The Livery companies of the City of London have played an integral part in the development of the city. So much so that even today, the activities of the various liveries are intertwined with the daily life of the Square Mile. Often beginning life in medieval times as a loose association of tradesman with similar interests. They grew into what were essentially trade bodies.
The liveries grew to become so important that if you wanted to work in a particular trade in the city then you needed to do your time. First as an apprentice learning your trade. Accountable to your master for many years before becoming a freeman of the city after the apprenticeship was completed. The companies governed who could trade. Membership of one was essential if you wanted to make your own way in life.
Becoming a freeman was important as once awarded such status you could ply your trade and become your own man. Until such time though all apprentices would have been at the whim of the master of the company. It was those decisions as to their future which would have been of great importance.
Order of Precedence
In 1516 the livery companies were given an order of precedence by the Lord Mayor of the time. The precedence list was basically ordered around wealth and some of the companies were incredibly wealthy and very powerful. At the time there were only 48 companies but the ranks have now grown to 108. Out of the original 48, a ‘Great 12’ was created. These were the 12 most powerful and influential companies in the City of London controlling all sorts of aspects of daily life and trade.
So that brings us to the purpose of this post which is to find and photograph all the Great 12 Livery Companies of the City. Even today they have huge influence on the life of the City and their buildings are often grand and impressive. Not all the buildings are the originals. Indeed many have changed locations many times. But they all still play an important role in the life of the City of London
Livery Companies of the City of London
1. The Mercers Company
The word ‘Mercer’ comes from the latin term for merchandise and the Mercers’s were generally traders. The ‘Mercery’ was a market area which existed around the church of St. Mary le Bow in the City of London. According to the Worshipful Company of Mercer’s themselves, a Mercer “might have run a shop or market stall selling fabrics and accessories”. Mercers might also have been traders who moved from town to town selling goods. The present Mercer’s Hall is on Ironmonger Lane in London
2. The Grocers Company
Originally known as the Ancient Guild of Pepperers, the name was changed in 1376 to the Company of Grocer’s. Its first royal charter was granted in 1428 by Henry VI. The original Pepperer’s were responsible for ‘garbling’ which was the prevention of the impairment of spices and drugs. They were also responsible for the Kings Beam from which goods were weighed and so become responsible for weights and measures. The term ‘Grocer’ comes from the Latin ‘Grossarius’. This means ‘a person who works with large amounts of trade goods’. The origin of the word ‘Grocery’ comes from here. The present Grocer’s Hall is on Princes Street in London.
3. The Draper’s Company
The Draper’s would have traded in wool and cloth. They had powers to regulate the woollen cloth trade in the City. It controlled the sale of Cloth at Cloth Fairs and determined the unit of measurement by which wool and cloth was sold. The word drapery comes from the Latin ‘Drappus’ and is a general term referring to cloths and textiles. The company itself had its first Royal Charter issued in 1364. The Draper’s Hall is on Throgmorton Street in London.
4. The Fishmonger’s Company
The Fishmonger’s were granted their first Royal Charter by Edward I in 1272. At one time they enjoyed a monopoly in trade of fish in the city. As fish was such a staple part of the diet and the city being intimately connected to the Thames and the Sea, this increased the influence of the company significantly. Now the company still maintains links with its past and provides support for a number of fish and fisheries related organisations. The Fishmongers Hall is on the city side of London Bridge on the banks of the Thames.
5. The Goldsmith’s Company
The Goldsmith’s were responsible for testing the quality and Gold and Silver and regulated the trade of the Goldsmith. The word ‘hallmark’ comes from the time when craftsmen were required to bring their goods to the hall for ‘assaying and marking’. It was also responsible (and still is) for checking the quality of the coins produced by the Royal Mint. This is a process called ‘The Trial of the Pyx’. The name ‘Pyx’ refers to the chests in which the coins were transported. It derives from the ‘Pyx chamber’ in Westminster Abbey where the chests were kept. The ‘Trial’ is named after the Metal Plate against which the coins are tested. The Goldsmiths Hall is on Foster Lane in London.
