7712-380-8.
Their ‘business’ would often mean the family business, so they would also consider the strength of the club as a buffer to protect their children and heirs in the future.
Before they morphed into livery companies, these groups of tradesmen would have been referred to as guilds.
Riding the learning curve, I learnt that guilds were sometimes called ‘mysteries’. A mystery is ‘a handicraft or trade, especially when referred to in indentures’ according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Whatever the original source of their structure, British livery companies probably originated from before the Norman conquest, presumably from the time we developed the idea of a ‘tradesman’.
The Cow Keeper (dairy) in Golden Lane, London Wellcome L0002381
The guilds grew as London grew, and provided a useful purse for Kings who would allow trade privileges for cash to build up the royal coffers; Edward III sold charters to pay for the wars with France and livery silver was melted down to pay Cromwell’s soldiers.
Financially, there were good years and bad years, as you’d expect, but the Great Fire was a brutal one for the companies with 44 of them losing their Halls.
As the years rolled by, crafts and trades disappeared, the reason for a company died out, and some of the companies became merely dining clubs.
Companies were increasingly seen as obstructive, with the rights to crush dissent in their profession and destroy poor quality goods.
Bakers’ Dozen, meaning 13, derives from the punishment suffered by bakers when they sold a customer short or sold bread that was underweight. The Bakers’ company would escalate punishment for repeat offenders and even go so far as to break their ovens and imprison them. To mitigate the risk, bakers included an extra loaf in every dozen sold.
Expanding business overseas, the guilds adopted a more professional strategy and wisely changed their methods and this sort of restrictive behaviour.
Sometimes, the pressure from the monarchy outside the walls left the livery company structure ‘on tenterhooks’; this saying derives from the Clothworkers who hung out cloth (to dry) held taut by special hooks on wooden frames.
Clothworkers tenterhooks: By The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55505980
In the 19th century, there came a restructuring of London into the County Council and the livery companies deftly reformed, committed to charitable works and a continued role in the City, and managed to survive, much in the form that we now see them.
Many companies have included women from the early day, contrary to the sexism prevalent to the time; in the 14th Century only five of the around five hundred guilds barred women, albeit without any voting rights.
Perhaps the most powerful women were widows who had inherited the assets and business of their late husbands.
Tradesmen became members of the guild of their trade; I’m sure there were many and varied ways of joining different guilds, but there invariably was a cost.
Can you spot the gilden (Ancient Saxon text) By Unknown author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Even the word Guild derives from the Saxon ‘gildan’ meaning ‘to pay’ or ‘to discharge an obligation, debt’.
The guilds controlled standards and provision related to the service or manufactured goods of the trade. They would work somewhat like a franchise (preventing unlimited competition and maintaining a certain quality control) and a union (protecting workers’ conditions, rights and wages).
From medieval times, the word livery was used when referring to the clothes, and food and drink provided by rich householders to their staff.
As guild members started to share a style of clothing particular to their trade (and some wore distinctive guild badges), the guilds gradually became known as livery companies.
Breeding a livery company
Guilds and livery companies are recognised as two different things in the City today.
If you are part of or recognise a profession which isn’t already represented by our current offerings, you can form yourselves into a guild (with the permission of the Aldermen and a minimum of ten thousand pounds).
After 4 years, with more organisation, business planning and more money built up into a charitable fund, a guild can apply to the Aldermen again to become a company without livery.
Companies without livery doesn’t mean they walk around in underwear (mores the pity)! This is a teenage status for a livery company where, on the one hand, a guild has been officially recognised by the court of Aldermen, but it has not been yet granted the full adulthood rights of a livery.
After another 4 years, having a track record and deeper fund pockets, the company can apply to become liveried, with full livery status, which if granted means it can use the prefix ‘the worshipful company of’ and be listed alongside the 110 other livery companies in the City.
At present the Public Relations Practitioners, the Entrepreneurs and the HR Professionals are all moving through this process.
Some guilds will stay as guilds forever. Even some companies choose to remain unliveried; neither the Parish Clerks, nor the Waterman and Lightermen have been granted or intend to apply for livery status.
