British institutions: livery companies

Michael Grant, Master of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists

Even empty, on a winter’s afternoon, the livery hall inside Goldsmiths’ Hall, home of The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, presented an awesome sight: the Corinthian columns, the gold leaf, the 48-branch chandeliers.

Then at night, as the last plates were cleared away after the December dinner – one of the four big livery dinners held in the hall each year – they dimmed the electric lights, so that the vast room was lit solely by candles: 192 flickering in the chandeliers, another 56 on the tables.

At the head of the top table sat the Prime Warden of the Goldsmiths, Lord Sutherland of Houndwood. In a recess behind him lay the buffet plate, the goldsmiths’ most sacred possessions – the Lamerie Dish, the Farren Salvers, the Kidney Cup. On the top table itself was a silver “mirrored plateau” representing an ornamental lake. It sat there for the opening dinner in this hall, in 1835, when the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel were among the diners. Even the cutlery and its placement looked like a work of art.

There was a small concession to modernity. Two spotlights played on the buffet plate. At first, I had been reminded of an altar or the ark in a synagogue, where the holy scriptures reside. Now, as the treasure itself took centre stage, it looked as though the prizes were about to be handed out on sports day in the Elysian Fields.

In the history of this place, Wellington and Peel were here the day before yesterday. This is the third hall on this same island site, close to St Paul’s Cathedral: the first was built in 1339; the assay office on the other side of the building has been checking the quality of gold and silver ever since; the trial of the pyx, the annual ceremony in which the Goldsmiths test the nation’s coinage, probably began in the century before that; and the company still possesses apprentice books dating back to 1578.

Amid the grandeur, the history, the aged Hereford beef, the mulled fruit winter pudding, the sight of the glistening plate and the sounds of the string quartet, there was actually slightly less fol-de-rol than I had envisaged. Lord Sutherland, former vice-chancellor of London and Edinburgh universities and a philosopher by training, did assure me in advance: “We are understated and less formal than many.” This seems to have been true. The Goldsmiths do not clap in the members of the top table. They don’t sing. And rather disappointingly, given that I had spent the afternoon practising, they do not pass round the loving cup, a complex ritual used in most companies which, if you get it slightly wrong, can turn into hands-knees-and-boomps-a-daisy.

In a way, the relative informality comes with their territory. The Goldsmiths are still entwined with the craft that gave them their name, which is not true of the Worshipful Company of Curriers or Girdlers or Tallow Chandlers: a large proportion of the company are working gold- and/or silversmiths. Maybe that’s why the hierarchy was relaxed enough to let the FT dine with them.

There was, however, an understanding, never quite spelled out. Yes, they were delighted to offer help and hospitality but there was something they wanted me to grasp and convey to the readership: it’s not about the dinners; it’s not about the dinners; it’s not about the dinners.

James Chapman, Beadle of the Goldsmiths’ Company

. . .

OK: It’s not about the dinners.

Across the provincial cities of Britain, there are a tiny handful of surviving guilds and livery companies; in London there are 108 and the number is growing. In medieval times their role was very clear. They were, in effect, trade unions of an all-embracing kind. They offered members mutual support; they set standards for their trade; and they kept out strangers.

In the old days they rose, fell, merged and often vanished, as fashion and technology changed. Gone are the galoche-makers, the virginal-makers, the hatband makers, the horserubbers, the longbowstringmakers, the burillers (makers of coarse cloth, probably), the shivers (makers of bungs for barrels) and the whittawyers (involved in a specialised form of leather-working).

Many of the companies that did survive had lost their original purpose even by Tudor times. One history says that Elizabeth I asked the Worshipful Company of Mercers why silk was so expensive, and they hadn’t the faintest idea. Between the acceptance of the Worshipful Company of Carmen (No. 77) in 1746 and the master mariners (78) in 1932, there was not a single newcomer to the ranks. By Victorian times it was certainly just about the dinners: sumptuous and sometimes rowdy.

By then the companies’ reputation was a bit dubious, and some politicians began to see them as a reactionary bastion. Since they still had a role in the City of London’s governance, this was an issue. In the late 19th century, they felt compelled to get their act together: in 1878 they founded the City & Guilds Institute to develop vocational education, a role it still fulfils, the big companies began to use their wealth more positively, and in the 20th century they became improbably fashionable.

Since the war there have been 30 new companies, with more bubbling under: the Educators and the Public Relations Practitioners are awaiting final approval. This is an institution that actually needs PR people – and so far only the Goldsmiths employ one. These days even the freemasons try to get their message across. The livery companies tend towards furtiveness.

So what is it about? Mike Jenkins, clerk of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists (No. 100) summed up the purpose as “trade, charity, education and fellowship”. One historian used the mantra “charity, citizenship, commerce, comradeship and conviviality”. But the greatest of these, everyone wanted to tell me, is charity. In 2010 the companies gave away nearly £42m, half for educational purposes – a lot of schools have livery connections – and almost a third for welfare.

