The role of the Gallant, Learned and Honourable Clerk

Of all the City's many unusual titles and offices, that of the Clerk to a City company or guild is undoubtedly the most diverse and multifaceted, perhaps even the least well understood. The role of the clerk is a curious hybrid and no two clerks have the same job description, duties or terms and conditions of employment. To illustrate the point:

Some clerks work full-time, some part-time; some manage a hall where their office is located, others work in rented offices in the hall of another company, some work from home; some have an extensive staff, others are single-handed; some have the benefit of tied accommodation in the City, others must commute to their office. There are even some brave fellows who simultaneously occupy the office of clerk to more than one City company - thus attempting to serve two masters.

There are as many differences among the role of the clerk to a City company or guild (hereafter 'company') as there are companies and guilds in the Square Mile. Consequently, any attempt to lump them all together into a single definition is certain to paint a confusing picture and that starts with the very definition of the role.

What is a Clerk?

The word clerk implies a clerical, perhaps administrative function, and while there are certainly aspects of that in the role of a City clerk, the job title is more often compared to the modern position of Chief Executive Officer; Chief Operating Officer or general manager. There are certainly parallels to be drawn with these roles but no comparison does justice to the role.  

The Clerk is often the senior salaried employee of the company or guild, although some clerks are self-employed and hired on a contract basis, and others have served in an honorary (unpaid) capacity. 

NB. A company clerk has nothing to do with either an articled clerk in an accountancy or law firm, or a clerk in holy orders, although they may well be a qualified accountant or even a priest.

In any case the clerk is not the presiding officer of the company's court - that position is firmly and unambiguously occupied by the Master, Prime Warden or Upper Bailiff depending on the title of the elected chairman (imports both genders) or their deputy in the event the Master is indisposed. The clerk is an officer of the Court and serves at its pleasure - although in most companies the executive is a sub-committee of the Court.

However the role is defined, the clerk is always 'to' rather than 'of' the company which employs them. Clerks are not part of the membership and there is no requirement for them to be either a Freeman of the City of London or a Liveryman of one of the City's Livery Companies, although many clerks are Liverymen - though not usually of the company they work for. Adding to the confusion there is no shortage of examples of clerks who have served as Master in another company and at least one recent example of a clerk who has served as Master of their own company - twice with the clerkship sandwiched in between. 

NB. Before the more discerning reader thinks 'oh no he didn't'.... oh yes she did!

What are the duties of a Clerk?

There is no single job definition for a clerk to a company, as such the duties differ significantly from one to the next. The following list of duties is therefore a super-set of those which may apply to any particular clerk, neither is this list exhaustive: 
  • Planning and organising company events (governance, social, ceremonial)
  • Management of the company's finances
  • Administration of the company's membership records
  • Preparation of agendas, minutes and reports for company meetings
  • Answering correspondence sent to the company
  • Managing the Master's diary
  • Liaison with the company's affiliates in the military, church and professions
  • Managing the company's staff
  • Upkeep of the company's hall
  • Contract management with the company's suppliers (eg. tied caterers)
  • Appointed governor at one or more of the company's schools
  • Appointed trustee or Secretariat to one or more of the company's charities
  • Membership recruitment
  • Website and social media management
  • Membership communications (eg., newsletter and website)
  • Overseeing the company's IT infrastructure
  • Security of the company's treasures and other property
  • Custodianship of the company's history, customs and traditions
  • Liaison with Mansion House and Guildhall (eg. Common Hall)

In some cases these duties may be delegated, or held by another employee of the company. This is particularly true where a company has a hall and treasures. The company may have a full-time Beadle or Hall Manager, an archivist, a historian, the clerk may have an assistant, a website manager, the Master may have a PA or diary secretary, various members of the company may support these duties in a voluntary capacity (eg., newsletter editor) - and so the list goes on!

The evolution of the role of Clerk

The clerk was known to Chaucer and makes an appearance in the Canterbury Tales wherein the Clerk of Oxford, albeit a student in this case (another ancient usage of the title ‘clerk’, but he takes his place in the tale alongside such guildsmen as the Weaver, the Dyer, the Haberdasher and the high status Alderman.


Livery Company records show that the office of beadle preceded the creation of clerk, and many of the duties that now fall to the clerk were performed by the beadle. As companies grew in size, complexity, wealth and accrued more political power in the City, so a need for a professional administrator with literacy and numeracy skills was born.

