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The Origins & Early History of the London Livery Companies

Background

It is not by chance that London has long been the national centre of wealth and power. It owes that position primarily to geography.

There is archaeological evidence to suggest human activity in this part of the Thames Valley before Londinium was founded by the Romans, but nothing to support the idea that there was permanent prehistoric settlement here. The Romans were originally attracted to the area because it offered the closest bridgeable point across Britain's principal river to their original landing site near Richborough in Kent, and thus the quickest access to the rich hinterland, and the strongholds of opposing British tribes. They soon appreciated, however, that the estuary of that river, the Thames, lies opposite the great waterway of the Rhine which leads into the heart of Europe. It also helped that the river is tidal at London and for several miles beyond, so that at high tide sea-going ships could rely on sufficient depth of water to be able to unload and load cargo directly into and from the City. It was these accidents of geography which explain why Londinium quickly developed into the principal city of the Roman Province of Britannica, and in due course, under its later name of London, evolved to become the city that we know today.

For more than five hundred years, its livery companies were at the heart of the commercial, social and religious life of the merchants and manufacturers of London. Indeed, it was largely through those companies that London could once boast that it was indisputably the greatest trading metropolis in the world. Whilst nearly four hundred years have passed since the companies have been able to lay claim to that sort of power, they have overcome many challenges to retain a position of consequence and pride within the City of London.

There is no definitive explanation for the origins of the livery companies, but the concept is an ancient one, did not originate in England and is by no means peculiar to London. It is historically correct, however, to say that Anglo-Saxon Society recognized voluntary associations formed for the mutual aid and protection of members, known as "Guilds"; the title derived from the Saxon word "gildan" meaning to pay, as members had to pay to belong. Guilds dominated civil life in all the major towns in feudal England and in Europe. Indeed, it is perhaps ironic given the debate about this country's relationship with Europe that the early development of the London guilds in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was stimulated by "foreigners" from the Continent, who brought with them novel and progressive business methods which inspired the English craftsmen to improve their trade organizations. Indeed, it would seem that the Spectacle Makers of London (who were not to appear on the scene until 1629) owed much to their Dutch counterparts.

The Religious & Social Imperatives

Little is known about how work was organized prior to the twelfth century, but it was certainly small in scale, much of it was done at or near the home, and regulation was minimal. In earlier times it seem likely that anyone resident in London had the right to work and trade in the City, in exchange for performing certain services, but there was no real concept of "citizenship". However, as the population expanded and more and more migrants (as "foreigners" from other parts of England were called) tried to take advantage of the City's growing economic power, to say nothing of the trading privileges granted by royal charters, so the need to clarify the situation became ever more imperative.

Craftsmen in various trades or mysteries1 had already begun to form fraternities or associations (as workers in all fields and at all times generally do), but their purpose was as much religious and charitable, and convivial, as economic – and to a certain extent, these same forces still drive today's livery companies. Indeed, the older guilds were rarely founded merely for the protection of trade. They were formed by groups of neighbours for the promotion of social and religious intercourse. In medieval London, persons engaged in the same trade lived in the same area of the City, a practice which has bequeathed us such names as Friday Street (the site of the fish market), Bread Street, Milk Street and Ironmonger Lane. The Cordwainers congregated nearby in the area still known as Cordwainer Ward, and the Vintners gave their name to Vintry Ward. It was only natural that these traders, closely related in commercial rivalry by day and in friendly association in the evening, should unite into semi-religious fraternities for "the support of the body and salvation of the soul".

The welfare of members, both spiritual and material, was always a major concern for the guilds. Each member would contribute to his guild's funds, and could therefore expect relief from it in sickness and old age and, in extreme cases, admittance to one of its almshouses. There was also a strong religious ethos, with each guild having a patron saint, and a link with a church or a monastery where regular guild services would be held, and prayers said for departed members. Not the least concern of the early liveryman was to ensure that his soul should move from this world to the next in a proper and fitting manner. One of the prime roles of the companies, therefore, was to see to it that their members received their full funereal dues, and that their bodies were interred in accordance with the rites of the Church. Not surprisingly, their religious fervour abated with the coming of the Reformation, although it is interesting to note that Article 7 of the Ordnances of the Spectacle Makers' Company, which were drawn up in 1630, states:

