It might be fair to say that if the livery companies did not exist, then there is little chance that anyone would invent them today. Indeed venture far from the City of London and you will find people who know absolutely nothing about them at all.

Livery companies and the original guilds on which many are based have a much longer history and form the bedrock of our development as a manufacturing, skill based nation. They financed our overseas exploration and trade to the extent that the world today largely understands English as the language of commerce, rather than Spanish, Portuguese or Dutch.

To set the context one must understand that fraternities, usually religious based, and also craft based guilds flourished throughout Europe. Indeed most major towns and cities throughout Britain had a large number of active craft guilds – York, Chester, Canterbury, Nottingham, Newcastle, Dundee, Exeter etc. some of which survive to this day. One of the artistic outputs of these guilds around the country were the Mystery Plays – so called because each craft was also known as a Mistery.

Among the guilds surviving in the provinces outside of London are the Cutlers of Hallamshire in Sheffield, the Merchant Venturers of Bristol, the Welsh Livery Company (a Guild until 2013) in Cardiff, the Fellmongers of Richmond in Yorkshire – and many more.

Members of guilds were often people of some social standing in their communities and many had businesses which had achieved great commercial success. They might well progress through successive generations to becoming Masters of their guild. Indeed Patrimony was a well established way of joining a guild and this continues in livery companies even today.

It is not surprising that London had the most successful and the most numerous Guilds: its position and the Thames enabled it to it become a major centre with international trade connections. Like other cities it was surrounded by a substantial wall with the only access controlled through well policed gates. London Bridge provided the only access to and from the south. Trade could therefore be regulated in London within a centre of high population and members paid to belong to a Guild which in turn could bring them distinct trading advantage and privileges, in some cases monopoly within a craft. The Guilds controlled the provision of services and the manufacture and selling of goods and food.

This prevented unlimited competition driving prices and quality down but also ensured wages, working conditions and skills could be maintained in extremely unstable times.. The guilds and the City authorities essentially protected the consumer against inferior workmanship, bad quality or goods supplied being underweight or adulterated. They could also keep out cheap imports. Indeed their role as a supervisory body in their particular craft is easily understood: they were responsible in today’s terms for professional training, quality control and the external relations of a trade. They supervised the quality of the craftsmen’s products, and applied hefty sanctions or expulsion to those who failed to meet the necessary standards through neglect, dishonesty or mis-measurement. They oversaw training through a regulated system of apprenticeships.

From an early date there is evidence to suggest that women were sisters or freemaidens of companies. In the 14 th Century only five of around five hundred guilds excluded women, though they were not involved in matters of governance and there is no record of a woman becoming Master of a Company until more enlightened times. Widows often held a particular economic status because they had inherited the assets and business of their late husbands. Perhaps more important - the guilds and livery companies ensured that apprentices could be imparted with proper training, their skills tested through submission of a “masterpiece” which the apprentice had to submit to the Master in order to be made free of his company. Only then were they entitled to work for new masters or to set up on their own. Thus only trained apprentices properly completing their term of indenture were allowed to enter a guild or livery company. Guilds were a combination of skills education, trade association, price ring, closed shop, trading standards authority and trade union. They ensured trade in London and other cities was conducted under controlled conditions and that the market did not become a total free for all. Goods brought through city walls other than by freemen were taxed or turned away.

The whole municipal structure of London was built on the status of the freeman, and today the freedom of the City of London still remains a pre-requisite today for admission to the livery of any Company. The freedom traditionally brought many rights, perhaps the best known and most quoted being the right to herd sheep over London Bridge. But it also brought immunity from tolls at markets, freedom from impressment into the armed forces by press gangs, and the right to vote at ward and parliamentary elections. If you were unfortunate enough to be found guilty of a major crime, you once had the dubious privilege of being hanged with a silk rope. Without the status of freeman you had no right to trade and no voice in the governance of the City.

In London many of the guilds developed a further important stage. In necessarily distinguishing themselves for the benefit of customers and City officials, Guild members took to wearing distinctive clothing and badges. Thus the guilds gradually became known as livery companies, livery being a word that encompassed ones uniform or style of dress. The earliest Royal Charter was awarded to the Weavers Company in 1155.

