The traditions of the City of London and its Livery Companies

The traditions of the City of London and its Livery Companies rival those of the Royal Household for their displays of pageantry and public spectacle, blending of the past with the present and sense of majesty that no other city can rival. The fact that more troops of the Crown participate in the annual Lord Mayor's Show than parade in the Sovereign's annual birthday parade (Trooping the Colour) illustrates the scale of the City's ability to put on a show. In fact the very word show when taken to mean a public spectacle derives from the requirement that the City's elected chief magistrate 'show himself' to the Monarch or his justices and swear allegiance, hence the Lord Mayor's Show.

The early 20th century antiquarian and author Dr George Williamson captured the panoply of City ceremonial in Curious Survivals, a book presented to Queen Mary and now in the Royal Collection. The opening chapter of his comprehensive work on British customs and traditions reads thus:

"There is no place in England in which old customs have been more carefully preserved than the square mile known as the City of London, and within its boundaries there are probably enshrined more of these ancient habits and survivals than in any other place in the world"

Dr Williamson was not exaggerating when he wrote those words in 1921 and almost one hundred years later the number and range of City traditions has increased, some resurrected from the past, others invented anew. Some City traditions are, by their nature, rare events such as the ceremonial entry of a King of Arms at Temple Bar on the occasion of proclaiming a new sovereign (last enacted in 1952) and new annual traditions have also been forged such as the United Guilds' Service which is conducted in St Paul's Cathedral and was first held as an act of defiance during the Blitz of World War two.

The growth in modern Livery Companies since the second World War has seen a resurgence in traditions, and no Company is too modern to embrace the past. This is evidenced most clearly by the Royal Charter ceremony of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists. The service of blessing was held at St Paul's Cathedral and celebrated at a spectacular civic luncheon in Mansion House during the summer of 2010 at which HRH Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, formally handed over the charter to the Master of the Company.

A ceremonial procession in the City of London, lead by the Beadle, the Clerk to the Information Technologists carries the Company's newly presented Royal Charter guarded by two pikemen of the Honourable Artillery Company's Pikemen and Musketeers. Photo copyright Christopher Histed (2010)

Even when the original purpose of a tradition may have been lost to history they all find their origins in some practical necessity such as the sweeping of the streets ahead of the Vintners' Company procession when the Master, Wardens and other members of the Company proceed to church. Thankfully the City streets are no longer an open sewer, but the tradition remains.

A good example of a tradition which still performs a practical necessity is that of the receiving line which precedes formal banquets in the City.

The receiving line is an opportunity for the diners to meet and identify the host and his or her partner, and in the case of Livery Companies and City Guilds it also allows the membership to become acquainted with the senior officers of the Company who are soon to take their turn as Master. Some Companies and Guilds ensure that a member of the Company is nominated to welcome guests who are otherwise unaccompanied and may not be familiar with the etiquette and formality of City banquets.

The traditions of a City of London or Livery Company banquet begin before the formalities of the evening, and the custom of sending a pour memoire card remains strong in the City. In an era of smartphones and digital diaries the printing and postage of a pour memoire card may seem unnecessary, but they form a nice keepsake and help with security. They can also be used to convey important details such as whether the wearing of medals and decorations is required, and what time diners can expect the evening to finish, details that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Pour memoire card sent to a guest invited to the Honorary Freedom admission ceremony of Professor Stephen Hawking. The pour memoire card is something to 'have and to hold' and conveys all the vital information in a form that's unlikely to be forgotten.

To the uninitiated some of the City ceremonial may appear to have a Masonic look and feel to it, and it is certainly true that Freemasonry has borrowed heavily from City and Livery customs, yet the rituals of Freemasonry are centred around a series of allegorical plays which are based upon people, events and lessons recorded in the Old Testament. The Livery Companies used to participate in allegorical religious mystery plays that were performed in public; the term mystery in this context derived from ministerium the latin for occupation or craft. King Henry VIII's break with the Church of Rome put an end to the mystery plays in London although they continue in Chester, Lincoln and York.

City and Livery Company ceremony is, for the most part, civic in nature and not based upon allegory, neither is it moralistic or quasi-religious in tone. In fact any religious aspect to City and Livery Company ceremony is conducted in the context of the Church of England, such as the United Guilds' Service.

Master and Wardens of the Fan Makers' Company in their robes and insignia of office on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral following the annual United Guilds' Service. Photo copyright Paul D Jagger (2014).