Lord Sutherland of Houndwood, Prime Warden of the Goldsmiths’ Company

They initially got rich, partly because they had mortmain – the right to hold property in perpetuity – and partly because liverymen would add to that wealth by bequeathing money or land. This was not just a philanthropic gesture: it ensured their heirs would have a fallback position in hard times. “It was a medieval form of insurance,” explained the historian Jennifer Lang. “In a naughty world the guild was the only permanency.”

And the massive rise in property prices, especially in the City of London, over the past half-century, has cemented the wealth of the major companies. About 40 of the 108 have halls, some of them as luscious as Goldsmiths’; others, like the Information Technologists, small and modern with almost suburban-sized dining rooms. Having a hall is both a plus and a minus. Halls have to be run as a business, which can be a costly distraction. And the peripatetic companies rather enjoy touring different venues and picking their favourites for food and ambience.

Some liverymen – like freemasons, clergymen and peers – can lose themselves in the traditions, the arcana and the anomalies. I found myself revelling in them too. Most companies have masters; a few, like the Goldsmiths, have prime wardens; the Weavers, the oldest, are led by an upper bailiff. The Master Mariners are, uniquely, Honourable but not Worshipful; and their hall rests on shaky foundations, being moored on the Thames. The Skinners have a splendidly obscure ceremony of “cocks and caps”. The Cutlers have an epic pre-Christmas bacchanal known as the Boar’s Head Dinner, in which the head is borne into the room as if by sedan chair, and which all sounds like something out of Porterhouse Blue. The Vintners always give five cheers rather than three. The Chartered Accountants are said to have “livery smoking jackets with beige frogging” – the devils!

These sound like all-male rituals. Historically that is not wholly true: the Cooks had freemaiden members in 1495. They still had them in 2003, but until then they were never allowed to progress to full membership: the livery. Those days have almost gone: there is even a growing Lady Masters’ Network. Twenty years ago it was reported that about half the companies were all-male. Inquiries suggest that only the Bowyers are left.

“As I understand it, there’s nothing in the ordinances to prevent women joining,” one of the Bowyers told me. “But we go to lectures about the weaponry used at the Battle of Crécy. I’m not sure how many women want to do that.”

The differences are not small and far from coincidental. No one could tell me for sure whether the Bowyers were the last masculine preserve or not: there is no central database, no overarching body that supervises, regulates or even co-ordinates the companies. Most disdain the notion of being called “a movement” (perhaps because they don’t move much). New companies need approval from the City of London’s Court of Aldermen but, once in, they are autonomous, subject only to the law of the land.

The City corporation has a livery committee but it exists mainly to run the election of sheriffs (chosen directly by liverymen) and Lord Mayor (where they have an indirect role). The committee will advise companies if they ask but, said the chairman, Bill Fraser: “There’s no one who can say, ‘You can’t do that.’”

The order of precedence started in 1515, and depended on the companies’ wealth at the time, not their antiquity, but the order became fixed for the companies that existed then – modern ones are ranked by seniority. But of course there’s an anomaly: the Skinners and Merchant Taylors alternate, year by year, as to which is No. 6 and which No. 7 – hence supposedly “sixes and sevens”. The top dozen became known as the Great 12, with the Mercers No. 1, and the Goldsmiths No. 5. The Weavers, though they predate the Mercers by nearly 250 years, are only No. 42.

Lighting the chandeliers at Goldsmiths’ Hall

The Great 12 have endured, and their wealth has become entrenched. The Mercers have a property portfolio valued above £500m, based largely on owning Covent Garden. In an average year they might give away £7m, which would represent one-sixth of the total for the 108 companies. The Great 12 combined probably deliver more than half.

These companies do not go short of members. They are the kind of clubs where an application to join would render you immediately unsuitable: the process is more subtle, more British. Most use “the freedom” as a probationary period, prior to an invitation to join the livery. The Goldsmiths have an unusually large number of freemen, 1,600 of them, mostly in the trade. They pay a one-off fee, and the title sounds grand, but conveys no privileges. Only promotion to be one of the 285 liverymen (these words now embrace women) gets them even a sniff of the occasional dinner. In all the companies, advancement is offered to those who can offer some combination of the most useful attributes: tappable wealth, status, time, expertise and nice-chapmanship.

The Great 12 are elite enough not to dally much with the lesser 96. Their masters hobnob with the Lord Mayor and dine with each other, though they have to be careful. “If I accepted all the invitations I’m getting, I’d turn into Falstaff II,” said Lord Sutherland.

At the other end of the spectrum, the new companies – who range from International Bankers to Hackney Carriage Drivers – have some of the zest the Great 12 must have had in the Middle Ages. Even the most obviously modern have adopted some of the robes and ritual: “We try to respect all the ceremonial of the ancient livery companies,” said Michael Grant, Master of the Information Technologists. Such companies do what it says in the title, and membership is almost always restricted to the profession. They are too new to have yet acquired much scope for the other customary way in: patrimony or, as it’s known in other circles, nepotism.

