The Etiquette of Livery Company Dinners and Banquets

The Livery Companies are known for their formal dining in grand style at halls throughout the City of London. To the uninitiated, who may be attending a Livery Company dinner or banquet for the first time, these events can appear a daunting prospect, yet it need not be so - in fact it should be an entirely enjoyable experience. 

A Livery Company dinner or banquet will, at its very best, be both fun and formal but never stuffy or unwelcoming. The essence of a successful event is that everyone should feel comfortable and enjoy the experience. The following guidelines (which may vary in minute detail from one Company, banquet or dinner to the next) will help you enjoy the experience and remember it for all the right reasons.

The invitation

When invited to attend any event it is simple courtesy to respond in a timely manner indicating whether or not you will be able to attend. Livery Company dinners and banquets take an immense amount of planning and organisation to deliver and will often involve hundreds of diners. A swift, clear and simple note of acceptance or apology will be appreciate by the person who has sent the invitation.

The dress code

Now listen here chaps, if you want to avoid looking like an absolute shower, keep to the dress code

The dress code for the event will invariably be stated on the invitation, usually by a short-hand such as: Morning Coat or Lounge Suit (for lunches), Black Tie  (Dinner Jacket) or White Tie (Evening Tails). A clear and comprehensive definition of what these dress codes mean for ladies and gentlemen may be found in The City of London Freeman's Guide. Suffice to say ladies have far more latitude in interpreting the colour and style of their dress whereas gentlemen have the advantage of strict uniformity. 

A word to the wise gentleman: A black bow tie with a wing collar shirt may be costume de rigueur for every Mafia boss in 1940s New York, but it is not the done thing in the City and no matter what others might encourage you to do, this is an offer you can refuse.

Hats and gloves are a particular area of debate for ladies attending formal City functions, including Common Hall, Livery Dinners and Civic Banquets. The best advice on this subject is: What would Her Majesty do? Tiaras are entirely acceptable... for married women and widows, not aspiring ones.

You probably don't remember me? That's right, 'Lampy Latimer'.  The important point to grasp is that hats are for Ladies who luncheon

Serving officers of HM Armed Forces may substitute White Tie or Black Tie for the equivalent mess dress. Medals and decorations should be worn when stipulated on the invitation. Spurs are unlikely to be appreciated in Livery Halls with ancient wooden staircases and sumptuous carpets. Swords should be left at reception and several Livery Halls have a sword chest for this purpose.

When to arrive

Arriving at or slightly before the time specified on the invitation is always the best approach. For example: if an invitation reads '7pm for 7:30' then please arrive no later than 7pm. The thirty minutes is not there to accommodate late arrivals but rather for guests to check their coat and bags in to the cloakroom, pick up and study the table plan, proceed through the receiving line, enjoy a drinks reception, share small talk with friends and acquaintances and participate in pre-dinner photographs (which for the Court and guests of the Master will be obligatory). 

Considering that a Livery Company banquet will often have 200-300 diners, and larger City events may have up to 700 in the Guildhall - those 30 minutes will go very quickly indeed.

It also provides the opportunity to ensure that you are comfortable before sitting down to eat as getting up during the meal is probably going to be impractical and certainly isn't good manners. Powder your nose before the meal. Unless seated at the top table you will also likely be called in to the dining hall slightly before 7:30 to ensure that everyone is stood behind their seat before the top table is clapped in.

The receiving line

Many formal dinners and banquets will be preceded by a receiving line and drinks reception. If there is a receiving line you will be called forward by the Company Beadle who will carry a staff of office and usually has a loud voice. The Beadle will announce you to the Master and the senior members of the Court of which there may be as many as five with their partners. A polite handshake and very brief good-evening is all that is necessary as you move through the receiving line. 

