Inclusivity among the City and its Livery Companies

The subject of inclusivity is one that has rightly gained prominence in the City of London in recent years. It continues to be an area of focus in the City’s government, for policing, in business, in the Livery Companies and many other walks of life. 

Past Lord Mayors have shined a light on inclusivity, various groups have formed to bring attention to aspects of inclusion (e.g. Women in the City, City Hindus Network, City Sikhs Network, Interbank LGBT Forum), and many programmes have been launched at organisational and city-wide level to increase awareness of inclusion and opportunities for people all walks of life to be welcomed; to participate; to be valued; to be respected; and supported so they may achieve their full potential.

This article explores the subject of inclusivity through the lens of the City’s history as a trading port connected with the world; a place where aptitude, energy and talent are the keys to personal success and societal prosperity - but also vital to the well being of the individual and the communities within which they circulate, whether at work, in their social or spiritual life. The inclusive credentials of the Livery Companies are examined as places where the talent in the City has coalesced for centuries and continues to do so in modern times.

The City of London, inclusive from its foundations

Since the earliest Roman settlement on the North bank of the Thames, London has been a trading port connected with Europe and the wider world. Many historians have written about the City’s early trading links evidenced by artefacts discovered during many archeological digs in the City and the written records left my the Romans.

The Roman settlers intermingled with the native British tribes, and operated a wide network of patronage among the client chieftains in Britain whose peoples supplied goods to London for export, and were consumers of its imports. The relationship between the Romans and the ancient Britons wasn’t always harmonious as Boudicca’s levelling of the City in AD67 shows, but the Romans rebuilt and trade flourished. The evidence gathered by the Museum of London tells us that native Britons made up the majority of the population of Roman London and while many were slaves, some rose to very high office.

Skip forward a thousand years and the first Royal Charter issued to the City of London by WIlliam I (Duke of Normandy) explicitly mentions the City’s diverse nature when the newly crowned king sends greetings to his citizens of London, both French and English. The Norman nobility ruled England but the Anglo-Saxon Aldermen continued to rule London. The story of the City's most famous Lord Mayor also speaks of the opportunity available in the City to even those of low birth.

The many tales of the life of Dick Whittington celebrate the rise of a humble country boy of limited means to the highest elected office in the land, a journey in which his energy, perseverance, talents and a bit of luck with a cat all combine to raise him up. The truth of Dick Whittington is not quite that of the rags to riches progression, but rather one of a knight's son being apprenticed to the premier Livery Company and becoming a very successful merchant. However the story continues to be a shorthand for the opportunities that the City offers to those who have the talent, no matter their upbringing, to rise in their chosen profession and benefit society as they progress.

London has at times acted as a sanctuary such as when the Huguenots left France for England in the 1680s. Oliver Cromwell encouraged the Jews to return to England during the interregnum in order to bring their trade links with Spain from the Netherlands to London. To this day the oldest Jewish synagogue in Britain, opened in 1701, is located in the City of London at Bevis Marks although an earlier synagogue was located in Creech Lane in 1663. Recent discoveries connected with Crossrail have revealed that the Basketmakers' Company were admitting Freemen of African origin in the 16th century. One London diarist, a contemporary of Pepys, records how every language in the world could be heard on the City's streets during his travels across the Square Mile.

So London has from its very beginning been an inclusive place, welcoming to all those who bring talent and trade to the capital. But what of the modern City particularly the Livery Companies which  continue to be attract and concentrate talent?

The Livery Companies - unique organisations with an inclusive outlook

Medieval guilds, or their modern equivalents, are not a feature of British society that most people come across in either a professional or social capacity. Few are aware of their existence, and what little awareness there is may be enveloped in myth and misconception. Anyone who has been invited to a Livery Company formal dining event will likely have experienced a surfeit of older men in bow ties partaking in curious ceremonies. It is easy to understand why there is often a comparison with Freemasonry even if the two organisations are not linked.

The image of Livery Companies as ‘male, pale and stale’ is increasingly at odds with the reality and indeed the historical evidence. While it is undeniably true that many Liverymen (imports both genders) are white, male and over 50, the true picture is both more complex and changing. In times past the age profile of the Liverymen would have been remarkably younger, not least because of life expectancy, but also because of the age at which apprentices became Freemen (21).

