1879: Stuff That Wouldn’t Fit: London Livery Companies

This begins a series of posts of material that we just couldn’t shoehorn into the published books. Page count limits are a thing, y’know. The London sourcebook – well, we could easily have done a 512 page book instead of the 256 page one we published. It wouldn’t have been as lean and tightly written, but it would have had a wealth of material to draw from, so much delightful weirdness we discovered doing the research. A second volume could even have been possible, over a thousand pages on the Smoke, it’s such a strange place once you start digging. But then all large cities are like that. The world is a lot weirder than most people realize, and let’s face it, most people ignore a lot of weirdness in their daily lives partly because they just don’t have time for it and partly because it doesn’t fit into the world they want to live in. We’re gamers, darn it, we like weirdness and peculiarity and eccentricity. Let’s have a look at some of the weirdness that was left out of the London book.

Livery companies are basically tradesmen’s guilds, incorporated under Royal Charter. Their Order of Precedence (remember that? everybody in the British Empire is obsessed with Who Goes First) was set in 1515, creating the Twelve Great Livery Companies at the top and a host of others beneath them. There hasn’t been a livery company registered since 1746, so forget butting into the OP with your idea for a Worshipful Company of Telegraphers. You may recall seeing the word “livery” in connection with households of high Social Level, referring to the house colours and emblems that the footmen and other fancy-dress servants wear. Certain trades also denote their status by how people dress. People called them liveried companies because of the fancy-dress sorts who were running them, and when they evolved into chartered companies, it was a really short step to “livery company”.

The Great Twelve are, in Order of Precedence:

  1. Worshipful Company of Mercers (formerly dealers in finished cloth, now general merchants)
  2. Worshipful Company of Grocers (spice merchants; dealers in poultry, fruit, beef and pork, veg, etc. have their own Companies in this delightfully granular assembly)
  3. Worshipful Company of Drapers (wool and cloth merchants, spun off from the Mercers hundreds of years ago)
  4. Worshipful Company of Fishmongers (see note above re: Grocers)
  5. Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths (bullion dealers; people who cast or smelt precious metals are in the Founders, while those who make silver and gold thread for embroidery are in the Wyre Drawers)
  6. Worshipful Company of Skinners* (fur traders)
  7. Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors* (people who make ordinary clothing, known by the modern spelling of tailors)
  8. Worshipful Company of Haberdashers (bespoke clothiers in fine materials, e.g. silk and velvet)
  9. Worshipful Company of Salters (traders of salts and chemicals)
  10. Worshipful Company of Ironmongers (they sell what blacksmiths and founders make)
  11. Worshipful Company of Vintners (wine merchants, not wine makers)
  12. Worshipful Company of Clothworkers

* The Skinners and the Merchant Taylors got in an argument a very long time ago as to which was created first. They both received their charters in 1327, and there’s no surviving proof as to which document was signed before the other. The two companies finally came to blows and bloodshed over it, and the Lord Mayor of London told them to knock it off and swap spots in the OP at Easter every year, so the above list is only good for alternate years. There’s a generally accepted theory that this sop to the pride of two tradesmen’s unions gave us the phrase “at sixes and sevens”. The outgoing Six gets a dinner put on by the incoming Six to mark the occasion, so at least there’s plenty of food and booze at someone else’s expense to ease the bruise to their egos.

Down past the Clothworkers, there’s another 65 Companies, so I shan’t list them all here. Go look at the Wikipedia article if you really want to know. (Ignore everything after the Carmen, the Master Mariners were chartered in 1926 and the rest came after.) It’s worth pointing out #61, the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, to which all Engine makers and Lovelaces belong if they can pass the entry exam and pay the fee. There’s probably a few Byrons and Brassmen among them as well. By longstanding tradition, professional disputes must be handled with civility within the confines of the Company hall, so a Byron with membership as a freeman or liveryman in good standing can sit next to a Lovelace at dinner, and all they can do is frown menacingly at each other. There is however a Court of the Company which members are bound contractually (by their oath and membership fee) to obey, and which can be appealed to in cases where the petitioners want to keep the dispute in private, and not air their dirty laundry in public. Besides, very few people are rotten enough to deserve being hauled into Chancery Court.

The impact the livery companies have on London simply cannot be overestimated. The Merchant Taylors organize the quill-changing ceremony at St. Andrew Undershaft, as John Stow was a member of their Company. They’ve been wrangling a bit about the amount of quills, ink, and parchment being used, who should really be paying for all that, and whether the Merchant Taylors should hold sole title to the literary work being produced, seeing as how they’re providing the means.

There’s streets named after, or because of, most of the Companies. For example, the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers built their hall on a street near St. Paul’s Cathedral, back in the 12th Century, and the street got named Ysmongeres Lane after them. It’s now called Ironmongers Lane, only the spelling having changed in the past six hundred years. In the 15th Century, the Ironmongers bought a few buildings in Fenchurch Street and moved there. A lot of the ironmongery businesses moved as well, changing the economic flow of the city. A hundred years or so earlier, in 1527, Thomas Mitchell, himself an ironmonger, left 10 acres to the Ironmongers Company in his will, resulting in Ironmonger Row, along with Mitchell Street, Helmet Row, and Lizard Street, the last two named after the crest of the Ironmongers Company, featuring a pair of salamanders and a helmet. Other streets named after livery companies include Threadneedle Street, the home of the Bank of England, which got its name from the Worshipful Company of Needlemakers, although the Merchant Taylors had their hall there for a time as well. Weaver Street and Petticoat Lane both owe their names to the Worshipful Company of Weavers, the oldest recorded livery company in the City, having received its charter in 1155, but ending up at 42 on the OP. Isn’t that always the way, the middlemen and endpoint sellers get all the credit, and the actual craftsmen get shoved down the line?

I could go on at considerable further length about freemen and liverymen, about the process of joining a livery company, about the political leverage the liverymen have as Parliamentary electors for the City of London, and how the Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks and the Company of Watermen and Lightermen aren’t liveried and why they aren’t, but really, haven’t I gone on long enough already?

You see what I mean about being able to fill several more books?

Tally Ho!