"that if Request at any Time shall be made to the Master and Wardens of the said Company to have the Livery of the said Company to accompany to the Grave within the Circuit of London Liberties and Suburbs thereof or within three Miles compass the Dead Corps of any of the Livery deceased or of his Wife at the Time of the Funeral Then the Master and Wardens if they shall think it fit shall cause a warning of the whole said Livery accordingly and every of the said Livery shall upon reasonable warning attend with his Livery at the Time and place appointed upon Pain and Forfeiture of ten shillings by every particular Person of the said Livery who shall make Default upon any such Warning (except he shall have some reasonable Excuse for his Absence and that be allowed by the Court of Assistants)."

Fellowship has always been a key factor in the growth of the livery movement, and it is not difficult to appreciate why the feelings of brotherhood and mutual help and esteem that they engendered were so highly prized in primitive society. Being a member of a Worshipful (Worthy) Company gave the individual a sense of dignity and importance, and his livery hall gave him somewhere to escape to from the confines of his room over the shop, and the opportunity to relax over a pot of beer, or a flagon of malmsey, surrounded by his friends.

Promotion and Protection of the Crafts

However, whilst the economic benefits such associations can bring may originally have been obscured by social and religious needs, the guilds steadily acquired more and more powers over the crafts and trades that they represented. They were not so much trading cartels as trade societies designed to reconcile the interests of three distinct, and often antagonistic groups – employer, workforce and consumers. To quote from a petition of the Carpenters' Company of 1681, "The fundamental ground of incorporating handicraft trades and manual occupations into distinct companies was to the end that all persons using such trades should be brought into one uniform government and corrected and regulated by expert and skilful governors, under certain rules and ordinances appointed to that purpose." Early emphasis on quality control can be seen in the modern expression "a baker's dozen". In the days when a man could at best be pilloried, and at worst expelled from the guild, and so loose his livelihood, for giving his customers short measure, the prudent baker tended to add an extra loaf to an order to ensure his continuing comfort.

By 1319, when the guilds' dominance over the City's affairs had been recognized by Charter, "Citizenship of London" was largely dependent on membership of a guild. Ownership of property, to say nothing of mere residency, was no longer enough. The freedom to work and trade in the City, the true right of citizenship, could only be obtained through membership of a guild which, in turn, could only be acquired by birth from a freeman father (patrimony), by purchase (redemption), or by apprenticeship to a freeman. This in turn lead to rapid rise in the number of such guilds; by the early fifteenth century there were over a hundred.

Through their dominance of the City, which then, as now was the dominant factor in the national economy, the guilds rapidly acquired the authority to regulate their crafts, not just in London, but also within its immediate surrounds, and in some cases throughout the Kingdom. And they ruled them with an iron hand. They regulated the rates of pay and the admission of apprentices, and no one could work outside the Guild or indeed for anyone else except by order of his company. Indeed, it is not going too far to say that in the relatively primitive society of medieval England, they held the power of life or death over many of its citizens.

Their new eminence and prestige occasioned a change in the nature of the guilds. They began to adopt distinctive gowns and hoods known as "Livery", and to be known generally as livery companies. This form of dress owed something to their religious associations, the livery being based on the habits of the various monastic orders, although it would usually be brightly coloured.

Internal Organization

In essence, the internal organization of all the companies was the same, with each step on the ladder carrying increasing privileges. At the bottom were the apprentices. Once a man was bound apprentice, he was subject to the company's discipline, as well as to the daily supervision of his master, and offences against his master were punished by whippings administered in the company hall. Indeed Article 24 of the Spectacle Makers' Ordinances, which were approved by the King's Justices in 1630, states that:

"if any Apprentice shall misbehave himself towards his Master or Mistress .... Or be any Drunkard haunter of Taverns, Ale Houses Bowling Alleys or other lewd and suspected Places of evil Company....he shall be brought to the Hall of the said Company .. and there these or such like notorious faults justly proved against him before the Court of Assistants ...(he) shall be stripped from the middle upwards and there be whipped...."