A full explanation of all the City and Livery Company ceremonies is beyond the scope of this blog article, and the following list provides a sample of just a few of the ceremonies performed on an annual cycle:
  • The United Guilds' Service - St Paul's Cathedral
  • Common Hall - election of the Sheriffs and certain other ancient officers
  • Common Hall - election of the Lord Mayor
  • Ceremony of the Quit Rents - Royal Courts of Justice
  • Beating the Bounds - various parishes in the City of London
  • The Cart Marking Ceremony - conducted by the Carmen's Company
  • Gibraltar Day Parade
  • Swan Upping - by the Vintners' and Dyers' Companies
  • St Matthew's Day Parade - Christ's Hospital School parades in the City
  • The Silent Ceremony - installation of the Lord Mayor elect
  • Doggett's Coat and Badge - a sculling wager held on the Thames
  • The Lord Mayor's Show
  • Lord Mayor's speech to the Livery Companies - inviting Masters and Clerks to Mansion House
  • Various gun salutes on Royal birthdays - performed by the Honourable Artillery Company
  • The Boar's Head Ceremony - performed by the Butchers' Company
Without doubt the most frequently performed, and yet one of the most ancient ceremonies performed in the City of London is that of admitting persons into the Freedom. This ceremony is usually conducted in the Chamberlain's Court in Guildhall and takes the form of a solemn declaration, signing of the Freemen's roll and offering the right hand of friendship.

It is the tradition of London that all newly admitted Freeman are described as 'Our youngest Freeman' irrespective of their age at the time of admission, and of course the word Freeman imports both genders.

The declaration made by persons admitted into the Freedom of the City of London. The wording of the declaration remains essentially unchanged since records began. Photo copyright Paul D Jagger (2014).

Of all the City's many customs the one that all Livery Companies share in common is that of the Loving Cup ceremony, although the precise details of how the ceremony is performed may differ from one Company to the next. It is also a ceremony that Freemasonry has borrowed from the Livery Companies.

The complexities of the Loving Cup ceremony are such that many Livery Companies feel compelled to explain the ceremony in the dining card provided to each diner, and some further demonstrate the ceremony before inviting diners and guests to participate. This invariably complicates matters and the ceremony is best entered into with a spirit of daring do, and a good measure of self-effacing humour.

Loving cup belonging to the Clothworkers' Company, accompanied by the obligatory napkin tied to one of the arms. Photo copyright Paul D Jagger (2017).

The traditions of the City of London and its Livery Companies also extend to small courtesies such as that of the Sheriffs sending heraldic Christmas cards to all of the Livery Companies, featuring the armorial bearings of both the City's Sheriffs. The Masters of the Livery Companies are also invited to one of the first speeches given by the newly installed Lord Mayor when he or she sets out their aims for the year soon after the Lord Mayor's Show.

Another tradition in the City of London is that of Livery Companies flying their heraldic banner on the exterior of their hall when a Court Meeting or other formal event such as the installation of a new Master is taking place. On the day of the United Guilds' Service, when all the Livery Companies participate, every one of the Livery Halls will have a heraldic banner on display.

Even on a cold and damp day the heraldic banner of the Information Technologists' Company brings a bit of colour to Bartholomew Close. Photo copyright Paul D Jagger (2018).

The City is famed for this sort of assiduous attention to detail and maintenance of custom that ensures continuity and fosters a sense of common purpose and goodwill among the Companies and between the Companies and the City. Detail is something the City does well, probably because many of the City's Beadles are former senior non-commissioned officers or warrant officers of HM Forces, and they are the guardians of many of the City's traditions and certainly of the Livery Company treasures.

In recent times the City and the Livery Companies have adopted several new traditions that find their origins in the past, such as the annual Inter-Livery Pancake Races, the annual Sheep Drive over London Bridge and the Jailed and Bailed trial of the Livery Company Masters. Some may view these as a bit frivolous and perhaps even below the dignity of the Livery Companies, yet it is as well to remember that the principal event of the City calendar, the Lord Mayor's Show, has itself always blended pomp and pageantry with a healthy dose of fun and frivolity.

Not every Livery Company event is sombre and serious as the Inter-Livery Pancake Races illustrate. Photo copyright Paul D Jagger (2018).

Not every City tradition has survived into modern times; for example the custom of the Lord Mayor's Day being held largely (but never exclusively) on the Thames has ceased, and a short-lived revival in the form of an early morning river pageant lasted just seven years from 2011 until 2017. In times past the Livery Companies vied for position in the river pageant resulting in collisions, arguments, fights and loss of life; this was the reason the Livery Companies agreed to adopt a strict order of precedence. While the era of grand river barges has passed, many of the Livery Companies now own and operate cutters which participate in various races on the Thames in their capacity as members of the Thames Traditional Rowing Association.

Model of a Livery Company barge owned by the Clothworkers' Company. Photo copyright Paul D Jagger (2017).

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.


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