The Livery Companies

What is a Livery Company?

The term ‘Livery Company’ refers to an incorporated guild in The City of London, more specifically one endowed with civic rights and privileges by the Court of Aldermen. Where other towns and cities in the UK and across Europe once had their own guilds most, but not all, have long since passed in to history, perhaps leaving a Guildhall and the echoes of a once illustrious past in civic heraldry, street names, ancient markets and museum exhibits. In the City of London the polar opposite applies: Livery Companies have thrived and continue to grow in number, in membership, in relevance to and impact upon modern society. The oldest among them predate the Norman Conquest of 1066, the youngest are little more than a couple of years in to their existence.

The Livery Companies are unique institutions that blend civic pride, charitable commitment, training and education, industry, profession and military connections, with fellowship and religious roots. Each Company brings these aspects to life in different ways and to varying degrees. The following diagram sets out the cardinal points of the Livery.

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These elements are bound together with an ethos of ethics and integrity. Some sense of the spirit of Livery Companies can be gained from this Royal Charter celebration video of The Worshipful Company of Information Technologist (Summer 2010).

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The Livery Companies are inextricably linked to the commercial, civic and ceremonial history of the City of London. The senior members of the Livery Companies (known as ‘Liverymen’ irrespective of gender) form the electoral body for the Lord Mayor, Sheriffs and certain other ancient officers of the City’s government. As a practical matter every Alderman, Sheriff and Lord Mayor is a member of one or more Livery Companies.

There are at present (2017) some 110 Livery Companies representing trades, craft and professions as diverse as Gardening to Gun Making. There are also two City Companies without Livery (for complex historical reasons) and four Guilds seeking Livery Company status. 

Most of the companies still retain substantive links to their trade, craft or profession, but all have charitable interests, links to education, the armed forces and a strong commitment to fellowship. Surprising as it may be, the Livery Companies are exceptionally active in a wide range of fields from inspecting the London fish markets to supporting education at school, college and university level. If you thought the Livery Companies to be quaint relics of times past, think again!

Most of the companies are very active in their particular trade, craft or profession and some even exercise regulatory, awarding, examination, inspection and enforcement roles to this very day. Surprising as it may be, despite the great antiquity of oldest Livery Companies (some date from before the Norman Conquest), the Livery is in exceptionally good health in the 21st Century. There are now more Livery Companies and Liverymen than there has been at any time in the past, and their influence and impact in so many fields of the public good is immense. The most recent guild to achieve Livery Company status is that of the Arts Scholars in 2014.

The term Livery Company refers to the fact that the members of these guilds are permitted to wear distinctive livery (robes and insignia) to identify their allegiance. This was once a practical matter to ensure that only Liverymen could enter Guildhall to vote for the Sheriffs or Lord Mayor. In modern times it is usually only the senior members of the Livery Company (i.e., The Court) that wear robes, hats and insignia to identify their allegiance and as a display of pageantry and pride in their trade, craft or profession. Most of the Livery Companies are title ‘The Worshipful Company of…’ indicating the fact that Livery Companies started as religious fraternities and worshiped together. Two Livery Companies have Royal Patrons who are also qualified in their profession: The Honourable Company of Master Mariners and the Honourable Company of Air Pilots.

When Livery Company Masters, Wardens and Clerks are seen together they might be aptly described as being a ‘Liberace’ of Liverymen owing to their colour fur lined robes, many with gold and silver trim, lace, rich embroidery and gold chains of office.

A visual sample of some of the outstanding robes and hats crafted for various Livery Companies by Kenneth Crawford of Robes of Distinction may be downloaded here. These represent some of the highest quality work in civic, academic and ecclesiastical robe making.

The Livery Companies are widely known for their magnificent banquets, providing a social focus for the life of the company, and affording the opportunity to dine in some magnificent venues. No venue in the City is more prestigious than the Mansion House where many companies hold their most important social events. The following video is of the dinner held on the occasion of the presentation of a Royal Charter to the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists. Fantastic as Livery Company banquets are, they represent just the icing on an enormous cake, the ingredients of which comprise much less glamorous, unsung and often thankless pro time, talent and substantial charitable contributions of the Company’s membership.

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Royal Charter banquet video © The Worshipful Company of Information Technologists

What Livery Companies are not

The majority of Livery Companies have strong links in to their associated trade, craft and profession. The precise scope and nature of their involvement differs from one company to the next, yet there is one thing that Livery Companies are not and that is representative bodies with a lobbying or activist role. Livery Companies are not, and never were, trade unions charged with the duty of negotiating better terms and conditions of employment for their members (or their occupation), neither are they pressure groups or lobbyists for their trade pursuing a political agenda. Livery Companies do not have a mission or mandate to influence government policy (either national or local) and where they have a regulatory role (such as the Gunmakers or Goldsmiths) the scope of their responsibilities is governed by legislation. While others might conjure up or attempt to place the mantle and responsibility of representation, lobbying and trade union activism and campaigning upon the Livery Companies - no Livery Company has or pretends to have such a role, neither does any company aspire to the same. 

From time-to-time Livery Companies may speak up on matters related to their occupation, especially where it is for the benefit of wider society (e.g., employment, skills, economic prosperity) but these should be read as friendly and learned opinion, not an entry into the realm of politics. 

Since 1835 the City of London has admitted Freemen who are not members of Livery Companies and from that point onward the Livery Companies lost what control they had as closed shops but as a result they have evolved in to philanthropic institutions with 1,000 year heritage of charity, education, fellowship, support to their occupation through apprenticeships and professional development.

© Paul David Jagger 2016                                                                                             Twitter: @CityandLivery