Livery Companies: Their Origins
The livery companies are integral to the City's governance: each year liverymen elect the Sheriffs of the City of London, endorse the election of the Lord Mayor and play a prominent part in major events.
The livery companies grew out of the craft guulds of the middle ages with some guilds able to trace their origins back to the 12th century, with the earliest charter still in existence being granted to the Weavers' Company in 1155.
Those working in the same craft lived and worked near each other, grouping together to regulate competition within their trade and maintain high standards. The early London guilds benefited their members and customers alike, controlling the manufacture and selling of most goods and services in the Square Mile.
As the guilds became more established, many set up their headquarters in large houses or Halls. As well as a meeting place, these became the venue for settling trade or domestic disputes. London street-names today still bear witness to areas where individual trades gathered and flourished.
When some guilds introduced their own distinctive clothing and regalia – or livery – to distinguish their members from those in other guilds, they soon became known as livery companies. The peak period for the formation of guilds was the 14th century when many received charters or ordinances. In 1515 there were 48 companies and the Lord Mayor established an order of precedence for them, finally ending many years of dispute.
After the 17th century, the livery companies suffered a series of setbacks. With their powers and practices restricted to the Square Mile, most were unable to compete with cheaper traders springing up outside its boundaries, while costly wars and political intrigues saw first Tudor and then Stuart monarchs levying hefty charges on the companies. The Industrial Revolution only added to their problems – yet stimulated the changes that were to save them.
From their earliest days, the companies emphasised the importance of good training. From the 1870s, this role was extended to include many forms of technical and other education, simultaneously supporting new industries and training young people to work in them. Founded in 1878, the City & Guilds Institute was a notable outcome, still prominent in vocational education today and actively supported by the livery companies.
The early guilds were duty-bound to care for their members in sickness and old age. Many of today's companies still support almshouses throughout the country and maintain their other historical charities, while also broadening their charitable giving into other areas of modern life, at home and abroad.
• Many older livery companies have their own halls. Some are several centuries old while others were rebuilt after the destruction of WW2. One of the finest of the old halls is Drapers (pictured).
Revival and modern relevance
Today, there are more than 100 liveries. Different in size, structure and interests they share the same ethos: supporting trade, education, charity and fellowship, working in the best interests of the communities in which they operate. The charitable dimension of their work now amounts to over £75mn each year.
There are over 30 Modern Livery Companies set up to represent active sectors such as accountants, surveyors, actuaries, architects, international bankers and marketors. The Worshipful Company of Insurers, granted Livery status in 1979, is one of the modern Liveries. With over 500 members the WCI is also one of the larger Livery Companies.
As well as broadening their horizons to include new skills, the livery companies became prominent supporters of industry through research funds, excellence awards, sponsorships and other carefully targeted trade support.
Several of the Modern Livery Companies, inlcuding the Insurers, work together in the Financial Services Group of Livery Companies (FSG).
Links with the City of London
All livery companies come under an element of control by the City of London's Court of Aldermen. To become a new company, a group of people (usually numbering at least 100) must satisfy the Court that they have the resources and willingness to continue their association indefinitely, having already been long and well established. In addition to strong ties with the Square Mile, the potential new Company must have a significant number of members engaged in its particular trade, profession or craft, which must not overlap or clash with that of an existing guild.
Liverymen play a pivotal role in the election of the Lord Mayor.
In 1385, a regulation was introduced requiring each Lord Mayor to have previously served as a Sheriff and, until 1742, to be a member of one of the 12 senior livery companies (the Great Twelve). Today, each Lord Mayor must still belong to a livery company, and be supported by their fellow liverymen in Common Hall at the end of September each year.
The livery companies and the City of London have enjoyed a long, close and extremely effective working partnership, sharing objectives, supporting excellence and together promoting the Square Mile. This partnership is fostered through a dedicated committee, the Livery Committee, which strengthens these ties, as well as constantly seeking new ways to enhance joint initiatives for the future.