Addressing dignitaries

Unless you happen to be the wife or husband of the Lord Mayor, or the Master, they are invariably addressed as either 'My Lord Mayor' and 'Master' (or Prime Warden / Upper Bailiff as befits the senior officer of the Company concerned). Familiarity breeds contempt and Livery Company events are not the place to address the Lord Mayor, Sheriffs, Aldermen or Masters of Livery Companies by their first names.

Find your seat

Every dining event will have a seating plan and some companies go to the expense of producing individual plans for each diner with a clear pointer to where they are seated. It is helpful to everyone if you identify where you will be seated prior to being called in to the dining room. It is also useful to learn the names of those persons seated either side and opposite you although name cards will be present at each place setting.

Welcoming the top table

When called to dinner it is usually the custom to stand behind one's seat if the top table have yet to take their places. Often the host and principle guests will be welcomed in to the dining hall by the guests clapping in time to some appropriate musical accompaniment, often Scipio, the slow march of the Grenadier Guards. Diners will be invited to take their seats when the top table have all arrived at their seats. Although everyone will invited to stand soon after the top table is settled when the Honorary Chaplain or perhaps the Clerk reads the grace.

The format of the evening

A dinner or banquet will usually involve a number of toast, speeches and perhaps a Loving Cup or other elements of ceremonial such as the Rose Bowl. Each of these will be clearly signalled and explained to the audience by the Beadle so you should not need to worry about when to stand, or how to respond to each of the toasts - these things will be made clear at the appropriate time - you won't need to take notes! Details of any toasts and perhaps a description of any ceremonial or entertainment element for the evening will be found in the dining card placed at each table setting. It is always helpful to familiarise oneself with the overall flow of the evening although they usually follow a simple pattern of: meal, toasts, speeches, entertainment, stirrup cup.

The meal

When presented with an array of cutlery and glasses there may be a moment of anguish as to which to use in what order. It's really quite simple: work from the outside inward for each course. Fingers should only be used to grasp cutlery, glassware, bread rolls and petit fours. You will be asked if you wish to take wine with each course, and Port (or sometimes Madeira) prior to the toasts. The napkin isn't there for decoration, so please do use it.

Over indulgence at the festive board is to be guarded against, others may not find it so funny if you get a little plastered.

Remaining seated

A typical dinner or banquet will last between two and a half to three hours in length from the point of sitting down to the point of dispersal from the dining room. During that period, other than for toasts and ceremonial elements, the audience should remain seated throughout and certainly not move around the room. Some events may announce a short comfort break after the toasts and before the speeches but in all cases be prepared and make use of that buffer time between arrival and sitting down to dinner. Do not rely on there being a comfort break or the evening finishing early, leaving the room before the toasts and speeches is not acceptable other than in a medical emergency.

Topics of conversation

It is good practice to introduce yourself to your fellow diners when you arrive at your place setting but before sitting down. Try to speak to each diner throughout the meal, find out a little bit about them and pick up on any common areas of interest. The topics of politics, religion, personal relationships and the tragic circumstances surrounding the passing of your pet budgerigar are best avoided.

Where dinnertime conversation is concerned take a leaf out of Dame Edna's glamorous galaxy of gossip, in fact take all the pages out and burn them!

Livery company halls provide a rich fount of opportunities for discussing paintings, porcelain, fine art, architecture, heraldry, stained glass windows, gold and silverware, robes and insignia, customs & traditions, civic ceremony, trades, crafts, professions, royal affiliations, wines, good food and much more besides.

Speeches and prize giving

Most Livery Company dinners and banquets will include several speeches. Unless you are invited to speak (and you will know well before the dinner), nobody else is invited to or expected to make a speech. This includes recipients of prizes or awards who may be called up to the top table to receive their prize, certificate or another memento from the Lord Mayor or the Master. A firm handshake, a thank-you and a smile for the camera is all that's required.

Those who are invited to speak should receive clear instructions on timings from the Company's Clerk or the Lord Mayor's private secretary. Generally City speeches should last around 7 minutes (+/- a minute is fine), be topical and ideally include a measure of appropriate light-hearted humour and wit - the stages of a good speech are: stand up, speak up, shut up!