In times past many clerks were drawn from the legal profession, perhaps having served as a Barrister-at-law, and it may be for this reason that a clerk's gown has echoes of legal dress. Since WWII many companies have employed retired military officers as their clerk, and while this tradition continues (especially among the more senior companies), a generation of professional programme managers forms a significant portion of the modern day clerks. There has also been a steady increase in the number of women represented among the clerkship and perhaps a quarter of all companies now employ a female clerk.

The importance of the clerk's role in the life of a City company was well understood in the mid Victorian era. In 1869 Thomas Arundell's work Historical Reminiscences of the City of London and its Livery Companies said the following of the clerk:

"We know scarcely any position which requires so much power of adaptability in its occupier as that of a clerk to a City company.

Clerks may be said to be of a far higher type than mere office drudges, and may rank among the higher class of educated and intelligent men."

It should be noted that the second of these observations is of its time.

The insignia of the Clerk

A Clerk's gown is usually plain black with open sleeves, not unlike an undergraduate gown, sometimes with the addition of plain black tassels and embroidered with doctoral lace in the style of Cambridge - . This is contrasted with the gown worn by the Beadle which is usually coloured with a number of silk bands and rows of ornate and often coloured tassels which in times past may have been dipped in perfume to mitigate the stench of the City's open sewers when leading a procession.

The clerk's badge of office is invariably a pair of crossed quill pens, and is typically worn on a ribbon to which is appended a jewel depicting the company's armorial bearings. Together these two items, the gown and the collar jewel with crossed quill pens are the clerk's uniform.

Information Technologists' Company Clerk's Badge. Photo courtesy of Susan Hoefling, Clerk to the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists

The Clerk's gown of the Merchant Taylors' Company. Image copyright Kenneth Crawford of Robes of Distinction:

Doctoral lace in the style of Cambridge is usually employed on a Clerk's gown. Image copyright Kenneth Crawford of Robes of Distinction:

The Clerk's gown of the Haberdashers
' Company. Image copyright Kenneth Crawford of Robes of Distinction:

The title of the Clerk

Company Clerks are often referred to in one of the following ways:

  • The Honourable Clerk to the Company of ... if a Barrister-at-Law, or
  • The Gallant Clerk to the Company of … if a retired officer of HM Armed Forces (as many are), or
  • The Learned Clerk to the Company of … if holding a degree (as most will)
  • The Gallant and Learned Clerk to the Company of … if both the previous two conditions apply
  • Where none of the above accomplishments apply the Clerk is often referred to as the Worthy Clerk
More typical the clerk is simply addressed 'the Clerk' in Court meetings and during ceremonial occasions.

Some companies have elevated a retired clerk to the status of Clerk Emeritus, perhaps also investing them with the Livery of the company upon retirement.

The Clerks' Associations

Every clerk has the right to join one of the City's three informal associations for clerks, each having its own membership requirements and process for electing officers. The clerks associations provide a forum for discussion of matters of common interest to clerks, and a means for newly appointed clerks to seek advice and guidance from more established members.

As befits the City, there is no one association which embraces all clerks, and three different associations have partially overlapping membership:

  1. The Fellowship of Clerks - which is open to all clerks to City companies and a few allied institutions. The Fellowship is also open to deputy or assistant clerks and retired clerks.
  2. The Clerks' Association - which is open to clerks to City companies who own a hall, presently fixed at 24 members.
  3. The Great XII Clerks' Association - which is open to clerks to the twelve most senior companies in order of precedence.
These three associations play a role in submitting candidates for the City's Livery Committee.

NB. It should be noted that there is no requirement for a clerk to be a member of any of the above associations, even if they have a right to do so.

Election to the Livery Committee

The City of London has a sui generis system of government in which the Livery participate in the election of the Sheriffs the Lord Mayor and certain other ancient officers. These elections take place in Guildhall on two occasions during the year that are collectively known as 'Common Hall'. 

The organisation of these elections is the responsibility of the Livery Committee, a body to which six of the clerks to the City's livery companies (but not its Guilds or Companies without Livery) are elected to serve a three year term and may be relocated for a maximum of two terms. In addition the Livery Committee may have up to four co-opted members including clerks. The remainder of the Livery Committee consists of nominated Aldermen and Common Councillors.

That said, at the time of writing the Livery Committee enjoys representation by three clerks and four  liverymen who are nominees of the Fellowship of Clerks, but not clerks in their own right.
This complicated arrangement is perhaps just one of the reasons why the Royal Commission into the Government of London (1957-1960) said that 'logic has its limits, and the position of the City lies outside them',

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

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