Throughout the early and late medieval period when the Livery Companies were the engines of trade and commerce, their continued existence depended upon apprentices who started at around age 14 and qualified at 21. Today Livery Companies continue to provide apprenticeships and many also support Journeymen through mentorship in the first years of their employment.

Gender has never been a barrier to admission to the Livery Companies, at least not in any significant manner. Women have been able to join the Livery for many centuries. A particular notable example being Queen Elizabeth I who was a Freesister of the Mercers Company. Wives would often be admitted if their husbands predeceased them while still running the family business. Widows and orphans would also be supported by the Livery Companies. Women had the vote in the City of London centuries before universal suffrage, and they ran businesses, and participated in the civic life of the City.

While two Livery Companies currently have no women members among their ranks, they are very much the exception. A milestone was passed just a few years ago when the association of female Past Masters achieved 100 members - significant because progression to Master often takes 20 years in a Livery Company (irrespective of gender), so these women started their journey to the chair of their respective companies well before the topic of gender inclusivity among the Livery Companies was widely understood or recognised.

The City has also provided two female Lord Mayor’s, and currently has over 24 women represented in the Court of Common Council including 3 Aldermen. Among the Master of Livery Companies, Guilds and Companies without Livery approximately 8% have female Masters. Among the Clerks (the Chief Executive Officer) the representation of women is nearer 20% (2016 figures).

Clearly more can and should be done to ensure that women are able to play a greater role in the life of the Livery Companies and many of the younger companies are exemplars in that regard. Two of the guilds seeking Livery Company status are in professions where women are usually very well represented: Human Resources and Nursing.

Ancient Livery Companies find their foundations in religious fraternities and the Livery has not forgotten or lost its links with the Christian church, however all Livery Companies welcome those of any faith or none. There is no pressure, expectation or obligation to drink alcohol at any Livery Company event and consideration of dietary requirements is now a routine aspect of any dining occasion.

Race, ethnicity and cultural background are no barriers to admission or progression within the Livery although more can always be done to extend a welcoming hand to those who might otherwise walk on by rather than step inside to experience the Livery.

My own experience has consistently been that of a welcoming and friendly environment, one in which people are valued, respected and supported irrespective of their race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, age or gender. The Livery Companies aren’t perfect and they certainly cannot afford to become complacent - a situation thankfully unlikely to occur as they are not charged with arbitrary targets to become more ‘diverse’ in one or more dimensions.

That said not everyone will necessary want to join a Livery Company or feel at home among them. Formal dining, etiquette, dress codes, unwritten rules of social behaviour - all permeate the Livery. They have a strong tribal identify and have rites of passage that some may find anachronistic, irrelevant or just plain silly.

Livery Companies will probably never perfectly reflect society at large, not least because they are a creature of the City of London - on a practical level active participation in them is contingent upon being able to get into City fairly often. Furthermore most Livery Companies are funded by the membership fees, and most of their events are self-funded, so active participation is also dependent upon a certain level of disposable income. Equally important is the availability of time to dedicate to the Livery, since every Liveryman is a volunteer - his or her family and work life must take priority before their commitments to the Livery. Lastly many of the older companies and all of the modern companies are intimately connected with their trade, craft or profession and membership may be restricted to those who are qualified and practicing in their occupation. These factors more than any other are likely to limit how widely the Livery’s otherwise inclusive nature reaches; the Livery, especially the modern companies, will continue to reflect the profile of the associated trade, craft or profession.

I shall close this topic with the prophetic words of Lot Cavenagh, a notorious robber and ne're-do-well who was tried for capital crimes at the Old Bailey in the early 18th century. Cavenagh’s poetic language reveals an essential truth about the City of London, it has always been a place that welcomes those who have the desire and ability to advance in their chosen profession - even if their occupation leads them to an early demise.

‘Thence I proceeded on my way to London, that great and famous City, which may truly be said, like the Sea and the Gallows, to refuse none.’

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 third or Lord Mayor's edition featuring a Foreword from the Rt Hon The Lord Mayor of London.

Available online from Apple (as an eBook), Amazon (in hardback or eBook) or Etsy (in hardback or hardback with the author's seal attached). Also available from all major City of London tourist outlets and bookstores.

I welcome polite feedback and constructive comment on all my blog articles. If you spot and error or omission, please do let me know (please illustrate with verifiable facts linked to an authoritative source where appropriate).


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