In the absence of a universal education system, to say nothing of printed textbooks and trade journals, the only way in which those concerned with the maintenance and enhancement of craft skills could ensure a future for their craft was though the system of apprenticeship. Many of the apprentices came into London from elsewhere within the Kingdom to be "bound" as apprentices, and homesickness as much as the tough regime to which they were subjected, must have contributed to the high drop-out rate was high. Those who had completed half their apprenticeship, and so felt that they knew enough to be able to trade or practise profitably in their home towns, were particularly prone to abscond. It was a punishable offence to break an apprenticeship indenture in this way, but if the culprit managed to evade notice, little action seems to have been taken.

Sufficient numbers completed their apprenticeships, however, to ensure that, within London, two out of three men in their thirties had that common bond. They would be very familiar with their former fellow apprentices, but would equally have grown up with those from other trades who had lived nearby and who, when they were young had joined them in a street brawl or game of football. They had all endured years of training in London, away from home, learning tolerance of their masters' quirks at work, and social skills in their masters' households, as well as what their master had to teach them.

Once the apprentice had successfully completed his training, he became a company man and a freeman of London, an important status as only freemen of the City could hold property there. This was a jealously guarded right, leading to constant complaints that "foreigners" were trying to muscle into the market, and to frequent requests to the Lord mayor to admit to the estate of freeman persons who had not properly qualified themselves through apprenticeships – requests which were normally refused.

Within his company, the new freeman joined the ranks of yeomen. A few left London and went back to their home town, but most stayed on. Some of them left the rat race, and settled for the quiet life as a journeyman, a title derived from the French journée, the length of a day, and denoting someone who worked for another and was paid by the day. Most, however, put their energies into establishing their own businesses and becoming "householders". Some masters gave their former apprentices a helping hand, in the form of a cash grant or loan, and most companies administered funds bequeathed by decease members to help their successors get started. An energetic individual would not therefore have found it difficult to raise the necessary initial working capital of £100 or so, especially if his wife, who would as often as not be the daughter or widow of a man in the same company, brought some money with her.

Once established as a "householder", a man could be chosen to become a liveryman, of whom there were between 800 and 900 in the City, and if he survived long enough, he could then go on to serve on his company's Court of Assistants, and aspire to become master. Indeed, the apprenticeship system often led to an almost incestuous relationship between master craftsmen and their successors in office, as this example from the Spectacle Makers' Company demonstrates:

  • Joseph Howe (Master 1672 & 1689)
  • Thomas Gray (Apprenticed to Howe – Master 1718)
  • Matthew Loft (Apprenticed to Gray – Master 1744)
  • Edward Nairne (Apprenticed to Loft – Master 1769-73 & 1795)

Edward Nairne in turn had seven apprentices, five of whom rose to become Master of the Company:

  • Thomas Blunt (apprentice 1760-71, Master 1792 & 1815)
  • James Long (apprentice 1769-81, Master 1805)
  • John Field (apprentice 1779-87, Master 1799)
  • Henry Lawson (apprentice 1788-96, Master 1803 & 1822)
  • Johnson Lawson (apprentice 1789-96, Master 1813)

However, as the Mayoralty was the exclusive preserve of the "Great Twelve" Companies until 1742, the more ambitious member of a "minor company" might "translate" into one of those Companies, and become entitled to style himself a merchant, one of the commercial aristocracy of London. If he was then prepared to invest a lot of both time and money in the administration of his new company, he might rise to become its master, and so ultimately qualify for nomination to be Lord Mayor of the City. Thus any humble apprentice, as he struggled to make good, could cherish the thought of one day becoming Lord Mayor – and, of course, the most famous instance of that happening is the case of Richard ("Dick") Whittington, Citizen and Mercer.

Governance of the City

As the guilds established their hold on the City's economy, it became only a matter of time before the leading craftsmen were not only entrusted with the power and duty of regulating and controlling their own guilds, but also that they should become officers of the municipality itself. Once that had happened, the power and influence of the guilds was assured so long as London remained the dominant part of the Kingdom. It was the wealth, power and prestige of the livery companies and some of their individual members that enabled London to maintain a degree of independence from the Crown, and so exert its own influence on national events. It is also why the London guilds feature so strongly in the history books, and why it has been said that:

"The livery companies, with their political and municipal power, are peculiar to London. No other City has permitted such a development of its misteries and trades, nowhere else in England have chartered associations of the kind attained such wealth and power."