Of course the companies came to serve a very useful purpose for the monarch. In exchange for granting exclusive rights to trade in London or various parts of the world through Charters, the monarch was able to extract considerable wealth from the City to finance national needs particularly in time of war or foreign colonial adventure.

Today, most Guilds operating in the City of London are Livery Companies and the words Guild and Livery Company are often used interchangeably. For instance, City and Guilds is an organisation set up by the Livery Companies to set training and examination in practical skills. The City of London has Guildhall forming the heart of its livery and the heart of its governance. New guilds are still being formed representing professions and these can progress through growth of membership and finance to becoming Companies without Livery and in due course receive permission from the Court of Aldermen to be Livery Companies, joining at the bottom of the list in precedence.

There were barely 77 companies remaining in 1931, yet today with the addition of “modern companies” there are 110 with more expecting to shortly join the Order of Precedence which dictates the order in which companies process.

Which ought to bring me to looking at livery companies as they are today. They have been dismissed in the press as somewhat expensive dining clubs for the privileged, archaic and obscure anachronisms within a modern City wearing medieval costumes in line with our ancient academic institutions. It is instructive to look at some of the professions entered as “Modern Livery Companies” since 1931 – the most recent to be granted livery status are the Arts Scholars and before them we find Educators, Security Professionals, Tax Advisers, International Bankers and Management Consultants.

Sitting at the top of the pecking order are the Great Twelve: Mercers, Grocers, Drapers, Fishmongers, Goldsmiths, Merchant Taylors, Skinners, Haberdashers, Salters, Ironmongers, Vintners and Clothworkers. These companies are granted special privileges in relation to City protocol and in civic and national celebrations. The order of precedence was set in 1515 to prevent jockeying for position and was largely based on the wealth of the companies – needless to say the older companies have had a ballooning of wealth due to the extent of their property ownership within the City of London and elsewhere. But in exchange for the Charters granted to them, the Great Twelve once had exclusive responsibility for maintaining the City Walls – each having a section allocated to them.

Due to an earlier agreement in 1484 following acrimonious argument leading to violence, the Merchant Taylors and Skinners famously alternate each year between No 6 and 7. The Master and Wardens swap gavels at a ceremony held with the Lord Mayor each Spring called the Billesdon Gavel Exchange.

So the livery companies are not so much a City feature as a City survival; with over 26,000 liverymen and 16,000 Freemen within the Square Mile they continue to flourish today and have managed to re-invent themselves more than once in the past. They remain a fascinating aspect of public life in the City of London.

But nowhere is there such a concentration, nor can there be any other set, of private organisations which contribute so much to public life. They play an important role in matters of governance in the Square Mile; they have a high profile in all sorts of charitable activities, ranging from alms houses and education to support for different units of the Armed Forces. A large number of them still have a direct role to play in the management, training or maintenance of standards in their own particular trade. The forty-three halls in the City used by the Livery Companies and Guilds form magnificent venues for a wide range of events. Some are architectural masterpieces in their own right, though forty-four were lost in the Great Fire, and thirty in the Blitz, whilst others were variously lost in other wars, by City development or by fires at different times.

The progressive addition of new Companies and the growth of Livery Company membership has enabled the livery halls to remain financially viable, shared with other companies for their formal dining and other activities on a commercial basis.

A unique relationship exists between the livery companies and local government in the form of the Corporation of the City of London, and the guilds and liveries are indispensable to almost every aspect of life in the capital. Since Saxon Times the guilds have also acted as friendly societies, helping people in bad times, contributing to the care of orphans and acting as a burial society, hence the extensive links that companies have to this day with City churches. Many livery companies established almshouses and schools, thus caring for both the old and the young.

Most of the ancient guilds have changed in nature as their membership has moved away from being actively involved in the particular craft – indeed many of the crafts no longer exist commercially in the original form. The new “modern” companies in contrast specifically recruit from within their own profession, usually seeking relevant qualifications as well as management experience within the profession.

An increasing number of people apply for the Freedom of the City of London, and there is a steady queue of guilds waiting to take the livery. So what is attracting people to join a livery company? In the words of one distinguished Lord Mayor in the 19 th Century there are Five Great Points of Fellowship: Charity, Citizenship, Commerce, Comradeship and Conviviality.

