A peculiarly British blend

Livery companies were first established in London as early as the 12th century, yet they still play an important part in the life of the modern City of London, supporting the professions they are built around and raising astonishing amounts for charity.

Will Rugg, Content Marketing Editor, Rathbones

The City of London and the livery companies have grown up together, their histories intertwined. Though they may be largely unnoticed, the livery companies continue to play a vital role in training and educating young people and maintaining the vibrancy of the UK economy.

The mark of the livery companies is indelible and ubiquitous in London’s Square Mile, but it can easily escape your notice coming in on the daily commute, head down along with the rest of the crowds pouring off the trains and out of the tube stations. These ancient companies are woven into the City’s fabric, a unique and seamless blend of past and future, preserved in the architecture of the great halls and street names like Cloth Fair, Ironmonger Lane, Mason’s Avenue, Poultry, Milk Street and Bread Street. 

The earliest livery company on record was the Weavers, granted a Royal Charter in 1155, though livery companies probably had their origins in this country before 1066. They may be perceived as reactionary — perhaps best known for upholding centuries-old traditions and wearing medieval costumes — but in fact they have an eye on the future.

Some represent long-established callings, like the Master Mariners, Solicitors and Farmers. Newer companies have formed around trades and industries — Firefighters, Air Pilots, Chartered Surveyors, Chartered Accountants, Marketors, International Bankers, Management Consultants and Security Professionals. There is even a Worshipful Company of Information Technologists, though if they are anything like their fellow liveries they may be the antithesis of the disruption associated with technology today.

In the broader sense, livery companies still play the same role as they have throughout their history — supporting and in some cases regulating their trades. That includes helping to educate and train young people. Today’s companies are also involved in charitable work across the country and around the world. They are diverse in age, size and wealth, as well as the trades they represent, but united by an ethos of fellowship, education, supporting their trades and working for the welfare of the communities where they operate.

Role in the City

London’s livery companies have an historical and continuing role in the governance of the City as well as the regulation of trade. The early guilds, which eventually formed the original Great Twelve Livery Companies, exercised control over much of the manufacturing and provision of goods and services in the City, protecting customers, employers and employees and ensuring quality control. The 'baker's dozen', with its 13 loaves, comes from these early days of regulation, and the word “hallmark” dates back to the 15th century when precious metals were tested for purity at the Goldsmiths' Hall.

The City’s present-day constitution rests on the ancient rights of its citizens, set out in a Charter of King William I in 1067. The City of London Corporation, its main governing body, is older than Parliament itself and provides local authority services for the City. Its structure today is rooted in a history that is intertwined with that of the livery companies.

The liveries are not without their critics. A Telegraph editorial from 2006 remarked: “They are some of the most powerful organisations in the City of London, controlling billions of pounds of assets [an estimated two billion, according to the same article]. Their members dress up in medieval costumes at every opportunity and are loyal custodians of traditions and ceremonial practices laid down more than 600 years ago.”

Charitable work

As the article also went on to say, though, these “powerful organisations” use their wealth to make substantial contributions to charitable causes, not to mention substantial giving in kind of time and other resources. An estimate from 2010 of the financial giving of all the livery companies put the figure at £42 million — and this has probably risen since then.

The charitable activities of the livery companies are diverse as well as substantial. Around a thousand people reside in almshouses owned, funded and governed by them. They also provide for other welfare needs of their communities, support environmental and trade initiatives and give to affiliated churches. The lion’s share of giving, a little over half, goes to education.

Education and training

Primary and secondary schools, tertiary and further education colleges and city academies all receive direct support in finance and in kind from the livery companies. The relationships are long established and likely to continue growing as the existing companies expand their activities and more are established.

In the interest of full disclosure, my two sons, Jonny and Henry, have both benefited directly from livery company involvement in education, in particular from the Worshipful Company of Brewers. As well as actively supporting the brewing industry and supporting a number of almshouses, it is a trustee to major charitable trust funds supporting two schools. One of these is Dame Alice Owen’s School in Potters Bar.

The school, which my sons attend, is named after Alice Owen. Having narrowly escaped being shot with an arrow in her youth, Alice vowed that if she ever had the means she would endow a charitable foundation. As the widow of a Brewer, a Mercer and finally a judge, she was able to fulfil this promise, and in her will of 1613 she entrusted a school to the Worshipful Company of Brewers.

The leader of a recent OFSTED inspection commented that the school today has “the most extensive programme of extracurricular activities I have ever seen”. None of these would be remotely possible without the help of the Brewers.

The Brewers have supported the building of the Edward Guinness Hall, a great venue for the incredibly talented young musicians and brilliant music teachers that the school has attracted over the years. There is enough depth of talent to fill full junior and senior orchestras, concert bands, big bands and soul bands, several choirs, a percussion ensemble and numerous other groups and ensembles — a lot of them formed by the students themselves. My sons both love music, and it is a wonderful privilege for them to be involved in the music scene at Owen’s. If I had not been there myself, I never would have believed school concerts could be so good.

More recent building projects — thanks to the Brewers — have included a cricket pavilion, a science building (a separate science building must be fairly unique among state schools) and another new purpose-built venue for drama, languages and learning support. Just in the few years my sons have been at Owen’s, thousands of young lives have been enriched enormously — a credit to the Worshipful Company of Brewers and this pleasing blend of past and future that characterises the livery companies.

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