The Livery's Perception Problem - Real or Imagined?

This blog article was first published in late January 2020. A year on, and considering the impact of the global pandemic, I've decided to reflect on how the image of the Livery has evolved over the past twelve months - principally as a result of wider digital engagement.


During 2019 several events occurred that caused me to stop and think long and hard about the way the Livery Companies may be viewed by persons outwith the Livery.

Oh to see ourselves through the eyes of others

The first event was my response to the Pan-Livery Initiative’s Attitudinal Survey. While I cannot remember exactly what I wrote in response to the survey’s several questions the overall thrust of my submission was informed by my experience of the Information Technologists’ Company.

The Information Technologists’ Company is rooted in a modern profession and exhibits a 21st century culture. The Company has admitted women to the Court from the earliest days, indeed the purchase of the Company’s Hall was enabled by a gift from Dame Stephanie Shirley CH. The Company has no history of admission by patrimony and has grown by being open, welcoming and inclusive. Almost all Company events are open to Freemen, Liverymen and guests - ensuring that new lifeblood joins the Company. 

My perspective of the Livery is therefore informed by the vibrancy, modernity and relevance of IT in a Livery Company context; I find no juxtaposition between the maintenance of ancient tradition and a profession that operates at the sharp end of the information age.

Having read the results of the Pan-Livery Initiative’s Attitudinal Survey I was dismayed to find that perceptions of the Livery included being stuffy, out of touch, exclusive and even an old boys club. Digging a little deeper I realised these perceptions are in fact second-hand, they are what the respondents to the survey (all of whom were Freemen or Liverymen) think that others outwith the Livery may say of the Livery Companies if asked.

It is notable that the Attitudinal Survey only asked the Livery what it thought others might think of it, nobody outwith the Livery was consulted. In fairness the survey was always intended to be insular to the Livery. 

In the same survey the Livery also thought that most people outwith the Livery had little or no knowledge of the Livery and hence could not form an opinion of Livery - good, bad or indifferent. Meanwhile the Livery’s perception of itself was entirely more positive, focussed on charity, fellowship, tradition and benefitting wider society. 

How can it be that the Livery has a positive view of itself, while harbouring worries that others may have negative views, and yet believing those others know far too little to form any opinion. If the results of the Attitudinal Survey are correct then perceptions of the Livery are clustered around three points on the scale: strongly positive (our view of ourselves), strongly negative (how we think others might view us) and neutral (what we believe others know of us).

I'm my view it was a mistake to ask the Livery what others think of the Livery. The Livery Companies are, more often than not, notoriously poor at external communications (a point identified in the survey) and make little effort to raise their profile outside their membership. Asking Liverymen what others may or may not think about the Livery doesn't advance engagement with an external audience - asking them how they can inform and educate others would have been a much more useful undertaking - but the Livery does like to engage in navel gazing where external perceptions are concerned.

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story

The second event was a news article that appeared on the BBC News website’s home page for a single day in February of 2019 that headlined “London’s secret billion-pound guilds”. Closer inspection of the article revealed it to be based largely on the musings of one disgruntled member of a Livery Company, a member who had won for himself a series of disciplinary actions by the Court. 

I know nothing of the individual concerned, or the circumstances that led to the disciplinary measures he has been subject to, but I am conscious that a Livery Company’s membership is made up of volunteers who give of their own time, talent and funds to continue the work of the Company. Nobody is compelled to stay in a Livery Company against his or her will, and the essence of a Livery Company’s life is sustained by fellowship - not acrimony. The Courts of some companies are slow to see the need for transparency and engagement with the wider Livery, and therein lies the opportunity for disengagement with members.

The BBC News article articulated the views of this one Liveryman including a statement about the Livery Companies, to wit “They became gentlemen's clubs generally from about 1700”. There may be a grain of truth in this in so far as some companies began to lose their connection with trade, but they were never men-only institutions and certainly not clubs in the sense of those in the West End around St James’s. Indeed many companies continued to have a vital role in their trade, craft or profession such as the Apothecaries, the Goldsmiths, the Spectacle Makers and others. 