But there is also a squeezed middle of the hierarchy: companies that are mostly hall-less and often represent forgotten trades. Many of them struggle to reach their often very low full complement of liverymen (the Cooks admit only 75). Some have elegantly reinvented themselves. Not many people in London make ladies’ fans any more – so the Worshipful Company of Fan Makers represents the modern equivalents: air conditioning and aerospace fans. But even they admit to having only “modest funds for charitable disbursement”.

Others have found it harder to hit on a new USP: the Tylers and Bricklayers (who welcome “expressions of interest” from prospective members) have never quite recovered from the Great Fire in 1666. There was so much rebuilding to do that workers had to be brought in from outside, whereupon the company lost its monopoly and its source of wealth. They are not the only mid-rank company that would relish new blood. “I wouldn’t say there is a crisis,” said Philip Grant, secretary of the Fellowship of Livery Clerks. “I’d say there was a concern.”

A jewellery workshop at the Goldsmiths’ Centre in Clerkenwell

It is never entirely clear what anyone does get out of joining a livery company: a certain quasi-masonic fellowship, for sure, but these are not West End clubs – you can’t just drop in for a drink. This isn’t the right question, according to Grant: “You don’t join the livery for what you get out of it, but for what you can put into it.”

And every company likes to be a little choosy. Bill Fraser of the Livery Committee is also a former master of the Gardeners: “We like to keep some sort of balance between the horticultural industry and amateur gardeners,” he said. “In the interview process we’d be asking about how knowledgeable you were and whether you would have time to participate.”

All of these companies want, at the very least, a veneer of profession-cred, and like to get involved in whatever might be left of the trade that spawned them. And sometimes they do still fulfil a genuine role: for instance, the Apothecaries and Farriers award professional qualifications. Sometimes they band together on professional matters: there is a Wet 10 (not including the Vintners), involving companies where the trades have an interest in provision of water, led by the Worshipful Company of Water Conservators.

But it’s not clear that the charitable side is always much more than a veneer either. If the Croesus-like Great 12 account for so much of the £42m charity pot, what are the others doing? “We have a lot of rich people,” said a liveryman from one of the modern companies (not mentioned in this article). “And if you look at how much we give, it’s pretty pathetic.”

Certainly, some of the companies act as though they have something to hide. This isn’t helped by their relentless individuality. The Mercers is unusual in publishing its balance sheet. Before the Goldsmiths took me in, I rang another member of the Great 12 to see if they would co-operate in this article. The company clerk did want to help but, oh, the palaver! After long negotiations, it became clear it would require a meeting of the Court before they could consider any worthwhile access.

These operations are not in business as such. They are not necessarily interested in raising their profile. And despite their residual democratic role, they are not democracies themselves. Most of them have five tiers: the Master, his Wardens, the Court, the Liverymen and the humble Freemen. Should there be a crisis (or indeed a concern), the Court – a self-perpetuating oligarchy comprising maybe two-dozen liverymen – would deal with it. Clearly the companies have a strong instinct for consensus, hence their survival. But it is not just the rituals that might seem archaic.

In early 2012 the new Goldsmiths’ Centre opened in Clerkenwell, a short walk from Goldsmiths’ Hall, source of the idea and cash. Architecturally, it is a handsome fusion of old and new. Inside there are workshops, exhibition spaces, events rooms, educational facilities and a café. “It’s effectively a complete jewellery quarter in one building,” enthused the director, Peter Taylor. “The combination of education and training alongside workspace is pretty unique.

“What we’re trying to do here is make the next generation of professionals. In the 1990s all the high street jewellery production went to the Far East. Now China’s becoming more expensive it’s coming back.”

And this is the chance to make sure it does. Here is an opportunity for an apprentice to work alongside a community of established professionals and learn enough to produce their masterpiece – in the original meaning of the word, the work an apprentice must produce to satisfy the master and prove his fitness to become a freeman and a goldsmith.

A few streets away the Information Technologists were entertaining a group of visitors to lunch in their not-over-grand hall. They were inner-city schoolchildren who had been invited to talk to professionals about a possible career in computing. This company also co-sponsors the new tech-oriented Hammersmith Academy in an unusual David-and-Goliath partnership with the Mercers. It might not be hard to guess which one gave more, but then the Mercers can just write a cheque; their partners have to raise the money from the membership.

Say what you like about the British, but no nation seems to be quite so skilful at mixing charity and social life. Certainly, no other nation is as skilful at letting the past merge into the present, and nowhere more so than the City of London. The livery companies may be seen as the embodiment of both these characteristics. They could allow themselves to be less shame-faced about it.

It is a joy just to glimpse a subculture where everyone takes the long view, to the extent that the decline of the whittawyers and the galoche-makers feels as though it happened shortly before the fall of Lehman Brothers. “There’s a huge passion that we want to be going in a thousand years’ time,” said Mike Jenkins of the IT-ers. “Even if people will be saying ‘Information technologists? I wonder what they did.’”

To read more by Matthew Engel, go to or follow the links below

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