About Livery Companies

Picture courtesy of Simon Leach, Liverman,
The Worshipful Company of Bowyers.

Picture of the statue marking the City of London boundry

Trade and craft associations have flourished over Europe for centuries, but the City of London companies, now known as the Livery, are unique in number and diversity.

The social and economic conditions which produced the guilds have long been overtaken by changes in industry, commerce, and consumer and workplace legislation but the Livery still flourishes today. The companies' survival has been achieved by continuing to fostering their trade in a wide context, serving the community, and embracing modern skills and professions. Today there are 110 livery companies in the City of London.

History and origins

The livery companies probably had their origins in this country before 1066. Guilds (or mysteries, from the Latin 'misterium', meaning professional skill) flourished throughout Europe for many centuries.

The development of guilds in Britain was not confined to London. The Cutlers of Hallamshire in Sheffield, the Merchant Venturers of Bristol and the Fellmongers of Richmond in Yorkshire are examples of those still in existence around Britain.

The word 'guild' derives from the Saxon word for payment, since membership of these fraternities was (and is) paid for. The word 'livery' refers to uniform clothing as means of identification. Today, new companies in their formative years are usually referred to as guilds.

The early companies were the medieval equivalent of trading standards departments, checking quality of goods and weights and measures. They also controlled imports, set wages and working conditions and trained apprentices. After many years of fierce dispute, an order of precedence for livery companies was finally settled in 1515, starting with Mercers at number one.

Today City street names - such as Milk Street, Bread Street, Ironmonger Lane, Poultry, Cloth Fair and Mason's Avenue - mark the sites where it all began.

Supporting education

Almost from their earliest times the ancient guilds undertook a responsibility for the education and training of young people. Training apprentices in the skills of their craft or trade was an important part of a liveryman's duties. Modern livery companies actively promote apprenticeship schemes as the best way to provide thorough training, especially in the specialised technical skills which are in demand today.

The Livery has been involved in university education for many centuries, often as founder or funder of the more ancient institutions and, with the growth of higher education in the nineteenth century, this support grew considerably. Companies helped to found the technical colleges or institutes which were essential if Britain were to keep up with other industrialised countries.

Support continues with the endowment of chairs and the supply of expensive equipment together with scholarships and bursaries for young people to study for scientific and technical careers. One of the best known examples of the Livery contribution towards higher and vocational education is the City & Guilds London Institute, which was founded in 1878 by the City of London and 16 livery companies. It has since received ongoing support from the Livery.

The majority of livery companies have also formed close links with schools, helping pupils to gain the best possible broad-based education - whether by providing a governor to advise on financial and management issues, by support in kind for project work, or by financial help for things the school budget cannot fund.

Wealthy liverymen or their widows often set up trusts to found schools which were left to their company to administer after their death. Many of these still flourish, among them Aldenham's, Howell's, Bancroft's, Gresham's, Oundle, Haberdashers' Aske's Schools, Colfe's, the two St Paul's schools, Dame Alice Owen's, Merchant Taylor's schools, Tonbridge, Wolverhampton Grammar and Foyle and Londonderry College, Northern Ireland. The original trusts still provide support for most of them.

Many other schools throughout the country benefit from Livery support in a variety of ways and at differing levels of expenditure. Often, the sharing of expertise and the giving of time can be as valuable as financial help.

The City of London's own schools and the Lord Mayor Treloar College for disabled people also benefit from the involvement of a number of livery companies.

Charity and community

Historic image of Richard Whittington and his cat
Richard Whittington and his cat.

One of the first charitable tasks undertaken by the early guilds was to care for their members in sickness and old age. Many livery companies still support or maintain almshouses for elderly people throughout the country. As guilds grew wealthier in the Middle Ages, rich liverymen left specific sums for the provision of shelter and food for their own members who were in need. Some of the charitable trusts formed in this way still exist and centuries of careful stewardship have resulted in the Livery being able to supplement the state's provision in many cases of real hardship.

The best known name in the history of the City of London was responsible for one of these long-lived trusts. Richard Whittington, a Mercer who died in 1423, left property worth at the time some £6,000 (the equivalent of many millions today) for almshouses. The trust still exists and has a substantial income which provides comfort and dignity for elderly people and others in need.

In addition to this traditional use of their charitable funds, many companies have broadened their giving into many other areas of life at home and abroad. Developing countries, people with disabilities, museums and libraries, housing, the arts, young people and medical research are among the causes which benefit.