The article was not well researched and gave the impression that all Livery Companies are spectacularly wealthy and have billions tied up in property and investments. This may be true for a tiny number, but it is far from the reality for most which own no property and the investments of the Livery tend to be in their charitable trusts which benefit good causes (not the Livery).

Thankfully such voices are few and far between, and throughout 2020 many Livery Companies have worked hard to engage with membership and the public at large through digital means. An excellent example was Carols for the City, an initiative that attracted over 5,000 participants and raised over £50,000 for charity.

The echo chamber of Social Media

The third event was a protracted series of Tweets emanating from a certain corner of Common Council implying that the Livery was out of touch, and a posh dining club populated by elderly men. Emoji’s featuring Bertie Wooster like characters with monocles and top hats characterised the sort of mild and rather lazy invective present among a slew of such social media postings.

It’s all too easy to scoff at the Livery with its passion for dressing up, for tradition, for dining in grand style, but this is just the cherry on a cake full of vanilla sponge, and it is done with a purpose - to foster fellowship. Most of the life of a Livery Company goes on in committees, in working groups, in administration and at informal events that are remarkably similar to the daily diet of Common Council. If Common Council were judged by state banquets or the dignified pomp of the Silent Ceremony it too could be painted as out of touch, stuffy, obsessed with ritual and pageantry. I know that's only a tiny part of the experience of serving on Common Council and that most of the work happens during the working day in committee meetings - and so it is for the Livery.

If one’s perceptions of the Livery are informed only by Social Media postings then it’s understandable why a particular perspective might gain ground among some less well informed members of Common Council. The Livery does like to post photos of banquets, speeches, loving cup ceremonies and the suchlike. I’m as guilty as any of sharing such images - frankly they make for great photos of people enjoying themselves in fellowship. Pictures of committee meetings, minutes, agendas, day-to-day administration, reviewing the performance of charitable investments and the many other activities that make up the bulk of the life of a Livery Company do not lend themselves to attention grabbing photos, attention grabbing headlines or pithy captions.

Thankfully these veiled attacks on the Livery have subsided, perhaps because the last Livery Company to exclude women has ceased with that (unlawful) restriction. Moreover many Livery Companies have worked to raise the profile of their charitable work and pastoral care in 2020.

The reality is that Common Council and the Livery share an awful lot in common; both comprise unpaid volunteers who give of their time, talent and commitment freely, often during the working day; both are committee based and work by consensus; both are engaged in a wide variety of activities that benefit stakeholders at local and national scale; both are stewards of land, property, physical and cultural heritage; both have been around for centuries and accrued responsibilities that are varied and unusual; both are supported by a committed team of salaried employees who consistently go above and beyond the call of duty to deliver an excellent service.

That’s not to suggest the Livery doesn’t have its challenges, diversity and inclusion are areas where the Livery (and Common Council) is working hard to attract talent from the widest possible audience and certainly could do better. Progress has been made, and continues to be made on diversity and inclusion. While progress has not been uniform the overall picture is one of continuous improvement toward a more diverse and inclusive Livery. Moreover progress should be measured by the advances that have been made, not by where the Livery is at any moment in time.

Unlike Common Council, the Livery is not one body politick, neither is it subject to the regulation of a local government body. The Livery is 110 fiercely independent companies, each with its own history, customs, traditions and culture. Expecting the Livery to advance along a common path, at the same pace, is dreaming in technicolour.

Formal dining events make for good photos but they represent a minuscule fraction of the life of a Livery Company

Looking beyond Social Media to the real world

The fourth and final event was actually a series of events - my lectures to various audiences in 2019. Since I began lecturing on the City and its Livery Companies I have probably stood in front of 20,000 people at universities, learned societies, WI branches, U3A groups, City Briefings and Arts Societies. With the exception of City Briefings I always ask the audience if any of them have visited a Livery Hall, and if anyone is a Freeman or Liveryman. On average about half the audience will have visited a hall, but fewer than five in any audience will be a Freeman or Liveryman.

I have probably answered hundreds of questions about Livery Companies, and never has anyone asked a question of me or expressed an opinion that implied the Livery to be elitist, stuffy, opaque, exclusive or any of the negative perceptions that the Livery seems to think others might harbour. 