There is even a guild dedicated to helping young Freemen to decide which livery company to apply for; the guild of Young Freeman was founded in 1976 to encourage the wider participation of Freemen under the age of 40 in the affairs and traditions of the livery. Since inception, well over 800 young Freeman have joined particular liveries of their choice and many have gone on to become masters, clerks, elected members and even Lord Mayor.
Outside the walls
Some guilds are outside the City (‘The Guilds Outwith’) but most still have close relationships with their sister companies (of the same trade) in the City.
There are particular preferences and peculiarities to each guild and company and we are not alone in having guilds; there are similar groups in other countries and many have relationships with and/or similar purposes to our own.
The livery companies and the City of London have matured symbiotically, not least because they are intertwined in the running of the City.
They are both rooted in business and have supported each other and adapted over the centuries to different economic landscapes.
Since they share many common goals with the City, it has evolved that they are part of many of the key elections in the City.
It is liverymen who elect the sheriffs and certain other officers in the City and they also have a role in choosing the new Lord Mayor every year.
Not only do they take part in the elections, and also add a beautiful and traditional pomp to the great ceremonial dates every year, livery companies still have a focus on their professions, promoting modern skills and development, and also have a strong commitment to serving the community.
Livery companies where the profession is no longer pertinent have extended and absorbed similar trades into their zone of interest; The Fan Makers company also now includes the profession of air-conditioning, and the Buenos Airies’ Hammerman guild includes auctioneers.
In 1515/16, there were 48 livery companies and it was decided by the court of Aldermen to introduce an order of precedence, based on wealth and political influence.
The dominant dozen became known as the ‘Great 12’ and used to hold sway over most decisions back then.
The Great Twelve Livery Companies
- Worshipful Company of Mercers (general merchants)
- Worshipful Company of Grocers (spice merchants)
- Worshipful Company of Drapers (wool and cloth merchants)
- Worshipful Company of Fishmongers
- Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths (bullion dealers)
- Worshipful Company of Skinners* (fur traders)
- Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors* (tailors)
- Worshipful Company of Haberdashers (clothiers in sewn and fine materials)
- Worshipful Company of Salters (traders of salts and chemicals)
- Worshipful Company of Ironmongers
- Worshipful Company of Vintners (wine merchants)
- Worshipful Company of Clothworkers
Note: *The Skinners’ and Merchant Taylors’ Companies alternate their precedence each year.
The Mercers Hall set for a banquet. The Mercerrs Company is No.1 in the Livery Company order of precedence.
Precedence is less important for the more recent livery companies (but they would say that, wouldn’t they!) whose place on the list is now based on the date they were founded.
The ranking of the Merchant Taylors and Skinners has been disputed since they were founded in the same year. In 1484, after 100 years of argument (and some violence), it was decided that they should swap 6th and 7th position in the list every year. This is commonly believed to be the likely origin of the phrase ‘at sixes and sevens’.
Informal groups of companies have evolved into power blocks; when livery companies band together, there are more ‘hands to the pump’ and they can influence and achieve more if they work together.
The ‘wet 10’ is a group of companies which represent both users and suppliers of water and their aim is to promote awareness and be an influence for good.
The ‘leathery liveries’ includes companies with an interest in the leather related industries and together they do a great deal to support them from high-fashion to the wholesale markets for hides.
The ‘financial services’ group supports the Lord Mayor in the role of promoting the UK based financial professional and associated business services industry.
The recently refurbished Salters Hall on Fore Street, opposite Andrewes House, is one of the closest livery halls to the Barbican. The Salters are No.9 in the precedence order.
The ‘modern companies’ includes all the livery companies formed after 1926 (this is a grey area with complications and some companies are in or out not precisely to the year, but we can get into that another day).
Life after livery
Many ex-masters and other officers from the same ‘graduation’ year club together into a Past Masters Association, continue with charitable work and social occasions, and give themselves a humorous name. For example, the 007s were on point in 2007/08 and their treasurer (who is a man) has the alias Miss Moneypenny!
There are many other associations of past officers and the whole is a vast resource of experts who are still very much active.
PR in the present day
Our livery companies (like the Corporation of London) have to be quite shrewd about public relations because, in the wider world outside of the City, they may be considered to be self-centred and self-serving.
On the other side of the coin, it’s not cheap or simple to operate a livery company.
