Ancient Livery Companies and their role in the 21st Century

The City of London's Livery Companies represent an immense range of trades, crafts and professions. Some companies such as the Butchers and Carpenters were probably active prior to the Norman Conquest, others such as the Air Pilots and Information Technologists are creatures of the 20th century. What they all have in common are roots in a particular occupation whether it be ancient or modern. For most companies the occupational links remain strong even if the particular craft, such as that of the Bowyer or the Wheelwright, is no longer a major field of employment.

Are these companies still relevant in the 21st century?

All too often public awareness of the Livery Companies is limited to the floats in the Lord Mayor's Show or photos on social media of white tie banquets in the City. This can reinforce the erroneous perception that the Livery Companies are fancy dining clubs with no substantive role in trade, craft or profession. Freemen and Liverymen will know that the reality is very different. Livery Companies are all immensely active in charity, education and fellowship and most are still well connected with their respective occupations.

Some companies, including the Goldsmiths, Scriveners, Gunmakers, Farriers and Apothecaries are particularly noteworthy for their role in regulation, inspection, examination, trading standards and enforcement. Others including the Furniture Makers, Pewterers and Turners advance their craft through competitions, awarding and exhibitions. The range of ways in which Livery Companies support occupations is both diverse and far reaching.

There is a resurgence of occupational links among the Livery, and these were very much in evidence at the Heritage Skills Festival held at Lincoln Cathedral on 23/24 June. The Lord Mayor attended on the 23rd and participated in a ceremonial procession, Evensong and organ recital followed by dinner in the Cathedral. This set the tone for an exhibition of the highest standard in a magnificent setting.

I visited the Festival on Saturday 24th and toured the stalls, exhibits and practical displays of the various companies. What follows is a small selection of the stalls I visited and the crafts I saw in action that illustrate the ongoing role of the Livery Companies.

Liveries on Lincoln's Green

Some twenty-three Livery Companies were present at the Heritage Skills Festival, alongside leading businesses working in the trades and crafts represented by the Livery and a number of colleges and professional bodies that provide education or professional development in the same fields.

The panoply of Livery and trade stalls were interspersed with displays related to the life of the Cathedral, such as the Guild of Vergers, a 'have a go' bellringing rig (if that's the correct term) and exhibits showing the work to preserve or repair church organs and stained glass. The Cathedral and the green outside were packed with all manner of displays, some of which, such as stone carving, invited audience participation, others such as moulding with molten lead, were in the safe hands of professionals.

My first stop was at the Saddlers' Company stall, where I watched a saddle being stuffed and stitched by hand using some of the tools of the craft. The Saddlers' Company is particularly well known within the saddlery trade, and is a vital funding partner to the Society of Master Saddlers. The Company also supports the British Equestrian Trade Association and the British Equestrian Federation. Britain's role as a global centre of excellence for horse breeding, training and racing ensures that the Saddlery trade remains vibrant. It is no surprise to that HRH The Princess Royal is Perpetual Master of the Saddlers' Company.

The craft of the Saddler in action as demonstrated by a member of the Saddlers' Company © Paul D Jagger
Next on my visit was the Basketmakers' Company, the only Livery Company to have been exiled from the City, and one which cannot be certain that status has been rescinded. Never-the-less the Basketmakers' are once again active in the Square Mile. The Company had an extensive display of finished wares and several members were actively demonstrating their intricate craft weaving mats, baskets and ornate centrepieces.

In the City the Basketmakers are well known for their work in creating the pagan giants known as Gog and Magog that parade in the Lord Mayor's Show, demonstrating that whether you are interested in wicker or wicca - there's something in the City of you!

Basketmaking in action © Paul D Jagger
Some of the wares of the Basketmaker © Paul D Jagger
From weaving of baskets to weaving of a more conventional kind the next stall in my tour was the that of the Worshipful Company of Weavers. The Weavers' Company, while not wealthy, does have the distinction of the oldest extant Royal Charter dated 1155 AD. They are mentioned in documents held in parliament at the earlier date of 1130 and it seems likely this Guild was operative at the time of the Norman Conquest.

The relatively modern contrivance of the handloom was demonstrated by members of the Company as were many examples of finished products.

The Weavers' Company demonstrating the handloom © Paul D Jagger
The Upholders' Company were proud to introduce their young apprentice and his Masterpiece (that's where the term comes from). I was fortunate enough to spent some time talking to both the apprentice and a craftsman who demonstrated the tools and techniques used in tensioning straps on a chair. I also learned that upholders and undertakers share a common occupational lineage.

Apprentice Upholder and his Masterpiece, surely amply qualified to become a Freeman of the Company!
The master of his craft demonstrating a tensioning aid.
The Joiners and Ceilers Company describe themselves as the 'Jolly Joiners' on Twitter and they can certainly be pleased as punch with the quality of work produced by this young lady apprentice whose Masterpiece was proudly displayed alongside practical demonstrations of joinery. The current Master of the Company did little to dampen expectations by saying the young apprentice would one day be Master!