To supplement the income from property and the charitable trusts, many liverymen constantly give their own money and raise large sums each year for special projects.

Modern trade role

Picture of wrought iron scoll work
Reproduced by kind permission of The Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths.

The Livery has a continuing role in commerce and trade. Several companies still have a statutory or regulatory role - for example the Goldsmiths' Company, which since 1300 has been responsible for assaying (testing for purity) and marking gold and silver wares. From 1478 these wares were required to be brought to its hall for testing, the origin of the word 'hallmark'. Today the Goldsmiths continue to run the London Assay Office where several million articles of gold, silver and platinum are hallmarked each year.

The Blacksmiths award a range of Certificates, Diplomas and Medals to recognise smiths who have attained various defined levels of competence and quality of workmanship. They also give prizes for competitions at county shows held throughout the country, and administer a trade mark scheme.

The Fishmongers continue an ancient market quality control in ensuring that the fish sold daily in Billingsgate Market for tables throughout the UK is fit for human consumption. The company has powers of inspection and seizure through its Fishmeters, the inspectors who have been carrying out these duties since 1604.

The Vintners' Company has in more recent years been responsible for ensuring that EU wine legislation regulations are implemented through its Wine Standards Board.

The Gunmakers' Company is responsible for ensuring that guns sold in the United Kingdom are safe to fire. Guns are proofed by firing a charge 30% greater than normal. Guns from overseas are treated the same way unless they originate from countries with which there is a reciprocal proofing agreement.

By law, horses must be shod by skilled and registered persons. The Farriers' Company has a legal duty to secure the required standards for the trade and to examine those wishing to qualify for its diploma entitling them to the necessary registration.

The Saddlers' Company has many working saddlers among its membership and substantially underwrites the Society of Master Saddlers. The Company funds its Millennium Apprenticeship Scheme, has introduced the Modern Apprenticeship Scheme for saddlery, maintains the National Register of Qualified Saddlers and hosts the National SMS Saddlery and Harness Competition annually.

The Pewterers' Company renewed its connection with the craft in 1970, since when it has worked to:

As agent for the Port of London, the Company of Watermen & Lightermen is responsible for examining and licensing anyone who wants to work as a waterman or lighterman on the tidal River Thames.

The Scriveners' Company has maintained its connection with the original craft of writing legal documents. It examines, qualifies and regulates full time members of the profession of Notaries Public in the City who are known as Scrivener Notaries.

Optical technicians are trained and examined in the most modern aspects of their industry through the role of the Spectacle Makers' Company.

With the above as just a few examples, it is perhaps surprising to realise how many contemporary trades still enjoy their ancient guild connections.

Events and ceremonies

Picture of the Lord Mayor's badge of office
The Lord Mayor's badge of office. Reproduced by kind permission of the City of London.

The Silent Ceremony

The Lord Mayor is formally admitted to office in November, the day before the Lord Mayor's Show. The ceremony is known as the Silent Ceremony because, apart from a short declaration of office by the incoming Lord Mayor, no words are spoken. The outgoing Lord Mayor ceremonially hands the City insignia to his successor.

Common Hall

Common Hall is summoned by the Lord Mayor, by formal notice to the Masters and Wardens of the livery companies that they should give notice to their liverymen to attend at Guildhall on a certain day. The Sheriffs and other officers are elected on Midsummer Day, and the Lord Mayor on Michaelmas Day (or the next weekday). Voting is by a show of hands but if a poll is demanded, one is held a fortnight later.

United Guilds Service

The enormously popular United Guilds Service takes place each year, filling St Paul's Cathedral to capacity. Members of all companies join with the Lord Mayor and Aldermen, with great ceremony and an address by a leading churchman.

Cart Marking

Although carts are no longer used for transport in the City, the traditional Cart Marking ceremony still takes place each year. Since the fourteenth century or earlier, only licensed and marked carts could ply for hire. The ceremony takes place in Guildhall Yard, and Carmen bring their trucks, veteran and vintage vans, waggons and carriages to be inspected by the Master of the Carmen's Company and branded or marked.

Swan Upping

Since about the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, the Vintners' and Dyers' Companies have had the right to share a royalty on the swans on the Thames with the Monarch. Each year in July the swan-upping voyage, counting and marking the swans, takes place on the Thames.