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The City Livery Companies

Throughout history, men within a particular trade would band together to form a group that allowed them to regulate certain facets within their trade. London’s companies (or ‘guilds’) are particularly well known, partly due to the practice they had of wearing a distinctive livery (uniform) and due to the fact that they still maintain an active role in the government of the City of London. For example, it is the liverymen who vote in the Lord Mayor of London (not to be confused with the Mayor of London) and the Sheriffs of London.

There were hierarchies within the liveries, with the craftspeople on the lowest rung, though there were opportunities to rise and become a freeman. According to the City of London website: “The medieval term ‘freeman’ meant someone who was not the property of a feudal lord, but enjoyed privileges such as the right to earn money and own land. Town dwellers who were protected by the charter of their town or city were often free - hence the term ‘freedom of the City’.” The hierachy wasn’t restricted to positions within the companies, but also to positions between the companies. The merchant companies were generally wealthier, and thus more powerful than the craft-based guilds. The latter were mostly relegated to the status of ‘minor’ companies, with the 12 most influential being termed ‘great’.

The companies were often in dispute with each other, and it was not unknown for these disputes to become violent. In 1340 the Fishmongers Company clashed with the Skinners Company (who controlled the fur trade) and it ended in a battle where many died and the ringleaders were later hanged. The companies became less powerful over time due to a number of factors, including the fact that their tight control of trade became too restrictive, damaging their reasons to exist in the first place. However, the 19th century saw a resurgence in the popularity of the companies, and in the 21st century, many are now known for their charitable giving and for the scholarships which they bestow.

Some of the companies include:

  • Fan Makers’ Company - now granting prizes to the National College of Heating, Ventilating Refrigeration and Fan Engineering, and for fan design generally.
  • Fishmongers’ Company - one of the few compaies remaining active in their original trade.
  • Gunmakers’ Company - still testing and awarding its mark to small firearms today.
  • Tallow Chandlers’ Company - their original hall was destroyed in the Great Fire of London, but their hall on Dowgate Hill was rebuilt.
  • Salters’ Company - originally concerned with the salting of meat and fish, they also dealt with some chemicals. They are now active in chemistry - both the profession and training.
  • Information Technologists’ Company - a truly modern company set up to promote the IT profession and assist with training and charitable works.

The full list of companies are:

The ‘Great’ Companies
Clothworkers, Drapers, Fishmongers, Goldsmiths, Grocers, Haberdashers, Ironmongers, Mercers, Merchant Taylors, Salters, Skinners, Vintners

The ‘Minor’ Companies
Actuaries, Air Pilots and Navigators, Apothecaries, Arbitrators, Armourers and Brasiers, Barbers, Basketmakers, Brewers, Bakers, Blacksmiths, Bowyers, Broderers, Builders’ Merchants, Butchers, Carmen, Carpenters, Chartered Accountants, Chartered Architects, Chartered Secretaries, Chartered Surveyors, Clockmakers, Coachmakers, Constructors, Cooks, Coopers, Cordwainers, Curriers, Cutlers, Distillers, Dyers, Engineers, Enviromental Cleaners, Fanmakers, Farmers, Farriers, Feltmakers, Firefighters, Fletchers, Founders, Framework Knitters, Fruiterers, Fuellers, Furniture Makers, Gardeners, Girdlers, Glass Sellers, Glaziers, Glovers, Gold and Silver Wyre Drawers, Gunmakers, Horners, Information Technologists, Innholders, Insurers, Joiners, Launderers, Leathersellers, Lightmongers, Loriners, Makers of Playing Cards, Marketors, Masons, Master Mariners, Musicians, Needlemakers, Painter-Stainers, Pattenmakers, Paviors, Pewterers, Plaisterers, Plumbers, Poulters, Saddlers, Scientific Instrument Makers, Scriveners, Shipwrights, Solicitors, Spectacle Makers, Stationers and Newspaper Makers, Tallow Chandlers, Tin Plate Workers, Tobacco Pipe Makers, Turners, Tylers and Bricklayers, Upholders, Water Conservators, Wax Chandlers, Weavers, Wheelwrights, Woolmen, World Traders

You can see virtual tours of the Leathersellers’ Company, The Plaisterers’ Company and the Girdlers’ Company at London Revolution.

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