Butcher, fletcher, candlestick maker

London’s livery companies go back to medieval times. Here’s our guide to EC1 guilds’ halls…

The 110 livery companies share a history across a range of trades old (clockmakers), new (information technologists) and almost forgotten (girdlers). Their arcane traditions can seem quaint but the surviving guilds have been integral to the City and continue to play a role in charity, education and finance. Although they now have websites, the livery companies (the term refers to each guild’s uniform clothing) are fairly low-key. So it’s appropriate they were also known as mysteries or misteries, from the Italian mestiere (a trade).

The early 12th century companies formed to set standards, wages and working conditions, as well as training apprentices and looking after members in old age. They each acquired a hall for ceremonies and meetings, as well as a coat of arms, and an order of precedence for livery companies was settled in 1515. At number one, the Mercers’ Company today owns large swathes of Covent Garden. The Goldsmiths’ Company is at number five.

Having played a key role in organising trade and commerce, fi nancing wars and the monarchy, in the 19th century the companies became more involved in education (including the Smithfield-based City and Guilds Institute) and charity work. Electing the City of London Sheriffs is the prerogative of liverymen, who also vote for the Lord Mayor. You might not qualify to be a liveryman, but you can admire their halls in Clerkenwell – and all are available to hire.

guild 1 v2

Worshipful Company of Butchers
87 Bartholomew Close
The origins of the butchers’ guild go back to 975AD; it received its royal charter in 1605. The first hall was in Monkwell Street, and the next one near St Bartholomew the Great (that hall burnt down in 1666, along with 43 others). In 1884, a hall was built on the current site near Smithfield Market, where liverymen still work. The hall was bombed in 1915 and 1944, and rebuilt in 1960 with refurbishment in 1996. It’s one of the few companies still operating as a trade body. Liverymen of other companies are entitled to join them for a carvery every Wednesday lunchtime.

guild 2

Worshipful Company of Fletchers, Worshipful Company of Farmers
3 Cloth Street
These companies share a hall, though the Fletchers are by far the older. The guild of arrow makers split from bowyers (longbow makers) in 1371; the farmers received their royal charter in 1955 having emerged from a wartime committee. Today it’s the farmers whose work supports industry training, while the fletchers (made redundant by guns) focus more on supporting archery. There are also plans to celebrate the 600th anniversary of Agincourt. The farmers and fletchers cohabit in a 1980s building, which is undergoing a major refurbishment.

guild 3

Worshipful Company of Founders
1 Cloth Fair
First recognised in 1365 and granted their royal charter in 1614, the founders cast brass and bronze objects like candlesticks. They gained a valuable source of income for “assizing” all small brass weights. Tradesman using such weights were required to have them verified – for a fee – at Founders’ Hall, a system that lasted until Victorian times. While the medieval craft has died out, the company promotes technical education and research. In 1531, their first hall was opened in the City. In the 19th century, they moved to St Swithin’s Lane and then, in 1987, to Cloth Fair. The new hall, designed by Sam Lloyd, received a Civic Trust Award.

guild 4

Worshipful Company of Haberdashers
18 West Smithfield
The haberdashers date back to 1371 and their royal charter was granted in 1448. It was responsible for regulation of cloth merchants, and members sold ribbons, beads, purses, gloves, caps and pins. As they were expensive, gentleman had to allow their ladies ‘pin money’. The company now supports fashion education and Haberdashers’ Aske’s schools. The original hall, established in 1459, was in Gresham Street. When that burnt down, a new hall was designed by Edward Jerman and opened in 1668. It was bombed in 1940, and a new hall opened in 1956. After centuries in that area, the haberdashers moved to Smithfield in 2002.

guild 5

Worshipful Company of Information Technologists
39a Bartholomew Close
Granted livery status in 1992, the Information Technologists became the 100th company by precedence. The company promotes the profession, helps young people secure skills in IT and draws on the expertise of members for charity projects. Prominent members include Tim Berners-Lee, Vint Cerf and Bill Gates. In 2010, it received its royal charter from Prince Edward at St Paul’s Cathedral. It is unusual for a modern livery company in that it has its own hall, opened in 2001 – the first new livery company hall in the City for more than 50 years. It was funded with a £5 million donation by software pioneer Dame Stephanie Shirley.