The Ironmongers (No. 10 in the order of precedence) is another livery company set within the Barbican’s system of highwalks. It is adjacent to the Museum of London and overlooked directly by Thomas More House.
Some of the longer standing and richer companies boast (or suffer) the balance sheet equivalent of major corporations.
They don’t have a huge salaried staff complement and are mostly managed by expert volunteers.
Some companies have property portfolios the upkeep of which would give us sleepless nights not to mention the upkeep of their Halls for those who have them..
So the livery companies must tread a fine line, moving forward with a purpose considered worthwhile to the general public whilst maintaining both the cultural and physical inheritance left to them by their previous members.
Only some of the livery companies have halls now; there are 41 halls at present not including the Guildhall or Mansion House. Several companies will share halls where useful. Perhaps the most interesting hall today is Head Quarters Ship (HQS) Wellington which is the floating home of the Master Mariners company (No.78), although many of the more traditional livery companies, which display some remarkable art as well as relics of their former trades, would probably argue the point. One of the attractions of renting these halls for special events and occasions is access to some special parts of the City’s heritage as represented by the Livery Company itself and its displays of historic memorabilia.
HQS Wellington By J.P.Lon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2042350
The halls can be rented out, obviously, benefiting a celebration with a mixture of formality and tradition. As noted above, some of the halls are quite spectacular and are in strong demand for external functions and events.
While many of the halls look as though they have been around for hundreds of years, that tends to be an illusion/ Many were destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, and some suffered a similar fate at the hands of German incendiary bomb attacks in World War 2. Some were destroyed in both!
The Open House London day in September is a great time for taking a peek inside as many of the halls open their doors for the weekend.
The Barber Surgeons Company (No. 17) building – photograph taken from one of the highwalks. Amongst the art in the Great Hall is an original Holbein painting of King Henry VIII depicting him uniting the Barbers’ and Surgeons’ Companies in 1541/2.
A number of the halls are located close to the Barbican Indeed the Ironmongers Hall and the Barber Surgeons Hall are both within the Barbican’s system of Highwalks, while the Salters Hall is on Fore Street on the opposite side of the road to Andrewes House.
Livery companies are competitive by nature.
The Ironmongers organise a ski competition every year in January.
The Chartered Surveyors run the 5000m swimathon at the RAC country club in Epsom in February.
The inter-livery pancake race on Shrove Tuesday has been run by the porters in Guildhall Yard since 2004 (involving costumes and obstacles and a starting cannon).
The bridge competition in March is run by the Makers of Playing Cards and the Drapers.
Along with the above, shooting, golfing, go-carting, tennis, the sheep drive and the Red Cross Christmas market are only a micro list of the fundraising competitions and events organised annually by officers and the members of the guilds and companies.
Founded in 1878, The City and Guilds of London Institute was founded by the Corporation of the City of London and 16 livery companies, to protect and promote the standard of technical education.
Over 2 million learners gain a City & Guilds qualification each year and vocational courses are highly rated by employers.
Each company also contributes separately to their own profession with sponsorship and bursaries and grants.
For example, Salters’ Institute is the flagship charity of The Salters’ Company. The Salters’ Institute plays a major role in the support of chemistry teaching, the encouragement of young people to pursue careers in the UK chemical industries, and the promotion of chemical education including the whole area of curriculum development.
No-one has time to do anything these days so why join a livery company?
This is the problem for the livery companies today and they are networking and publicising to rally membership and interest.
Livery companies certainly provide a collegiate environment where you can actually get to know other people in your field (unlike university where most of your coursemates drift off and you never see them again).
The altruistic aims of livery companies should also play a large part of joining a brotherhood like this; there should be as little dead weight as possible so that the group is improved with every joiner, I would think.
With unions a shell of their former substance, and the gig economy riding roughshod over workers’ rights, the memory of livery companies covering the costs of a member’s funeral is one of those times when ‘things were better in the old days’.
We can confidently say that our professional services business is on its top game, but it is a different story with manufacturing. We have lost much of our skilled manufacturing business over the years, to cheaper overseas workers or automation.
Livery companies are amongst the relatively few organisations in the UK supporting our budding artisans and craftsmen and what is key is that the skills to empower them are future proof.
As the toast goes at livery dinners… may they flourish root and branch.