By the fourteenth century, however, leaders of about a dozen guilds were getting richer than most of the others, through becoming wholesale traders dealing extensively in the provinces and (particularly if they dealt in wool, cloth or wine) in foreign commerce. Their economic interests differed markedly from those of the members of the more numerous lesser guilds, who were primarily producers rather than traders. By 1300 their wealth had indisputably made them men of power, and the way was open for them to claim the dominating role in the governance of the City2.

Revenue for the Crown

Unsurprisingly, the extent of the companies' growing wealth and power initially aroused the suspicions of the Crown. Medieval England was a difficult enough place to rule at the best of times, so it was only natural that the King should look askance at such strong and independent bodies, who dominated the principal city within the Realm, yet whose rituals smacked of the secret, and thus possibly the subversive. It was Edward III (1327-1377), who was determined to assert his claim to the French throne through force of arms, who seems to have been the first monarch to realize that he had more to gain by treating the guilds as friends rather than as potential enemies. Accordingly, he began granting charters to the guilds (for a fee), recognizing them and incorporating them into the body politic, to the advantage of both parties. For the first time, the companies were legitimised, and granted the right to hold land, property and funds. Unfortunately for them, however, the King not only ensured the loyalty of potentially formidable foes but, in securing a new source of much needed funds for the national exchequer, he pointed the way for his successors to weaken them.

For the first real check to the power of the City companies came in the sixteenth century with an attack on their money rather than their commercial pre-eminence. It took the form of the introduction of the concept of the forced loan by King Henry VIII. Over the next 150 years, this was to reduce some of the companies to near penury. Henry opened the bidding with the demand for the then enormous sum of £21,000 to pay for his war in Scotland. His elder daughter, Mary, later took more than £100,000 for war with France, and after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the Mercers' Company alone poured some £4,000 into the national account. By that time, "Good Queen Bess", had come to regard the livery companies as little more than a herd of milch cows able to supply a regular flow of revenue, whether or not the Country was faced with an emergency.

Notwithstanding the Crown's constant depredation of the livery companies' wealth, some historians have traced the slow decline of the City of London as a force of real power within the Kingdom to the Great Refusal of 1630, when the City Fathers declined the invitation to extend their jurisdiction to the whole of London, which had long ceased to be confined within the old walls of Roman Londinium. Regarding the ever-expanding suburbs as nothing more than places of racketeering and lawlessness, they passed up the opportunity for the London guilds to extend their professional control over the new trades and businesses that were springing up beyond those walls. However, this is not the place to expand on that theme. The key issue here is the Crown's insatiable demands for money.

Where the Tudors had trod, the Stuarts were quick to follow, particularly as their belief in the "Divine Right of Kings" eventually lead them to try to govern without a Parliament. This bore heavily on the existing livery companies, but it did present a wonderful opportunity to those who wished to found new ones. The introduction of the printing press in the late fifteenth century, and the concomitant growth in literacy had gradually produced a market within England for those who could help others to see more clearly. By 1628, a significant group of spectacle makers were trading within and from London under the auspices of the Brewers' Company. Led by one Robert Alt, who practised from a shop on London Bridge, they decided to petition the Monarch for authority to establish their own Company. In return for £98 10s 2d, which represents something in the order of £20,000 by today's values, His Late Majesty King Charles I (or "Charles Stuart" if your sympathies lie with the Parliamentary cause) signified his royal pleasure "to grant to the petitioners their humble suite according to his certificate" and, on 16th May 1629, the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers was incorporated by Royal Charter. That document is now preserved in the Guildhall Library.

1 The word mistery is of Latin origin, and implies skilled knowledge or mastery of a branch of industrial art.
2 Until 1742, only members of the "Great Twelve Companies" could aspire to becoming Lord Mayor.

The Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers

If any Apprentice shall be a haunter of Taverns, Ale Houses Bowling Alleys or other lewd and suspected Places of evil Company... he shall be stripped from the middle upwards and there be whipped

Article 24 – Spectacle Makers' Ordinances