Passing the port

Unless you wish to become better acquainted with the Bishop of Norwich it is good manners to pass the port, and always to the left (clockwise), when the decanter arrives at your place. Many of the larger events now rely on staff to fill your glass, dispensing with the need to pass the port.

There is so much lore swirling around in a typical decanter of port that it warrants an entire blog article of its own, handy then that I have written just that!

The Loyal Toast

Every City banquet or dinner will feature a Loyal Toast before the speeches. Everyone stands for the Loyal Toast and in most companies the first verse of the National Anthem is sung before the toast is drunk. The Toast is (usually) 'The Queen', and the response is the same. The Merchant Taylors Company toast 'The Queen and the Church'. The format is therefore:
  • The Beadle gavels
  • The Master stands and says 'The Queen'
  • Everyone else stands
  • The first verse National Anthem is sung accompanied by a pianist
  • The Master repeats 'The Queen'
  • Everyone raises their glass and responds 'The Queen'
A shorter version of this omitting singing the National Anthem is usual at lunches.

N.B. It is not necessary to drink, although it is good form to do so.

Leaving the table prior to the Loyal Toast (other than for genuine emergencies) is discourteous to the host, and poor form. If one was dining in the presence of Her Majesty, it would be unacceptable to absent oneself from the table before Her Majesty; the same approach should be adopted regarding the Loyal Toast.

No greater social disgrace is possible than lighting up (or getting up) before the Loyal Toast.

The Royal Toast

Following the Loyal Toast there will be a toast to The Prince Philip, The Prince of Wales, The Duchess of Cornwall and the other members of the Royal Family. The format is similar to the Loyal Toast:
  • The Beadle gavels
  • The Master stands and says 'The Prince Philip, The Prince of Wales, The Duchess of Cornwall and the other members of the Royal Family'
  • Everyone else stands
  • The first six bars of the National Anthem are played but the audience DOES NOT SING
  • The Master repeats 'The Royal Family'
  • Everyone raises their glass and responds 'The Royal Family'
A shorter version of this omitting the National Anthem is usual at lunches.

The Civic Toast

Following the Royal Toast there will be a toast to The Lord Mayor and the City of London Corporation. The format is as follows:

  • The Beadle gavels
  • The Master stands and says 'The Lord Mayor and City of London Corporation'
  • Everyone else stands
  • Everyone raises their glass and responds 'The Lord Mayor'
Other Toasts

There may also be toasts to the guests, usually proposed by the Senior Warden when introducing the guest speaker, and to the Company coupled with the name of the Master proposed at the end of the evening by the guest speaker.

Sung grace (optional)

Some dining events will involve a sung grace which everyone is invited to sing. The words for the sung grace may be found in the dining card.

The stirrup cup

Fortunately you are not expected to be mounted on a horse to participate in this post-prandial drink which is usually announced after the final speech and any parish notices. Diners are not obliged to stay for a final drink but it is a good opportunity to thank your host if you are attending as a guest.

So what is a dinner and what is a banquet?

A simple definition is a dinner is of three courses whereas a banquet will be of four or greater courses, although a more precise definition is that a banquet will include toasts and speeches, therefore all City dinners and in fact... banquets.

Want to learn more about the Livery Companies?

The City of London Freeman's Guide is the definitive concise guide to the City of London and its ancient and modern Livery Companies, their customs, traditions, officers, events and landmarks. Available in full colour hardback and eBook formats and now in its fourth or Masterpiece edition. The guide is available online from Apple (as an eBook), Amazon (in hardback or eBook) Payhip (in ePub format) or Etsy (in hardback or hardback with the author's seal attached). Also available from all major City of London tourist outlets and bookstores.

The City of London Freeman's Guide is available in all major City retail outlets and online

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