Young lady apprentice who was identified as a future Master of the Company © Paul D Jagger
Not to be outdone the Plaisterers showed that their Master remains a master of his craft, by demonstrating how to release a plaster ceiling rose from its mould. Another apprentice was working on a plaster lion's head while other plasterers were busy filling plaster moulds.

The Master Plaisterer who is a master plasterer © Paul D Jagger
From plastering to plumbing and the rather more dangerous medium of molten lead. It wasn't obvious to me until I explored the Plumbers' Company stall that plumbing involves all manner of working with lead, and isn't confined to installation and maintenance of pipework for the transit of liquids and gasses. I also learned that the Plumbers' Company have a museum exhibit at the Weald & Download Living Museum in Singleton near Chichester.
Casting lead cherubs using a reusable mould © Paul D Jagger
Lead cherubs immediately after the molten lead has been poured © Paul D Jagger
Next in my tour was the Masons' Company and a considerable display of masonry work in action at various stages of carving from rough stone to near finished smooth work. I spent quite some time speaking with the Master Mason and learning about the various qualities of stone, and particularly the special qualities of Welsh or Cumbrian green slate.

This lady stonemason was busy carving a frog. There was no sign of it turning into a prince! © Paul D Jagger
From frogs to snails, presumably these pieces were commissioned by a French gastronomist for their chateau © Paul D Jagger
I was particularly pleased by the number of women engaged in the various crafts on display, as stonemasons, joiners, plumbers, turners, scriveners, many of whom I spoke to. Particularly fascinating was the discussion I had with the Prime Warden of the Goldsmiths' Company, the first female to hold the post in the history of the Company.

The Goldsmiths' Company had an extensive display of fakes, forgeries and fraudulent hallmarked items that showed how sophisticated, and greedy, some forgers have become.

The hall marking process is the oldest form of consumer protection still in operation today and the Assay Office in London (run by the Goldsmiths' Company) sets the gold standard of testing and quality assurance for gold, silver, platinum and palladium.

Some of the items shown to be fakes or forgeries by the Goldsmiths' Company © Paul D Jagger
Young apprentice of the Goldsmiths' Company demonstrating a mass spectrometer © Paul D Jagger
The Tylers and Bricklayers' Company were demonstrating a wide array of skills with slate and concrete tiles, including the light weight pantiles (for roofing) and some very impressive encaustic tiles for interior decoration.

Showcasing various types of roofing tile and the art of cutting slate © Paul D Jagger 
This emerging turret shows the skill of the Bricklayer and may prove useful for the item donated by the Clockmakers' to the Heritage Skills Festival auction (read on below). © Paul D Jagger
In the interest of keeping this blog to a manageable size I have skipped several of the companies I visited including (in no particular order) the Scriveners, Borderers, Glovers, Coachmakers, Wheelwrights, Builders' Merchants, Paviors, Turners, Glaziers and Farmers. Also on hand were the Parish Clerks who enacted a medieval Mystery Play, one of the ancient roles of the Livery Companies that has largely disappeared from the London scene but remains strong in York.

My day ended with a visit to the joint display by the British Horological Institute and the Clockmakers' Company. The former were keen to emphasise their antiquity by stating they had 'been around a long time' (established 1858). This was not a boast I would make seated alongside the Clockmakers' Company (established 1631) never-the-less they had some marvellous timepieces on display and were demonstrating clock repair.

Demonstrating clock repairing skills to a youthful audience of potential apprentices © Paul D Jagger
Truly a Masterpiece, this astrological clock shows the clockmakers' skill and art © Paul D Jagger
The Clockmakers' Company donated this turret clock to the Heritage Skills Festival auction, handy if you have a turret that's in need of a clock © Paul D Jagger
This seems an appropriate point in time to wrap up this article but before I close, a few final reflections on the Heritage Skills Festival.

The event was superbly organised by the team at Lincoln Cathedral, well supported by the Livery Companies and associated business, and crowded throughout the day by a steady stream of visitors, most of whom knew nothing of the Livery Companies. The very best of each trade, craft or profession was on display, there was something for everyone and if this event is repeated I will definitely return with my young family.

Even though the event was very well supported by the Livery there was scope for more companies to participate, particularly those in heritage crafts or the victualling trades. The Skills Festival would also have benefitted from some overarching context for the general public on the role of the Livery Companies and their beneficial impact on trade, craft, profession from an education and skills perspective. The Livery Committee and the Livery Skills Council have a vital role to play in getting the message out there about the work of the Livery.

May the Heritage Skills Festival continue to flourish root and branch.

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. 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)


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