Personally, I would add three more Cs: Collegiate, Church and Corporation, as the companies are very collegiate in style (something to be appreciated in an age of mass higher education); most companies have a link with a particular City church; and apart from voting for both Sheriffs and Lord Mayor, liverymen have all sorts of opportunities to interact with both the Guildhall and Mansion House.  

There is a great element of ceremonial in every livery company, particularly at the formal meals, lunch or dinner, taking place in Livery Halls. These often respect common livery traditions that can go back several hundred years, and create a sense of shared identity as well as each company being unique in the way it conducts its functions. Dress may be business attire or sometimes City Morning Dress for lunches, and Black Tie or White Tie for dinners which continues to provide a special formal dressing and dining opportunity less common today elsewhere.

For something which may appear to be a throwback to the past, with its odd costumes, quaint customs and strong historic roots, the whole livery movement is in very good heart. However, it would be most unwise to say that all is well. The reputation of the City has taken a bashing in recent times; bankers must rank below highwaymen, pirates and even members of parliament in the popularity stakes. Where large amounts of cash and capital are both earned and spent, there will always be criticism of greed by those with envious eyes. This has certainly been both a worry to livery companies and successive Lord Mayors when the abuse was at its worse – and a delicate line has sometimes had to be found to appease those present at some civic events.

In 2020 the City has been hard hit by the Coronavirus halting all of the normal social activity. As things stand it may be some time before things can return to any degree of normality due to the necessary proximity of people when dining.

Livery companies today continue an important charitable role that really needs to receive more recognition in the media. This may be financial or provided by pro-bono time given by professionals. One likes to think that Sir Richard Whittington, a famous Mercer with equally famous Cat would still find the City a place where there is much good being done.

List of Livery Companies by Precedence:
1 Mercers 2 Grocers 3 Drapers 4 Fishmongers 5 Goldsmiths 6 Merchant Taylors 7 Skinners 8 Haberdashers 9 Salters 10 Ironmongers 11 Vintners 12 Clothworkers 13 Dyers 14 Brewers 15 Leathersellers 16 Pewterers 17 Barbers 18 Cutlers 19 Bakers 20 Wax Chandlers 21 Tallow Chandlers 22 Armourers and Brasiers 23 Girdlers 24 Butchers 25 Saddlers 26 Carpenters 27 Cordwainers 28 Painter-Stainers 29 Curriers 30 Masons 31 Plumbers 32 Innholders 33 Founders 34 Poulters 35 Cooks 36 Coopers 37 Tylers and Bricklayers 38 Bowyers 39 Fletchers 40 Blacksmiths 41 Joiners & Ceilers 42 Weavers 43 Woolmen 44 Scriveners 45 Fruiterers 46 Plaisterers 47 Stationers and Newspaper Makers 48 Broderers 49 Upholders 50 Musicians 51 Turners 52 Basketmakers 53 Glaziers 54 Horners 55 Farriers 56 Paviors 57 Loriners 58 Apothecaries 59 Shipwrights 60 Spectacle Makers 61 Clockmakers 62 Glovers 63 Feltmakers 64 Framework Knitters 65 Needlemakers 66 Gardeners 67 Tin Plate Workers 68 Wheelwrights 69 Distillers 70 Pattenmakers 71 Glass Sellers 72 Coachmakers 73 Gunmakers 74 Gold and Silver Wyre Drawers 75 Makers of Playing Cards 76 Fan Makers 77 Carmen 78 Master Mariners 79 Solicitors 80 Farmers 81 Air Pilots 82 Tobacco Pipe Makers 83 Furniture Makers 84 Scientific Instrument Makers 85 Chartered Surveyors List of Livery Companies by Precedence 86 Chartered Accountants 87 Chartered Secretaries 88 Builders Merchants 89 Launderers 90 Marketors 91 Actuaries 92 Insurers 93 Arbitrators 94 Engineers 95 Fuellers 96 Lightmongers 97 Environmental Cleaners 98 Chartered Architects 99 Constructors 100 Information Technologists 101 World Traders 102 Water Conservators 103 Firefighters 104 Hackney Carriage Drivers 105 Management Consultants 106 International Bankers 107 Tax Advisers 108 Security Professionals 109 Educators 110 Arts Scholars