Monday, 22 May 2017

The role of the Beadle

The City of London has many civic and ceremonial officers which are unknown in other towns and cities throughout the United Kingdom such as: the Ale Conners, the Bridge Masters, the Chief Commoner, the Clerk to the Chamberlain's Court, and the Secondary and Undersheriff to highlight just a few. The Beadle is the one office holder which is common to both the City of London and its Livery Companies, but in typical City style the role is not the same in every Company and certainly not between the Companies and the City. Such is the way of the City that delights in creating exceptions to, and variations on, a common theme!

There are other Beadles (sometimes 'Esquire Bedell') to be found in some of the ancient universities in the UK and the Commonwealth, and these are ceremonial officers who keep the customs and traditions of the university in addition to performing a role similar to that of the Livery Company Beadle.

The Ward Beadle

Each of the City's twenty-five wards has at least one Beadle, some of the larger wards have more than one Beadle (up to a maximum of three for the largest wards), but the norm is for a ward to have a single Beadle. The Ward Beadle is an office probably dating from the Anglo-Saxon period, and may be as ancient as that of Sheriff - nobody can say for certain.

The Ward Beadle (or Beadles) are nominated by the Alderman for each ward and elected at the ward-moot with the Common Councilmen for each Ward. They serve as ceremonial officers who carry the ward's mace (otherwise kept in Guildhall) and assist the Alderman in the performance of civic duties, especially during ceremonial events, meetings of Common Hall and during a ward-moot or any folk-moot as may be called. They wear a colourful ceremonial robe and tricorn hat, the colour of the gown varying from ward to ward.

Ward Beadles of the City of London
Ward Beadles of the City of London here seen outside Guildhall © Paul D Jagger
In times past the Ward Beadle would maintain a list of the Freemen living in their ward, being those persons who were eligible to vote in elections to Common Council and for the Alderman. Since residents and business voters now form the electorate for the wards, this role has been absorbed into the responsibilities of the Corporation of London, specifically the Town Clerk's department.

The Ward Beadle also had responsibility for fining Freemen who failed to attend a ward-moot without sufficient cause. Theoretically this power still exists, but is never exercised.

The principal surviving duty of the Ward Beadle is that of opening each ward-moot, keeping order during proceedings and bringing the meeting to a close.

Another duty of the Ward Beadle is that of informing the Alderman of any person of 'bad and evil life' or hucksters of ale, or persons keeping a brothel. In this respect they are something akin to a police officer, or at least a watch keeper.

The Livery Company Beadle

Each of the City's Livery Companies has a Beadle, who may be a full-time salaried employee or a part-time retainer, perhaps working for several companies. Livery Company Beadles, like their City brethren, are most often seen performing a ceremonial role by making announcements and carrying the Company's staff at the head of the procession during dinners, banquets, church services and other events.

The Beadle of The Worshipful Company of Information Technologists in his robe of office seen here in Guildhall
Mr Alan O'Connor, Beadle to The Worshipful Company of Information Technologists. Image copyright Alan O'Connor
Those companies which own a hall will usually, but not always, combine the role of Beadle with that of Hall Manager responsible for upkeep of the hall and safe keeping of the Company's treasures, something akin to a caretaker while retaining the ceremonial role. In the very largest halls the Beadle may have his own flat (and currently all Beadles in the City are male).

Livery Company Beadles are responsible for keeping order and ensuring that only members of Court are admitted to Court meetings, and only Liverymen of their Company are admitted to Common Hall. In this regard they perform a similar role to the Ward Beadle.

In times past when Livery Companies had many young apprentices in their charge, the Beadle was responsible for their discipline, and today a Company Beadle might have a quiet word in the ear of any Freeman or Liveryman who requires a bit of close quarter counselling on his or her dress, behaviour or timekeeping. If the Court of a Livery Company awards a fine for misbehaviour to one of the Company's Freemen or Liverymen, it is the Beadle who is responsible for administering the fine.

Perhaps it is for this reason that Livery Companies Beadles are often former police officers or non-commissioned officers from the Armed Forces.
A group of Livery Company Beadles in their ceremonial uniforms during the annual Lord Mayor's Show in London
Livery Company Beadles during the annual Lord Mayor's Show. Image copyright Alan O'Connor
During ceremonial events it is the Beadle who calls the gathering to order, introduces speakers, and keeps the event running to time. The Beadle will also announce guests to the receiving line and acts as the liaison between the host and the catering staff since he is the only person (other than the catering staff) who is permitted to move around the room during a formal dinner or banquet. The Beadle must be at home speaking with royalty, the Lord Mayor, masters of Livery Companies, bishops, politicians, judges, senior military officers and the youngest apprentice.

While the Beadle must be able to administer a quiet word from time to time his role is much aided if he has a thunderous voice that commands attention - a Beadle is often heard more than seen; never the less he usually wears a brightly coloured gown that echoes the colours of the Company's coat of arms unlike the Clerk's which is a sober legal gown based on that of a Barrister at Law. In addition they carry a staff of office which may be raised up like a tour guide's umbrella to lead the way in church or during the entry and exit of the top table at a Livery Company dinner. Some Beadles wear a tudor bonnet, others a bicorn hat worn athwart.

Bicorn Hat worn by the Beadle of the Engineers' Company © Paul D Jagger

The Beadle must be a man* of many talents, able to seamlessly adapt to a number of roles, and for those that manage a hall they will also have the responsibility of guiding visitors and guests, and perhaps liaison and negotiation with clients who hire the hall on a commercial basis.

The Beadle must maintain a commanding but diplomatic presence no matter what the circumstances. Image copyright Alan O'Connor.

Together the Beadles of London have their own Guild, which is raising awareness of this ancient and multi-facetted role, one which has perhaps received less attention and importance than it should. You may discover more about the role and history of the Beadle at this website: www.thebeadlesoflondon.com

* There is no restriction on the role of Beadle being held by a man. The current Junior and Senior Esquire Bedells of Cambridge University are both women.

The Junior Esquire Bedell of Cambridge University carrying the University's silver plated ebony mace © Paul D Jagger
If you would like to learn more about the City's many customs, ceremonies, traditions, institutions, officers and landmarks, you may enjoy The City of London Freeman's Guide available online from Apple (as an eBook), Amazon (in hardback or eBook) or Etsy (in hardback or hardback with the author's seal attached)


The front cover of The City of London Freeman's Guide LORD MAYOR'S edition











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