What I have experienced is a deep fascination to learn more, a sense of surprise and wonder at the variety of ways in which the Livery benefits wider society, and a pride that these ancient institutions remain relevant in the 21st century.

This fascination manifests itself in the number of follow up enquiries I receive about organising hall tours, or enquiries about articles in my blog, but most evidently in the growing number of bookings I take for further lectures.

I have yet to run into anyone who has preconceived ideas of the Livery that are in any way negative, rather I find they move from a position of knowing little or nothing to a hunger to learn more. In 2020 I delivered a record number of virtual lectures and the appetite for knowledge of the Livery Companies remains strong among the groups that invite me to speak. Of the hundreds of questions I have answered on the Livery, I don't think I can recall one question which was difficult to answer with candour.

What can the Livery do about the perception problem?

It will come as no surprise to my followers on Social Media, the readers of my blog articles, or those who meet me in person, that I believe the Livery needs to seriously up its game in terms of outward communication regarding its role, relevance and impact. Indeed on this matter the Pan-Livery Initiative’s Attitudinal Survey finds common ground with me as most respondents thought their company’s internal communications were good, but outward communications were - how may I put it politely - in need of improvement.

This echoes my own experience, and I think it is the nearest thing to a truthful appraisal of perception of the Livery from without - most people have no idea who we are or what we do, and it is up the Livery to address that.

I see and hear no evidence for the negative perceptions that the Livery believes others might have about it, at least not beyond the wild ramblings of a few of the more excitable crackpot lunatics who lump the Livery in with shape-shifting lizards, the illuminati and global conspiracies to control the money markets. This is a topic I have dealt with in a previous blog article.

While many Livery Companies have upped their engagement online in 2020, turning adversity into opportunity but some companies persist in remaining opaque, uncommunicative and unwilling to engage online. This is a risk as one company recently discovered when an unauthorised Twitter account was setup by persons unknown claiming to be an unofficial account for the Company. The Company has decided not to engage on Social Media, perceiving no need to do so, but simultaneously surrendering their digital shop window to others over which the Company has no control. For good or bad the Pandora's Box of Social Media is well and truly open, there's no shutting it, and no putting anything back in the box.

If your company isn't active in the digital realm, your company has no next to no ability to get your message out beyond your membership, change perceptions, counter misinformation or worse - deliberate disinformation (including some peddled by elected members of Common Council), highlight your Company's good work, attract new members, engage with a younger audience, reach members who are isolated or maintain the fellowship and goodwill upon which the Livery relies for all that it does.

So my challenge to every Freeman and Liveryman is to stop worrying about what we think others might think of us, and start communicating about who we are, what we do and why it matters in the 21st century. Tell your family, tell your friends, tell your work colleagues, tell your followers on social media... you are all the Livery's greatest ambassador! 

Want to learn more about the Livery Companies and the City of London?

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 fifth or Platinum Jubilee 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. Bulk purchase enquiries are welcome from Livery Companies, Guilds, Ward Clubs and other City institutions and businesses.

Photo of the cover image of The City of London Freeman's Guide Platinum Jubilee edition featuring iconic images from the City of London and Her Majesty the Queen entering Drapers' Hall with the Master and Beadle
The City of London Freeman's Guide - Platinum Jubilee edition

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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  1. Paul, this article is really excellent but the date at the top is confusing. If now purporting to cover the digital developments of 2020 it should surely be dated January 2021.

    The problem about perception is that with membership of City livery companies today widely spread geographically across the Home Counties and the wider country there is very little knowledge in the regions about the existence of livery companies. More people are likely to have heard of Freemasonry and perhaps mentally lump it all together. Livery companies do not advertise to the extent of professional institutions and people mainly come across them accidentally or through friends and relatives - we are a well kept secret.

  2. David, thank you for your comment. I have updated the 'first published' date to drag this article from January 2020 to January 2021 so my updates to the content make sense in context of the publication dates.

    I'm abundantly aware of the perception problem... It starts with the companies and the parlous state of their external communications. While some companies may perceive they have no need to get their message out to a wider audience (beyond their membership, affiliates and the civic City) the reality is that others with their own agendas will happily fill the information void with misinformation or worse - disinformation.


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