Determining precedence must have been tricky. For positions six and seven the issue became insurmountable especially with feelings running high and honour at stake. The Skinners and the Merchant Taylor’s had a history. In 1484 it turned to violence during the Lord Mayor’s river procession. With such a delicate scenario, a solution was devised which meant that the Skinners and the Merchant Taylors changed position every year. It is thought that the phrase “at sixes and sevens” came about because of the dispute.
6&7. The Merchant Taylor’s Company (alternating with the Skinners for position 7 every year)
The Merchant Taylor’s were given their first Royal Charter by Edward III in 1327. Initially an association of citizens who worked as Tailors and Linen Armourers. The company grew to such an extent that it controlled the tailoring trade. Linen Armourers made the padded tunics worn underneath suits of armour. These were important pieces of clothing in a City often at the heart of warfare. The Merchant Taylor’s Hall is on Threadneedle Street (quite appropriately) in the City of London.
7&6. The Skinners Company (alternating with the Merchant Taylor’s for position 6 every year)
The Skinners had their origin in the fur trade which back in medieval times was an extremely luxury item. Expensive as it was to import, it was a status item and its use was strictly controlled. Different types of fur were restricted to different classes. Ermine and Sable for example was only for Royalty and the Aristocracy. Common folk had to make do with less exotic furs from Rabbit or Cat. The Company was granted its first Royal Charter in 1327 by Edward III. Skinners Hall is at 8 Dowgate Hill in London.
8. The Haberdashers Company
Haberdashers sold things such as ribbons, gloves, pins and caps and Hats. The company first received its Royal Charter in 1448. The Haberdashers were joined by the Hatmaker’s Fraternity in 1502. This meant that there were two groups representing Haberdashers of Small Wares and Haberdashers of Hats. Haberdashers Hall can be found at 18 West Smithfield in London.
9. The Salter’s Company
Salt was an important commodity in medieval times as it was used extensively to preserve meat and fish. The importance of Salt as a commodity goes back years and the word ‘Sal’ is the origin of the word ‘Salary’ as Roman soldiers were given salt rations. Other uses for salt included cleaning, dyeing fabric, bleaching, degreasing, dehairing and softening leather. Salters were experts in the dry salting of meat and fish. They would also have been aware of the many other ways in which salt could be of benefit in medieval daily life. The company received its first license from Richard II in 1394. Salters Hall is on Fore Street in London.
10. The Ironmonger’s Company
Originally known as the Ferroners the Ironmongers Company regulated the quality of iron which would have been used extensively in the wheels of carts used to transport goods. They were given their Royal Charter in 1463 by Edward IV. After the iron industry moved into the North and Midlands, the Ironmongers Company shifted tack to works within philanthropy and education. Nestled within the Barbican estate the Ironmongers Company can be found on Shaftsbury Place, a little alley off Aldersgate.
11. The Vintner’s Company
Vintners controlled the important wine trade in medieval England and its first charter of 1363 gave it a monopoly for trade with Gascony. As wine made up one third of all the imports at this time then controlling the trade route to a major wine production centre was important. Today the Vintners Company still retains the right to sell wine without license in the City of London but a lot of its other purpose has changed to more charitable works. The Vintners Hall can be found on Upper Thames Street in London.
12. The Clothworker’s Company
The Clothworkers were formed following the amalgamation of the Fullers and the Shearmen in 1528. Fullers were people who prepared cloth ready to use by removing the impurities such as the grease and dirt. The process of ‘fullering’ would also thicken the cloth. Shearmen were finishers of cloth and would further prepare the material ensuring that the surface of the material was even and loose fibres removed. The Clothworkers Hall is on Dunster Court in Mincing Lane.
To read more posts about the history of the City of London, take a look at: