1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Livery Companies

LIVERY COMPANIES, the name given to particular companies or societies in the city of London. They belong to a class of institutions which at one time were universal in Europe. In most other countries they have disappeared; in England, while their functions have wholly changed, the organization remains. The origin of the city companies is to be found in the craftgilds of the middle ages. The absence of a strong central authority accounts for the tendency of confederation in the beginning of modern societies. Artificial groups, formed in imitation of the family, discharged the duties which the family was no longer able, and the state was not yet able, to undertake. The inhabitants of towns were forced into the societies known as gild-merchants, which in course of time monopolized the municipal government, became exclusive, and so caused the growth of similar societies among excluded citizens. The craftgilds were such societies, composed of handicraftsmen, which entered upon a struggle with the earlier gilds and finally defeated them. The circumstances and results of the struggle were of much the same character in England and on the continent. In London the victory of the crafts is decisively marked by the ordinance of the time of Edward II., which required every citizen to be a member of some trade or mystery, and by another ordinance in 1375 which transferred the right of election of corporate officers (including members of parliament) from the ward-representatives to the trading companies. Henceforward, and for many years, the companies engrossed political and municipal power in the city of London.

The trading fraternities assumed generally the character of corporations in the reign of Edward III. Many of them had been chartered before, but their privileges, hitherto exercised only on sufferance and by payment of their terms, were now confirmed by letters patent. Edward III. himself became a member of the fraternity of Linen Armourers, or Merchant Taylors, and other distinguished persons followed his example. From this time they are called livery companies, “from now generally assuming a distinctive dress or livery.” The origin of the Grocers’ Company is thus described: “Twenty-two persons, carrying on the business of pepperers in Soper’s Lane, Cheapside, agree to meet together, to a dinner, at the Abbot of Bury’s, St Mary Axe, and commit the particulars of their formation into a trading society to writing. They elect after dinner two persons of the company so assembled—Roger Osekyn and Lawrence de Haliwell—as their first governors or wardens, appointing, at the same time, in conformity with the pious custom of the age, a priest or chaplain to celebrate divine offices for their souls” (Heath’s “Account of the Grocers’ Company,” quoted in Herbert’s Twelve Great Livery Companies, 1836, i. 43). The religious observances and the common feasts were characteristic features of those institutions. They were therefore not merely trade unions in the current meaning of that phrase, but may rather be described as forms of industrial self-government, the basis of union being the membership of a common trade, and the authority of the society extending to the general welfare, spiritual and temporal, of its members. It must be remembered that they flourished at a time when the separate interests of master and servant had not yet been created; and, indeed, when that fundamental division of interests arose, the companies gradually lost their functions in the regulation of industry. The fact that the craftsmen were a homogeneous order will account for the wide authority claimed by their societies, and the important public powers which were conceded to them. In the regulation of trade they possessed extensive powers. They required every one carrying on the trade to join the company. In 1363, in answer to a remonstrance against the mischief caused by “the merchants called grocers who engrossed all manner of merchandize vendable, and who suddenly raised the prices of such merchandize within the realm,” it was enacted “that all artificers and people of mysteries shall each choose his own mystery[1] before next Candlemas, and that, having so chosen it, he shall henceforth use no other.” L. Brentano (On Gilds) holds that it is wrong to represent such regulations as monopolistic, inasmuch as there was no question whatever of a monopoly in that time nor until the degeneration of the craftgilds into limited corporations of capitalists. In the regulation of trade the right of search was an important instrument. The wardens of the grocers are to “assayen weights, powders, confeccions, platers, oyntments and all other things belonging to the same crafte.” The goldsmiths had the assay of metals, the fishmongers the oversight of fish, the vintners of the tasting of wine, &c. The companies enforced their regulations on their members by force. Many of their ordinances looked to the domestic affairs and private conduct of the members. The grocers ordain “that no man of the fraternite take his neyghbor’s house yt is of the same fraternite, or enhaunce the rent against the will of the foresaid neyghbor.” Perjury is to be punished by the wardens and society with such correction as that other men of the fellowship may be warned thereby. Members reduced to poverty by adventures on the sea, increased price of goods, borrowing and pledging, or any other misfortune, are to be assisted “out of the common money, according to his situation, if he could not do without.”

Following what appears to be the natural law of their being, the companies gradually lost their industrial character. The course of decay would seem to have been the following. The capitalists gradually assumed the lead in the various societies, the richer members engrossed the power and the companies tended to become hereditary and exclusive. Persons might be members who had nothing to do with the craft, and the rise of great capitalists and the development of competition in trade made the regulation of industry by means of companies no longer possible. For an account of the “degeneration of craftgilds” a general reference may be made to Brentano, On Gilds (1870), and C. Gross, The Gild Merchant (2 vols., 1890). The usurpation of power on the part of the richer members was not always effected without opposition. Brentano refers to a pamphlet on the Clothworkers’ Company, published in 1649, which asserts that “the commonalty” in the old charters meant, not the whole gild, but only the masters, wardens and assistants. Herbert records a dispute in the Goldsmiths’ Company in 1529. The mode of electing officers, and the system of management generally, was challenged by three members who called themselves “artificers, poor men of the craft of goldsmiths.” The company, or rather, the wardens, the assistants and livery presented a petition to the lord mayor, which was answered by the discontented craftsmen. The dispute was carried into the court of chancery and the star chamber. The artificers accused the company of subverting their grants, misappropriating the funds and changing the constitution of the society, and they complain of this being done by the usurpation of persons who “were but merchant goldsmiths, and had but little knowledge in the science.” In 1531 the three complainants were expelled from the company, and then the dispute seems to have ended. In the last stage of the companies the members have ceased to have any connexion with the trades, and in most cases their regulative functions have disappeared. The one characteristic which has clung to them throughout is that of owners of property and managers of charitable trusts. The connexion between the companies and the municipality is shortly as follows. The ordinance of Edward II. required freemen of the city to be members of one or other of the companies. By the ordinance of 49 Edw. III. (1375), the trading companies were to nominate the members of common council, and the persons so nominated alone were to attend both at common councils and at elections. An ordinance in 7 Richard II. (1383) restored the elections of common councilmen to the wards, but corporate officers and representatives in parliament were elected by a convention summoned by the lord mayor from the nominees of the companies. An act of common council in 7 Edw. IV. (1467) appointed the election of mayor, sheriffs, &c., to be in the common council, together with the masters and wardens of the companies. By 15 Edw. IV. masters and wardens were ordered to associate with themselves the honest men of their mysteries, and come in their best liveries to the elections; that is to say, the franchise was restricted to the “liverymen” of the companies. At this time the corporation exercised supreme control over the companies, and the companies were still genuine associations of the traders and householders of the city. The delegation of the franchise to the liverymen was thus, in point of fact, the selection of a superior class of householders to represent the rest. When the corporation lost its control over the companies, and the members of the companies ceased to be traders and householders, the liverymen were no longer a representative class, and some change in the system became necessary. The Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867 reformed the representation in several particulars. The liverymen of the companies, being freemen of the city, have still, however, the exclusive power of electing the lord mayor, sheriffs, chamberlain and other corporate officers.

The contributions made by the companies to the public purposes of the state and the city are interesting points in their early history. Their wealth and their representative character made them a most appropriate instrument for the enforcement of irregular taxation. The loan of £21,263, 6s. 8d. to Henry VIII. for his wars in Scotland, in 1544, is believed by Herbert to be the first instance of a pecuniary grant to the crown, but the practice rapidly gained ground. The confiscation of ecclesiastical property at the time of the Reformation affected many of the trusts of the companies; and they were compelled to make returns of their property devoted to religious uses, and to pay over the rents to the crown. In course of time the taxation of the companies became “a regular source of supply to government.” The historians of the city have for the most part described these as unjust and tyrannical exactions, but, looking at the representative and municipal character of the companies, and the purposes to which their contributions were applied, we may regard them as a rough but not unfair mode of taxation. The government, when money was wanted for public works, informed the lord mayor, who apportioned the sums required among the various societies, and issued precepts for its payment. Contributions towards setting the poor to work, erecting the Royal Exchange, cleansing the city ditch, discovering new countries, furnishing military and naval armaments, for men, arms and ammunition for the defence of the city, are among what Herbert calls the sponging expedients of the government. The crown occasionally interfered in a more unjustifiable manner with the companies in the exercise of their patronage. The Stuarts made strenuous efforts to get the control of the companies. Terrified by the proceedings in the quo warranto case, most of the companies surrendered their charters to the crown, but such surrenders were annulled by the act of 2 William and Mary (1690) reserving the judgment in quo warranto against the city. The livery companies now in existence are the following:

Apothecaries. Feltmakers. Needlemakers.
Armourers and Brasiers. Fishmongers. Painters.
Bakers. Fletchers. Pattern Makers.
Barbers. Founders. Pewterers.
Basket Makers. Framework Knitters. Plaisterers.
Blacksmiths. Fruiterers. Playing Card Makers.
Bowyers. Girdlers. Plumbers.
Brewers. Glass Sellers. Poulters.
Broderers. Glaziers. Saddlers.
Butchers. Glovers. Salters.
Carmen. Gold and Silver Wyre-drawers. Scriveners.
Carpenters Goldsmiths. Shipwrights.
Clockmakers. Grocers. Silkthrowsters.
Clothworkers. Gunmakers. Skinners.
Coach and Coach-Harness Makers.  Haberdashers Spectacle makers.
Cooks. Horners. Stationers.
Coopers. Innholders. Tallow Chandlers.
Cordwainers. Ironmongers. Tin Plate Workers.
Curriers. Joiners. Turners.
Cutlers. Leathersellers. Tylers and Bricklayers.
Distillers. Loriners. Upholders.
Drapers. Masons. Wax Chandlers.
Dyers. Mercers. Weavers.
Fanmakers. Merchant Taylors. Wheelwrights.
Farriers. Musicians. Woolmen.
Fellowship Porters.    

The following are the twelve great companies in order of civic precedence: Mercers, Grocers, Drapers, Fishmongers, Goldsmiths, Skinners, Merchant Taylors, Haberdashers, Salters, Ironmongers, Vintners, Cloth-workers. The “Irish Society” was incorporated in the 11 James I. as “the governor and assistants of the new plantation in Ulster, within the realm of Ireland.” The twelve companies contributed in equal portions the sum of £60,000 for the new scheme, by which it was intended to settle a Protestant colony in the lands forfeited by the Irish rebels. The companies divided the settlement into twelve nearly equal parts, assigning one to each, but the separate estates are still held to be under the paramount jurisdiction of the Irish Society. The charter of the society was revoked by the court of star chamber in the reign of Charles I., but a new one was granted by Charles II., under which the society still acts.

Most of the companies administer charities of large value. Many of them are governors of important schools, e.g. the Skinners have the Tonbridge Grammar School; the Mercers, St Paul’s School; the Merchant Taylors, the school bearing their name, &c. The constitution of the livery companies usually embraces (a) the court, which includes the master and wardens, and is the executive and administrative body; (2) the livery or middle class, being the body from which the court is recruited; and (3) the general body of freemen, from which the livery is recruited. Some companies admit women as freemen. The freedom is obtained either by patrimony (by any person over twenty-one years of age born in lawful wedlock after the admission of his father to the freedom), by servitude (by being bound as an apprentice to a freeman of the company) or by redemption. Admission to many of the companies is subject to the payment of considerable fees. For example, in the Merchant Taylors the fees are—upon taking up the freedom, by patrimony or servitude, £1, 3s. 4d.; by redemption, £84; on admission to the livery, £80, 8s.; on election to the court of assistants, £115, 10s. At one time the position of the livery companies was a subject of much political discussion. Two parties threatened to attack them—on one side those who were anxious for extensive reforms in the municipal organization of London; on the other, those who wished to carry forward the process of inspection and revision of endowments, which had already overtaken the universities, schools and other charities. A Royal Commission was appointed in 1880 to inquire into all the livery companies, into the circumstances and dates of their foundation, the objects for which they were founded, and how far those objects were being carried into effect. A very valuable Report and Appendix (4 vols., 1884) was published, containing, inter alia, information on the constitution and powers of the governing bodies, the mode of admission of members of the companies, the mode of appointment, duties and salaries and other emoluments of the servants of the companies, the property of, or held in trust for, the companies, its value, situation and description. The companies very freely made returns to the commission, the only ones not doing so being the Broderers, Bowyers, Distillers, Glovers, Tin-Plate Workers and Weavers. The Commission estimated the annual income of the companies to be from £750,000 to £800,000, about £200,000 of that amount being trust income, the balance corporate income.

Authorities.—In addition to the Report referred to above the following works may be consulted: H. T. Riley, Memorials of London and London Life (1868); Chronicle of London from 1089 to 1483 (ed. by Sir N. H. Nicolas and E. Tyrrel, 1827); Munimenta Gildhallae Londiniensis, in Rolls Series, ed. by H. T. Riley (4 vols., 1859–1862); J. Toulmin Smith, English Gilds (published by Early English Text Society), with essay by L. Brentano (1870); W. Herbert, History of the Twelve Great Livery Companies (1837); C. Gross, The Gild Merchant (2 vols., 1890); W. C. Hazlitt, The Livery Companies of the City of London (1892), contains a précis of the Royal Commission; P. H. Ditchfield, The City Companies of London (1904); G. Unwin, The Gilds and Companies of London (1908).  (T. A. I.) 

  1. Properly the word should be spelled, as it was originally, “mistery;” it comes through the O. Fr. mestier, modern métier, from Lat. ministerium, service, employment, and meant a trade or craft, and hence the plays acted by craftsmen and members of gilds were called “mystery plays” (see Drama). For the word meaning a hidden or secret rite, with which this has so often been confused, see Mystery.